The Seljuqs

The Seljuk Empire which came to dominate most of Central Asia, Iran, Anatolia, and Greater Syria, was the first strong manifestation of the newly arrived Turkic power in the Near East. While Turkic tribes, and Turkish soldiers and commanders, had made their presence known in the Near East since at least the late sixth century, never had their power been so strongly manifested as became the case under the Seljuks. Previous political entities with Turkish speaking rulers, including the Ghaznavids and the Karakhanids, suffered from weak structural basis, and often where just outgrowths of traditional tribal organizations, or powers based on the charisma and abilities of single rulers (as was the case for the Ghaznavids).

The Seljuks took their name from the eponymous ancestor of the clan, a certain Seljuk who appears to have been among the nobility of the Oghuz tribal confederacy. Upon moving to Transoxiana in the 10th century, the sons of Seljuk, all bearing Biblical names, appear to have found military positions under the overlordship of the Karakhanids, settling in Khorasan and Transoxiana. In the first quarter of the eleventh century, grandchildren of Seljuk all started their own campaigns of conquest in eastern Iran, carving spheres of influence and domains for themselves out of the defunct Samanid, Buyid, and increasingly Ghaznavid realms.

The most important of these Seljuk warlords were the children of Mikail, Tughril (Per. Toghrol) and Chaghri (Per. Chaghra), who around 1025 joined the forces of the Karkhanids in Transoxiana and very soon started their raids, at the head of various Oghuz bands, into Khorasan and the Ghaznavid territories. However, they were defeated by Sultan Mahmoud and had to flee Khorasan, with Tughril and Chaghri taking refuge in the steppes around Lake Aral. Soon recuperating from the loss and having the support of their uncle Arsalan Israil with them, the brothers made a renewed attack on Khorasan and conquered Neishapur. The dwindeling Karakhanid power by this time had elevated the position of the Oghuz Turks, and the Seljuks as their commanders, allowing other Seljuk princes such as Ibrahim Yinal (a foster brother of Tughril and Chaghri) as well as the descendents of their uncles to exert power all around the eastern Iranian lands.

By 1035, Tughril and Chaghri were in charge of Bukhara and Balkh, and they used the latter as a base for attacking and sacking the Ghaznavid capital of Ghazni. The Seljuk threat on the Ghaznavid possessions was brought into a full confrontation in 1040 when Tughril defeated and utterly destroyed Sultan Masu’d’s army. The Ghaznavids being thus confined to their eastern domains, left Khorasan to the Seljuks for control. Tughril then left Khorasan to continue his conquests and by 1050, was in charge of great parts of central and western Iran. In 1054, Tughril had defeated the local rulers of Azerbaijan and Armenia and was threatening the Byzantine possessions in Anatolia, when he was chosen as the new favourite of the Abbasid Caliphs to rescue al-Qaim from the threat of the Fatimids. A three year struggle saw the capture and loss of the city by Tughril, and again its recapture in 1060. Tughril thus managed to control Baghdad and end the Buyid rule there, soon also putting an end to Buyid power in Shiraz.

It was at this time that both Tughril and Chaghri probably converted to Islam, taking the names of Muhammad and Davud respectively, with Tughril also receiving the ceremonial title of Rukn ul-Din from the Caliph. The brother’s ruled as the de facto rulers of an empire divided into a western part ruled by Tughril from Rey and an eastern part ruled by Chagri from Balkh. Around 1060, Chaghri died of an unknown cause, leaving the control of his section of the empire initially to his son Qawurd, and then his two other sons Suleiman and Alp Arsalan. Tughril now ruling as the effective sole king, spent most of his time organizing his state and left much of the fighting to his young nephews and his cousin, Qutulmish.

The death of Tughril in 1063 brought a three way competition between Suleiman, Alp Arsalan, and Qutulmish. Alp Arsalan finally coming out as the victor, was crowned as the great king in 1064 and immediately launched campaigns to expand upon the conquests of his father and uncle. Most of his campaigns in this sense were concentrated in the area of the Caucasus, subjugating Armenian and Georgian princes and kings. In southern Iran, he finished his father’s conquest of Kerman and reached the coasts of the Sea of Oman. However, the Seljuk successes in Anatolia by this time had alerted the Byzantine emperor Romanos IV Diogenes, who in 1070, launched a campaign to reconquer eastern Anatolia from the Seljuks and bring the Armenians and the Georgians back to the Byzantine sphere.

