The White Sheep and the Black: Nomad Empires of Anatolia

For most of us, life is sedentary. We may commute between work and home, but that home is fixed firmly to the ground, giving us shelter. Instead of travelling between areas of natural abundance, too, we take advantage of a global supply chain which brings products from every season and climate straight to our doorstep. At the same time, though, the ease and comfort of our sedentary lives comes with risks–as the latest round of storms on the eastern seaboard of the United States chillingly demonstrates.

The wide spaces of central and eastern Anatolia facilitated the movement from winter to summer pasture.

The wide spaces of central and eastern Anatolia facilitated the movement from winter to summer pasture.

It is because of this fragility in settled life that many people have, throughout human history, chosen to become nomads–migrating between seasonal pastures, keeping their wealth in herds, and trading for the settled goods unavailable on the steppe. These ways of life have been practiced across the breadth of Eurasia, but became increasingly influential in Anatolia (a traditional cross-roads of civilisations) from the 11th century to the 16th.

This was an era when nomads didn’t simply arrive on the scene of Byzantine decline; first as tribes, and then as confederations, these Turkic-speaking nomads aspired to create their own empires. And in some cases, they succeeded.

Byzantine experience with nomads was long-standing. During the war with Persia around the turn of the 7th century, they had relied upon the Gok Turk empire and its nomadic warriors to swing the balance of power in their favour. Later, they also experienced the penetrating raids of Arab forces into the Anatolian heartland.

Religious monument in Konya, the Seljuk capital.

Religious monument in Konya, the Seljuk capital.

In 1071, however, a new phase in the relationship between the Byzantines and the Turkic nomads opened. In this year, the Seljuk leader Alp Arslan delivered a humiliating defeat to the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes. His victory opened eastern Asia Minor to subsequent Seljuk leaders, and laid the foundation for the Seljuk Sultanate (centred around Konya) encountered by the First Crusaders.

When they, too, suffered defeat at the hands of the Mongols in 1243, however, the region disintegrated into a patchwork of tribal principalities known as beyliks. These beyliks were Turkic-speaking, often ruled by a nomadic military elite, and included several now-forgotten kingdoms, like Karaman and Aydin, as well as that of Osman–founder of the Ottoman dynasty.

Among them, two different tribal groups–bitter rivals–gained control of eastern Anatolia, and even expanded into Iraq and Iran before their brief ascendancy was quashed between the Ottomans in the west and the Safavids in the East.

Sheep graze along the edge of Ihlara Valley, in Turkey. Livestock was the nomads' source of wealth.

Sheep graze along the edge of Ihlara Valley, in Turkey. Livestock formed the nomads’ principal source of wealth.

The first were the Qara Qoyunlu (Black Sheep), a tribal confederation supposedly descended from Oghuz Khan–legendary ancestor of the Seljuks.  The Qara Qoyunlu ruled along their migratory routes between Erzerum in the north and Mosul in the south, and maintained a turbulent alliance with the Mamluk rulers of Egypt. Their neighbours were the Aq Qoyunlu (White Sheep), another tribal confederacy which clashed repeatedly with the Qara Qoyunlu over territory and influence. Sunni Muslims, the Aq Qoyounlu made strong allies with the Greek-speaking ‘Empire’ of Trebizond.

Core Qara Qoyunlu territories, ca. 1407-1468 (Wikimedia)

Core Qara Qoyunlu territories, ca. 1407-1468 (Wikimedia)

Both became embroiled in the great political struggles of their time, often suffering near-total reverses before their fortunes rebounded. The Qara Qoyunlu, for example, refused to submit to the conqueror Timur during his campaigns through the Middle East at the turn of the 15th century and were dispossessed of their lands. Less than 50 years later, however, Qara Qoyunlu forces had occupied Herat–a symbolic capital deep within the territory of Timur’s successors.

The Aq Qoyunlu Confederation at its greatest territorial extent. (Wikimedia)

The Aq Qoyunlu Confederation at its greatest territorial extent. (Wikimedia)

Their rivals, too, experienced an unlikely resurgence. Although marginalised during the early half of the 15th century, the Aq Qoyunlu under their leader Uzun Hasan, decimated the forces of the Qara Qoyunlu leader Jahan Shah in 1467. They quickly took over Qara Qoyunlu lands in Anatolia and Iran, becoming so powerful that Venice sought an alliance with Uzun Hasan against the rising power of the Ottomans.

Despite the friction between the Aq Qoyunlu and the equally ambitious Ottomans, however, it was the Safavids who closed the book on this vast and short-lived tribal empire. Evolving from a religious order based in Ardabil, the Safavids levered their way into Aq Qoyunlu politics and swept their empire away in a surge of religious fervour.

Eastern Anatolia, which had nurtured the rise of the Qara Qoyunlu and the Aq Qoyunlu, subsequently became a no-man’s land between Ottoman and Safavid control. Nomads still dominated the landscape, but they proved a hindrance to the increasingly centralised states around them. In this way, the inception of the Safavid Empire in 1501 can be considered the end of an era in this part of Anatolia, which even today is at the periphery, rather than the centre, of the states that control it.

