Turning Point in Time? Manzikert, 1071

With the recent, and distressing, news coming out of Turkey, as well as the fact that, just yesterday, I began an intensive Turkish course, I would like to take today to explore one of the more interesting questions in the history of mediaeval Anatolia, namely, how did Turkey become Turkish? How did the territories of the Byzantine Empire, occupied by a variety of Greek-, Syriac-, and Armenian-speakers that adhered to a diversity of Christianities, become predominantly both Turkish-speaking and Muslim?

The answer, as you might imagine, is complex, and takes us back to the migrations of Türkmen groups into the Islamic world at the turn of the 11th century. Around the year 1000 C.E., a small grouping of Turkic tribesmen under the leader Seljuq ibn Duqaq converted to Islam from the lands of eastern Persia, near the province of Khurasan. In the five decades to follow, these Seljuks (and others of the Oghuz branch of Turkic peoples) moved further into the heartland of the Abbasid Caliphate, raiding and nomadising their way into the Caucasus. Sporadically, these activities reached eastern Anatolia, then a patchwork of Byzantine, Armenian, and Kurdish Muslim territories.

As you can see from this map, early Turkman incursions and the battle of Manzikert took place at the extreme eastern end of Byzantine Anatolia. (Wikimedia)

As you can see from this map, early Turkman incursions and the battle of Manzikert took place at the extreme eastern end of Byzantine Anatolia, in the theme of Vaspurakan. (Wikimedia)

Then, in 1055, the Seljuk leader Toghril had himself named sultan in Baghdad. This office, although nominally subject to the Caliph, conferred vast military and administrative authority on Toghril, whose family sponsored many raids into Byzantine territories over the following decade.

The mountains to the north of Lake Van made ideal summer pasture for Turkic nomads in the 11th century and beyond. (Wikimedia)

The mountains to the north of Lake Van made ideal summer pasture for Turkic nomads in the 11th century and beyond. (Wikimedia)

Within this background of intermittent skirmishes on the part of Byzantines and Türkmen, one battle has come to signify the beginning of Turkish ascendancy in Anatolia: that fought at Manzikert in 1071. Fought between a substantial army of Byzantine troops and mercenaries under Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes and the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan’s forces, the battle saw the defeat and utter humiliation of imperial forces. Betrayed by defectors among his forces, Romanos IV was captured and his army scattered.

Michael Atteleiates, a judge and bureaucrat attached to Romanos IV, testified to the confusion of the scene in his eyewitness History:

‘…what could be more pitiable than the entire imperial army in flight, defeated and chased by inhuman and cruel barbarians… and to see the whole Roman state overturned, and knowing that the empire itself might collapse in a moment?’  (p.297)

A 15th century western European manuscript presents a negative portrayal of the meeting between Alp Arslan (enthroned) and Romanos IV Diogenes (Wikimedia).

A 15th century western European manuscript presents a negative portrayal of the meeting between Alp Arslan (enthroned) and Romanos IV Diogenes (Wikimedia).

Although casualties among the Byzantine leadership during the battle were low, and the Emperor spent only eight days in captivity (according to Atteleiates), this belief in severe imperial decline has profoundly influenced modern historians. Subsequent events, such as the deposition of Romanos IV in a bloody civil war and the westward expansion of the Seljuks (only partly checked by the First Crusade), have been cast as indicators of Anatolia’s changing character.

But how accurate is Manzikert’s reputation as the catalyst of Turkicisation? There are reasons to doubt the significance of the battle in the cultural shifts which followed.

One is the fact that, despite his victory, Alp Arslan demanded few concessions from the captive Romanos IV. As the modern historian A. Peacock has noted, his investment in Anatolia seems to have been aimed at his own tribesmen, whose loyalty to him depended on his status as a provider of grazing land. Having campaigned successfully to maintain nomadic pasture in the area around Manzikert, he expended little effort in establishing an administration. We can thus question the extent to which his victory was responsible for the settlement of groups only minimally under the sultanate’s control.

Other doubts arise from looking at the introduction of Turkic elements in a broader view. Similar migrations of nomadic peoples have occurred throughout history, notably during the barbarian ‘invasions’ of ancient Rome and the Arab conquest of the Persian cultural zone. In these instances, the incoming group often adopts substantially from the culture of the existing population. In consideration of this, we should question whether the presence of large numbers of Türkmen in Anatolia alone was enough to bring about cultural change.