Initially defeated by Romanos, Alp Arsalan was forced to sue for peace. The offer, however, was rejected, resulting in continued conflicts in eastern Anatolia, with Romanos and Alp Arsalan each personally commanding their forces. On August 26th, 1071, the Byzantine and Seljuk forces met near the city of Malazgerd (Manzikert) and engaged in a battle which ended up in the total victory for Alp Arsalan and his forces. Romanos had to flee to Constantinople where he was deposed by his Queen and her son Mikhail VII Doukas (in fact son of the previous emperor Constantine X). Alp Arsalan’s success in Manzikert essentially opened the gates of Anatolia to the Seljuks, allowing the conquest of the whole region by his cousin, Suleiman son of Qutulmish, who went on the found the dynasty of the Seljuks of Rum.

During all his campaigns, Alp Arsalan’s empire was administered by his able and famous Grand Vizier, Khaje Nezam ol-Molk. An able administrator, learned scholar, and decisive politician, Nezam ol-Molk essentially established the system based on which most Iranian administrations were run until the early modern period, and he even published a manual, a sort of Mirror of Princes, in which he set out the basis of this system. Realizing the needs of an empire ruled by conquering tribesmen, but based on agricultural economy, the Nezam ol-Molk established a system of land-tenures, often controlled by Turkic commanders and officers, who would then supply the king with soldiers and needed military equipment, while at the same time helping the Persian speaking peasants who worked the land. Administered from the fast growing Seljuk capital in Isfahan, this efficient administration guaranteed a great degree of peace and prosperity in the central domains of the Seljuks, expanding from Transoxiana in the northeast to Mesopotamia in the west.

Alp Arsalan was assassinated by a captured fortress master, Yusuf of Khwarazm, while on his way to conquer Eastern Turkistan, in 1072. His successor was his son Jalal ol-Dowleh Hassan, better known as Malek Shah, whose succession was secured during his father’s time by Nezam ol-Molk. The new king continued the campaigns of his father and soon, subdued Kashghar in Eastern Turkistan, thus expanding the Seljuk rule well into Central Asia. In the west, Malek Shah put his brother Tutush in charge of the conquest of Syria, which the latter achieved in 1079, becoming the autonomous ruler of Damascus in that year. At the same time, the rest of Syria and Hijaz were also subjugated to the Seljuk rule, while Anatolia was completely brought into the Seljuk fold.

In his capital of Isfahan, Malek Shah and Nezam ol-Molk established a great center of education and learning, as well as culture. Seljuk architecture flourished under Malek Shah, with grand mosques (including the Jame’ Mosque) and palaces being built in Isfahan, as well as other major cities such as Neishapur, Marv, Balkh, and Rey. Malek Shah commissioned the mathematician and astronomer, Omar Khayyam, to organize the calendar, which resulted in the creation of one of the most accurate calendars in use, named after Malek Shah himself as the Jalali Calendar (from Jalal ol-Dowleh, his title). Nezam ol-Molk also founded several schools for higher education, named Nezamiyeh after him, in Baghdad, Isfahan, and Neishapur, where great scholars, all of them chosen for their strict Sunni Shafi’i adherence, educated the future generation of scholars and administrators.

In 1085, Suleiman, Malek Shah’s cousin who was put in charge of the conquest of Anatolia, declared himself the independent ruler of that region and founded the Seljuks of Rum dynasty. He was defeated and killed by Tutush, the Great King’s brother, who in turn rebelled against his brother and tried to establish an independent dynasty in Syria. Malek Shah then moved against his brother and deprived him of his Syrian possessions except Damascus, while another brother, Takesh, was temporarily put in charge of Anatolia. Constantly trying to diffuse the threat of the Seljuk princes, Nezam ol-Molk moved these princes around and tried to balance their ambitions by appointing Persian speaking administrators, often his own relatives, as their viziers and tutors. It was these tutor/administrators, called Atabegs, who later became the most important political feature of the Great Seljuk Empire and its successor states.

