Post-classical history


The Saljûqs (also spelled Seljuks) were a Turkish dynasty of Central Asiatic origin that conquered and ruled Persia, Iraq, and much of the Near East in the late eleventh and earlier twelfth centuries.

Origins: The Saljûqs in Central Asia

By the middle of the eleventh century, the Muslim world consisted of a patchwork of peoples and states in the lands of the former Arab Empire, united, and divided, by the religion of Islam. That world had been founded by the Arab conquests 400 years earlier, when the last of the barbarians to assault the Roman Empire, and the last of the heretics to challenge its faith, had invaded and unified a Near and Middle East previously partitioned between the empires of Rome and Persia. In the middle of the eleventh century, this world was in turn invaded by fresh barbarians: Berbers from the Sahara and Turcomans from Central Asia. Even more than the Arabs, these barbarians were nomads of the arid zone from the Atlantic to Mongolia; and, as in the case of the Arabs, their invasions were testimony to the attraction of the civilized world for the peoples on its periphery, who were drawn into its affairs by its wealth on the one hand, by its religion and its politics on the other.

At the end of the tenth century the emirate of the Sāmānid dynasty in Central Asia, an offshoot of the ‘Abbāsid Empire, collapsed. Its territories were divided between the Turcoman Qarakhânidsin Transoxania and the Ghaznawids in Khurasan and Afghanistan. Unlike the immigrant Qarakhânids, the Turcoman Oghuz (also known as Ghuzz), occupying the steppes beyond the Aral Sea, remained largely pagan. In the first half of the eleventh century, however, a Muslim fraction of the Oghuz, nomadic warriors in search of pasture and military service, moved south into Qarakhânid and then Ghaz- nawid territory. These were the Saljûq (Turk. Selçük) clan, named after their ancestor; and they came into conflict with both the Qarakhānids and the Ghaznawids, a dynasty founded by a Turkish ghulām (slave soldier, pl. ghilmān) in the service of the Sāmānids.

To justify his usurpation of power, Mahmûd of Ghazna (998-1030) had turned to war upon the internal and external enemies of Islam, that is the Shi‘ites in Iraq and Persia and Hindus of the Indian subcontinent. The Shi‘ite Bûyid dynasty in western Persia held power over the Sunni ‘Abbāsid caliphate at Baghdad; the Shi‘ite Fātimids in Egypt claimed the caliphate for themselves. As recognized champions of the ‘Abbāsids, Mahmûd and his son Mas‘ûd not only persecuted the Ismā‘ilis, the followers of the Fātimids within their dominions, but set out to overthrow the Bûyids and ultimately the Fātimids. But their ambitions were cut short at the battle of Dandanqân in 1040, when Mas‘ûd’s ponderous army was routed by the Saljûqs who had overrun the province of Khurasan. From the battlefield, the Saljûq leader Tughril Beg sent the news of his victory to Baghdad, thereby taking upon himself the championship of the ‘Abbāsid caliphate and Sunni Islam.

The Saljūq Sultanate (Western Half), including dependent Turkish Territories, in 1095

The Saljūq Sultanate (Western Half), including dependent Turkish Territories, in 1095

The Establishment of the Saljûq Empire

With the Ghaznawids confined to Afghanistan and northwestern India, their dominions in northeastern Persia were divided between Tughril and his brothers Chagri and Mūsā Yabghû in a family dominion like that of the Qarakhānids in Transoxania. What might in consequence have remained yet another regional power, without pretensions or prospects, was transformed into a great new empire by this active championship. Leaving Chagri to establish a local dynasty in Kirman in southeastern Persia, Tughril resumed the drive of the Ghaznawids to the west. Between 1040 and 1055 he took over theBûyid dominions in western Persia and Iraq, and between 1055 and 1060 secured Baghdad against the attempt of the Fātimids to win it for themselves. By the time of his death in 1063, he had married the daughter of the ‘Abbāsid caliph and received from him a plethora of titles: King of the East and the West, Pillar of the Faith, and so on. These confirmed him as the sultan, the hereditary ruler of the world on behalf of the caliph.

Tughril’s nephew Alp Arslān (d. 1073) and Alp Arslān’s son Malik Shāh I (d. 1092) ensured that this role did not die with him, but was justified by further conquest. In 1071 Alp Arslān routed the Byzantines at the battle of Mantzikert in Armenia, adding Anatolia not only to the Saljûq realm but to the Islamic world. Between 1078 and 1086 Malik Shāh I and his brother Tutush I took the bulk of Syria, while in the northeast, the Qarakhānids of Transoxania were forced into submission. The ambition to conquer Egypt was never pursued, but at the death of Malik Shāh I, Islam in Asia was predominantly under Saljûq rule.