In further researches along this line of reasoning, the strategic consequences of Manzikert would have less impact than the social dynamics which governed encounters between Turks and non-Turks in the following centuries.

This map shows the growth of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum (nominally under the authority of the sultan in Baghdad) following the First Crusade (1095-1099). (Wikimedia)

This map shows the growth of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum (nominally under the authority of the sultan in Baghdad) following the First Crusade (1095-1099). (Wikimedia)

If we were so inclined, we could deconstruct the question even more radically, and look at the extent to which Anatolia can even be described as predominantly Turkish at different points in time. From the travelogues of Ibn Battuta and others, we know that Greeks, Armenians, and other groups lived in Anatolia in significant numbers through the Seljuk and Ottoman periods. In fact, as late as the 1920s, tens of thousands of Greek-speakers still lived in Anatolia.

Map showing the ethnographic composition of Asia Minor ca. 1910, with substantial Greek areas. It should be noted that ethnicity is rarely as straightforward as maps or scholarly theories would like. (Wikimedia)

Map showing the ethnographic composition of Asia Minor ca. 1910, with substantial Greek areas. It should be noted that ethnicity is rarely as straightforward as maps or scholarly theories pretend. (Wikimedia)

These considerations take us well beyond the scope of mediaeval history, and yet they have important implications for how mediaeval historians conceptualise the Seljuks and their Turkic successors (such as the Aqqoyunlu, Qaraqoyunlu, and Ottomans.) They also indicate that despite the extensive work of scholars such as Speros Vryonis (whose magisterial The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century  was published in 1971), the question of how, and when Turkey became Turkish has yet to be answered. 

What does seem clear, however, is that despite it’s symbolic importance in scholarship, the battle of Manzikert was only a small part of vast, and still mysterious, sociologial and environmental processes.

Learn More:

Atteleiates, Michael, The History, trans. Anthony Kaldellis and Dimitris Krallis, (Cambridge, MA 2012).

Peacock, A.C.S., Early Seljuk History: A New Interpretation, (Florence, KY, 2010).

Vryonis, Speros, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century (Berkley, CA 1971)/

6 thoughts on “Turning Point in Time? Manzikert, 1071

  1. Great that you take this important topic up!
    And it’s good that you keep a calm perspective on heated matters.
    Population numbers could be readjusted, but I’m sure this can also be subject to debate.
    The most crucial point is whether any place becomes identified “really” with a single national identity.
    But I will not attempt of course to explain or answer this from here…
    Rather than a comment to a blog entry, it would need the proceedings of a specialized colloquium!
    All in all, thanks for this well-balanced post Marissa!

    • As always, you are very welcome!

      I have studied a few of the aspects of post-Manzikert Anatolia more formally, and of course find the whole question quite fascinating. Until I sat down to writhe this post, however, it never occurred to me that the question “How did Asia Minor become so Turkish” might actually be backwards. What would we find, I wonder, if we looked into why incoming Turkic groups didn’t become more Greek? I agree that you could get many cultural historians and social scientists together, and still not have a clear answer!

      Anyways, glad to have another intriguing comment from you 🙂

      • That invites parallels with a contribution to another ethnicity debate, an article by Bryan Ward-Perkins in English Historical Review 115 for 2000 called “Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become more British?” I have my difficulties with this article, but it’s one of those pieces that help one think about an issue even if one doesn’t agree.

      • Yes, modes of looking at cultural interaction and change can become so entrenched that turning them upside-down, simply to see what shakes out, can be a useful exercise.

  2. I am not an expert in Byzantine history (though it interests me greatly) nor am I a “professional” historian. But one argument I have heard from an academic specialising in the topic is that one of the main sources of Byzantine wealth was the silver mines in the west of Anatolia and thus one of the longer term results of Manzikert and the succeeding internal turmoil in the Empire was the loss of wealth that resulted in a weakening of the Empire’s ability to finance itself leading in turn to a decline in power.
    As to why the Turkish incomers did not become more Greek, one answer could be that the Turks seem to have been a reasonably tight-knit homogenous group unlike many of the other people we loosely call Arab and might have been more resistant to outside influences (I sometimes have to remind people that the Turks come from a very different background to the peoples of the Arabian peninsula). Also, Greek culture must surely have been seen as a Christian culture and long term the pressure would have been on the indigenous population of Anatolia to adopt the ways of the conquering incomers.

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