Apart from the threat of princes, the latter part of Malek Shah’s reign was overshadowed by the foundation of the Nizari Isma’ilite power in highlands of Iran and Syria. Founded by Hassan Sabbah, a former bureaucrat of the Seljuks, the Isma’ilis came to be one of the most influential, and dangerous, powers in the Seljuk and post-Seljuk history of Iran and the Near East. Hassan Sabbah, an Iranian from Rey, was educated in Neishapur and then Cairo, converting to Isma’ili Shi’ism under the Fatimids of Egypt. Eventually picking on an internal political struggle among the Fatimids, he founded the independent Isma’ili sect of Nizaris (supporters of Nizar, the eldest son of the Fatimid Imam and Caliph, Al Mustansir). In order to defend himself and his followers against the forces of the Seljuks, Hassan instructed his followers to capture and secure highland fortresses all around Iran, himself taking refuge in the inaccessible fortress of Alamut in the central part of the Alburz Mountain range, northern Iran, close to the cities of Qazvin and Rey. By the end of Malek Shah’s rule (1092), the Nizari Isma’ilis had taken over most of the mountain fortresses in Iran, and even some of the ones in Syria, where an autonomous leader took control of the Syrian branch of the movement. The Nizari Isma’ilis then started their campaigns to destabilize the Seljuk state and increase their own power by engaging in individual, targeted assassination of their opponents, thus earning themselves the title of the Assassins, a title by which they are often known in western literature.

In 1092, the Nizari Isma’ilis assassinated Nezam ol-Molk, thus removing one of the greatest obstacles to their power and influence. Malek Shah did not survive his able vizier for long and died in the same year, leaving the throne open to a fierce competition by his sons, each of whom was controlled and encouraged by his mother.

The undetermined state of succession to Malek Shah initially allowed Qilij Arsalan, son of Suleiman, to finally gain his complete independence from the Great Seljuks and rule as the Sultan of Rum (Anatolia) from that point on. In Syria too, Tutush was left to rule as the Seljuk Sultan of Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria) and thus effectively secede from the realm of the Great Seljuks. Meanwhile, the Crusader forces who had, following the Battle of Manzikert, poured into the Near East, used the internal Seljuk struggles to further establish themselves in their new kingdoms bordering the Mediterranean. The Armenian kingdom of Cilicia was also formed during this same period by Rupen I, a descendant of the defunct Bagratuni dynasty of Armenia.

In Isfahan, Mahmoud I was put on the throne by his mother, Tarkan Khatoun, and ruled from 1092-1094, while fighting his greatest rival and elder brother, Barkiyaruq. Mahmoud was an effective and strong ruler, despite the turmoil of his reign. He died, however, shortly after succeeding to the throne, apparently from the complications brought by an epidemic of Small Pox. Barkiyaruq, at that time in control of Baghdad, thus became the great Seljuk ruler, establishing himself in Baghdad. His reign was spent in trying to secure his power in Iraq, while in the east, his brother Sanja was increasing his power in Khorasan, and another brother, Mohammad, was also making claims to the throne.

Barkiyaruq died in 1105, leaving the nominal power to his son Malek Shah II, while Sanjar was in fact now in charge of the Seljuk realm. Malek Shah II was soon replaced by his uncle, Mohammad I, who was then considered the Great Seljuk king ruling in Iraq and Iran. The latter died in 1118, effectively leaving the realm to his brother Sanjar, although a number of sons and nephews continued to claim or control the title of the Great Seljuk king for a while.

Sultan Ahmad Sanjar, the youngest son of Malik Shah, was in control of Khorasan from 1105 and the rest of the Seljuk realm from 1118. His greatest challenges at the time were coming from Transoxiana, where various Turkish tribes were pushing past the Jaxartes River. Sanjar managed to repulse these invasions several time. In 1141 he was defeated by the growing power of the Kara Khitan (Western Liao) dynasty and had to give up all Seljuk domains east of the Jaxartes and the Eastern Turkistan. Inside Iran, he had to struggle with the Nizari Isma’ilis, some of whose fortresses he managed to conquer, before having to sign a peace treaty with them. Internally, power was increasing moving away from a central Seljuk base in Isfahan and into the hands of the Atabegs (the tutor/administrators) who had now removed the princes to whose charge they were appointed, and were ruling in their own right. Among the most significant of these were the Zangid Atabeg dynasty of Mosul and the Sunqurid Atabegs of Shiraz who formed strong states that repelled the Seljuk power and created independent states in these regions which managed to continue until the Mongol period.

In 1153, Sultan Sanjar was captured in a battle against the Oghuz Turks and was held captive until 1156, dying a year after that in 1157 and being buried in Marv. Khorasan and Transoxiana fell into the hands of the Khwarazmshahid dynasty, while in Iran and Iraq, his nephews and the Atabegs continued to struggle. The Nizari Isma



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