Government, Institutions, and Armies

The Saljûq Empire was a family affair, divided among brothers and their sons in accordance with Turcoman custom, and exposed to their rivalry. But at the same time it was not a Turcoman empire in the sense of nomadic tribesmen ruling over settled populations. The princes were khans, or chieftains, to the nomads who followed them, but as heirs to the Ghaznawids and the Bûyids, they were patriarchs in Max Weber’s sense, rulers who relied less upon the folk than the household for their forces, and from the outset they depended upon the secretarial class of the Muslim world for their administration.

The Turcoman tribesmen who accompanied the Saljûqs into the Muslim world and migrated in search of pasture for their sheep through the highlands of Persia into Anatolia largely escaped, and indeed resisted, their control. The twin threats of devolution and dissidence were only overcome with the creation of a centralized regime by two great viziers (Arab. wazir) brought up in the service of the Ghaznawids, al-Kunduri and Nizām al-Mulk. They did so as politicians as well as administrators, whose powers of appointment and patronage created networks of clients around their own extensive households, and enabled them to command obedience from the Saljûqs themselves, from their colleagues, and from their subordinates. As politicians they lived dangerously between the confidence of the sultan and the royal ladies on the one hand, and the intrigues of their rivals on the other: Nizām al-Mulk had al-Kunduri put to death, and before his own murder in 1092 was protesting his loyalty against the calumnies of his enemies. But for over thirty years they reined back the centrifugal forces underlying the supremacy of the King of the East and the West.

The Siyāsat-nāma (Book of Government) by Nizām al- Mulk is a prescription for government that relies heavily upon Ghaznawid practice and example, not least for the acculturation of the Turks, who were to be trained up as ghilmān, loyal and disciplined warriors in the household of the prince. What has been called the despotic and monolithic Ghaznawid state could not be recreated; the household of the sultan was only the greatest of many such retinues, which gave each prince a greater or lesser degree of independence. Devolution was nevertheless kept in check by the size of his household, coupled with that of Nizām al-Mulk himself, and by the appointment of its members as provincial governors and atabegs (“father dukes”), senior commanders who acted as tutors of junior princes, whose mothers they often married. It was more formally controlled by the use of the iqta, a grant of revenue in payment for military service, which under the Saljûqs became a grant of local or provincial government. At the same time Nizām al-Mulk set out to ground the pretensions of the sultan to the role of defender of the faith in more than titles and occasional warfare. In the name of Sunni Islam, he founded the Nizāmiyya at Baghdad, the most famous of a series of colleges of religious education designed to inculcate the true faith as well as to bring it under the patronage and control of the state. The foundation of such a madrasa (religious college) became a hallmark of the pious prince, concerned with his image in the public eye.

On their entry into the Islamic world, the Saljûqs were Turcoman nomads, fighting on horseback with composite bows and curved swords, but without armor, opposing their mobility to the more static formations of the armies they encountered. Over the next hundred years of warfare, the Turcomans acquired helmets and a certain amount of body armor, while the Saljûqs themselves adopted the style of the ghulām, the so-called slave soldier, recruited as a boy from the Turkish populations of Central Asia and trained up to be a fully armored cavalryman in the armies of the Islamic world from the ninth century onward. Their principal innovation was to provide him with the Turcoman bow in addition to sword and spear. Saljûq armies thus came to consist of squadrons of heavy household cavalry supported by Turcoman and other ethnic auxiliaries, with all the advantages of armor, archery, and mobility. Such squadrons under their individual commanders were nevertheless limited in size, and large armies were the exception. By the end of the Saljûq period, the term ghulām had been generally replaced by mamluk (pl. mamālīk), most obviously in Egypt, where theSaljûq warrior was introduced by Saladin.

The Crisis of the Empire

The image of piety supplemented that of defender of the faith, employed by Tughril to create his empire, and to justify the power of a rank outsider over the Islamic world. That justification, however, at the expense of Shī‘ite Islam, provoked a radical new challenge and a radical new threat. The Siyāsat-nāma barely mentions the Fātimids, nominal enemies who had evidently ceased to serve the Saljûq purpose of empire building. But it vehemently attacks the Ismā‘īlīs, followers of the Fātimids under their leader Hasan-i Sabbāh, who in 1090 seized the castle of Alamut in northwestern Persia as a base for revolution. Directed against the Saljûqs as the champions of Sunnī Islam, the threat of insurrection not only forced the regime to go to war in the mountains, but in 1092 Hasan’s alarming campaign of assassination may have claimed the life of Nizām al-Mulk himself. Whoever arranged it, the murder of the great vizier was the beginning of the end for the empire he had striven to consolidate. The death of Malik Shāh I a few weeks later curtailed the sultan’s plan to depose the reigning caliph, and thus bring the ‘Abbāsid caliphate completely under his control. Instead, it opened the way to a struggle for the succession from which the empire never fully recovered.

