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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)/