11 thoughts on “The White Sheep and the Black: Nomad Empires of Anatolia

  1. Pingback: The Black Horses Enameled

  2. “Liked” as always – and how can one not?
    I have serious doubts about the generalizing remark:
    “It is because of this fragility in settled life that many people have, throughout human history, chosen to become nomads”
    Various examples can show that the reverse is happening at least as often…
    And probably that the variations are based on socio-economic factors.
    It is perhaps worth exploring in another venue the causal links between the formation of national states and the extermination of the “last nomads”.
    In any case thanks for another fascinating post Marissa!

    • I agree that you could just as easily have reversed the sentence, and read it instead as:
      “It is because of this fragility in nomadic life that many people have, throughout human history, chosen to become settled.”
      Nomdads are far more vulnerable to single devestating seasosn, since they are less likely to have built up a surplus of foodstuffs, and their herds are also vulnerable to disease.
      In fact, I think in almost every scenario, there is movement in both directions, and by far the most common state of societies in the Near East and Central Asia is one in which nomadic and settled populations live side-by-side. In China, for example, the army relied heavily on nomadic groups to provide horses, since there wasn’t enough pasturage in China proper, in exchange for which they provided the diversified goods (metalware, silks, etc.) that could not be produced in a nomadic economy.

      Recognising, however, that for most of us in the West today, settled life is the only lifestyle with which we have direct experience, I thought it important to emphasise its potential weaknesses, and highlight some of the reasons why nomadism has persisted. In the viewpoint of the Mongols especially, settled life was terribly exposed to reversals in fortune. Chinggis Khan, for example, often retreated from defeat to regroup, a tactic less available to settled societies whose government and wealth are concentrated in a single, easily captured place. (I’m thinking here of the capture of the Persian capital Ctesiphon during the Arab Conquests, and also to the catastrophic collapse of the Uighur Empire following the sack of their capital Karabalghasun in 840).

      Of course, I think it would be impossible to explore all of these dynamics in a single blog-post, since everywhere they take on a slightly different form (which is also why the topic is so interesting).

      As to the question of nation-states, I’m not sure if it is relevant in this particular context. Neither the Ottoman or the Safavid Empires really fits the description of ‘nation-state’. Although they both possessed increasingly centralised bureaucracies and took on a more settled character, they remained multi-ethnic and very internally diverse. In this respect, then, nomads became crowded out of the governing elite more because of the needs of taxation and border control than because either the Ottomans or Safavids were attempting to forge a unitary national identity (which I would give as the distinctive feature of nation-states.)

      In other areas and at other times, though, I certainly think there would be some interesting relationships between the formation of national identities and the targeting of autonymous, ‘tribal’ identities…perhaps Soviet-era Uzbekistan?

      In any case, thanks for the comment! It was very thought-provoking, and I’m glad to know you enjoyed my post 🙂

      • Thank you for the reply!
        Just two details:
        My examples from the interchange of nomadic and sedentary identities come from Darfur in Sudan.
        And sure, the Empires are not national states, but it was not the empires who gave the final blow to nomadism. Again Sudan can provide ample examples…

  3. Excellent, as usual! I’ve always been very interested in nomadic cultures, but didn’t realize how many had formed large empires.
    Side note, do you know anything about modern nomads? I studied Mongolia in high school and was interested to find out how the traditional culture echoes through the modern day; motorcycles are very popular and urban Mongolians tend to feel very restless and almost uneasy in the warm(ish) Spring. However I don’t know a lot else about any other modern nomads.

    • @ Ophid. You can stop by my blog and find out plenty about the Buryat people, who have only fairly recently settled down. Although their are still Nomadic Buryats in Mongolia, and China. You can also read about Mongolia, and their culture. I have spent a lot of time in both places. Please stop by! Alex

  4. Fantastic post! Thank you for sharing. As one interested in nomadic history and how nomads shaped the world, I found your post to be extremely informative. I am more familiar with Nomads of the east, Mongols, Buryats, Tuvins, and Yakuts. I have wondered about the differences and similarities between the people of Siberia/Mongolia and those further west. Speaking of the Yakut, they are a Turkic people who inhabit the most severe part of Siberia. Do you know the history of how they separated from the rest of the Turks and ended up so far away??

    In Mongolia several severe winters have driven many Nomads into the arms of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. That does seem to be at least at this time, the direction Nomads are moving. Into the city. What will it take to reverse that trend?


  5. Pingback: The White Sheep and the Black: Nomad Empires of Anatolia « nebraskaenergyobserver

  6. Not much I can see to reverse the trend of nomads into the cities other than fall of civilization as that has been the trend of civilization. There would have to be economic reasons to remain nomadic and that gets more and more difficult as land ownership and extraction of resources becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer people. Socially there are benefits to nomadism just as to urban life but economically there are higher costs to remaining nomadic without concurrent benefits in every situation I’ve read/seen/encountered. Hopefully some of the nomadic traditions can be kept alive an some economic reasons to remain nomadic found but tourism can’t support an entire society and the herds which nomads relied on for existence are more cheaply exported from central locations which the free grass and water of steppes can’t manage to overcome. Maybe if some small energy generators in some science fiction future become available and people can make modern life more portable we would see an explosion of nomadism and refugees from overcrowded cities fleeing outward but I don’t know how solitary it will be with 10+ billions humans or however many that future holds.

  7. Pingback: Turning Point in Time? Manzikert, 1071 | mediaevalmusings

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