Malik Shāh I’s sons Mahmûd and Barkyārūq were minors, fought over by the factions at court, and challenged by their uncle Tutush I in Syria. Barkyāraq succeeded to the throne in 1094; Tutush was killed in 1095; but from 1097 to his death in 1105, the new sultan was challenged by his halfbrothers Muhammad Tapar (d. 1118) and Sanjar (d. 1157). The ensuing warfare divided the empire betweenBarkyāraq in Iraq and western Persia and his rivals in the northeast, and placed the contestants in the hands of the military. As the shifting loyalties of the atabegs came to dominate theconflict, Syria was abandoned to the sons of Tutush at Damascus and Aleppo, while the Saljûqs of Rûm (Anatolia) were left to fight off the Byzantines and crusaders at Ikonion (mod. Konya, Turkey). The unsuccessful attempt of the atabeg of Mosul, Karbughā, to relieve Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) in 1098 was the most that was done to halt the progress of the First Crusade (1096-1099). In Persia itself, Hasan-i Sabbāh extended his mountain kingdom, while his assassins claimed their victims, and Shahdiz outside Isfahan fell into Ismā‘īlī hands.

Decline of the Empire

The conflict ended with the death of Barkyāmq in 1105 and the accession of Muhammad Tapar, under whom the unity of the empire was restored. Shahdiz was recovered in 1110, and the expansion of Alamut halted. Between 1110 and 1115 two attempts were made by the atabegs of Mosul on behalf of the sultan to organize a joint campaign in Syria against the Frankish states of Outremer. Both, however, failed in the face of Syrian hostility to any attempt to recover the country for the empire. Mosul itself, under successive atabegs, was semi-independent, while Diyar Bakr and Mayyafariqin on the upper Euphrates were taken over by the Turcoman Artûqid dynasty.

This shrinkage of the empire back toward the east was confirmed by the death of Muhammad Tapar in 1118. The sultanate then passed to Sanjar, the fourth son of Malik Shāh I, who had governed Khurasan since 1097, and remained identified with this first conquest of the dynasty. Left to rule over western Persia and Iraq, the sons and grandsons of Muhammad steadily lost control of their territory to their atabegs, whose principalities came to stretch from the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus through Mosul in northern Iraq to Luristan and Fars in western and southern Persia. By 1152 they had even lost Baghdad to the ‘Abbāsids, who had taken advantage ofSaljûq weakness to create their own state. In Khurasan itself, Sanjar’s position was seriously weakened by defeat at the hands of the Qara Khitay in Tran- soxania in 1141, and collapsed in 1157, when he was defeated by Oghuz Turkish tribesmen, and died.

Great Saljuq Sultans


Tughril Beg


Alp Arslān


Malik Shāh I


Mahmūd I




Malik Shāh II


Muhammad Tapar




Like the Ghaznawids before them, the Great Saljûqs thus met their fate in the same region and at the hands of the same people whom they had led to the original victory at Dan- danqân. Just as in 1040, their dominions in eastern Persia, including Kirman under the descendants of Tughril’s brother Chagrī, were overrun by the victors, while an empty title passed to the line of Muhammad in what was left of their empire in the west. From 1161 to 1191 their sultanate was under the control of the atabeg Eldigüz and his successors, whose power extended from Azerbaijan as far as Isfahan. It ended in heroic suicide, when Tughril III ousted the Eldiguzids, only to go to war with the formidable Khwârazm Shāh, and die in battle in 1194.

The great difference between the victory of the Oghuz in 1157 and the victory of the Saljûqs in 1040 was the absence of either a great religious or a great political cause. After the death of Sanjar, the Turks behaved as the Saljûqs might have done without the championship of the caliphate and Islam, and remained as a horde in eastern Persia; there was no mantle for their leader MalikDinār to inherit. This failure on the part of the Great Saljûqs to maintain the ideal as well as the reality of universal empire is symptomatic of the growing conviction that might is right; in other words, that the ruler who had the power to govern had the authority to do so. It anticipated the coming of the pagan Mongols, and their ready acceptance by the counterparts of Nizām al-Mulk in the thirteenth century. It was left to the Zangids, the dynasty of the Saljûq atabeg at Mosul, gradually to rediscover the principle of religion for empire, and to their henchman Sal- adin to put it once again into practice.

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