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The Seljuks

Iranian History - The Seljuks

The Seljuks

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In the middle of the 10th century a branch of the Oghuz Turks under the leadership of a semi-legendary figure called Seljuk (Seljuq) settled in the north eastern reaches of the Persian Empire.

Within a few years they had converted to Islam and were later given permission by Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi to cross the Oxus River and settle in northern Khorasan, a province that the Ghaznavids were unable to prevent them from occupying completely by the time of the reign of Mahmuds son, Sultan Masud.

Toghrol Beg (r. 1037-1063) was crowned Sultan of Nishapur in 1038 and with the help of his brothers and cousins dealt a decisive defeat to the Ghaznavids and began to move westward into the disintegrating lands of the Buyid Empire. By 1043, Khorasan was firmly under Seljuk control and by 1054 they had extended their empire as far as Azerbaijan.

To the powerless Caliphate, the Seljuks were protectors of Muslim unity in the face of Shiite propaganda, capable of restoring Sunnite control over their fragmented realm. From the point of view of the Seljuks, the Caliphate was conferring legitimacy on their insecure position as an invading power, alien to the cultural landscape they had entered. Barring a brief Fatimid takeover in Baghdad in 1060, the Seljuks were now rulers of all of Persia and Mesopotamia.

Toghrol Beg was succeeded by his nephew, Muhammad ben Daud (r. 1063-1072), who won the title Alp Arslan ("valiant lion") from his achievements as a warrior and a leader. Georgia, Armenia, Asia Minor and Syria were added to the empire, partly by design and partly by the momentum of the Turkoman migration following in the wake of the regular Seljuk forces.

Toghrol Tower, Rey, Iran.

Toghrol Tower, Rey, Iran - tomb of King Toghrol Beg.



Kharaghan towers, Qazvin province, Iran.

Kharaghan towers, Qazvin province, Iran. Built in the 11th century the towers contain the tombs of two Seljuk princes.

These were tribesmen of the roughest sort who, seeking pasture and plunder, raided estates, robbed merchants and stole crops without inhibition, while all the time fighting extensively amongst each other. Many of these tribesmen settled in Azerbaijan, a region which is to this day predominantly Turkish speaking.

During this push westward, many Christian cities were burned and pillaged, bringing the Seljuks into direct conflict with Byzantium. The Seljuks first entered Byzantine territory in 1068 but were initially driven back after a series of hard fought campaigns.

However, in 1071, Alp Arslan led a Muslim army of Arabs, Kurds, and tribes from Iran, Iraq and Syria, and of course Turks, against a far larger but disorganised force commanded by the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV at Manzikert in ancient Armenia.

The rapid charges and retreats of the Turkish cavalry proved too much for the heavily armoured, though slow moving, Byzantine infantry and Alp Arslan won a famous victory, capturing the Emperor himself.

The Seljuk king showed mercy to Romanus and sent him away with gifts and an escort though the emperor received no such kindness from his own side who blinded and put him to death soon after he was released.

Now that the Seljuks had control over most of Western Asia, Alp Arslan turned his attention east to a rebellion in Turkestan, advancing to the banks of the Oxus with a powerful army. He was, however, killed in his own court by a local governor whom he had taken prisoner having ordered his guards to leave off the fugitive so that he could kill him himself. His gravestone bears the message,
"O those who saw the sky-high grandeur of Alp Arslan, behold! He is under the black soil now..."

Under the leadership of Alp Arslan and his successor, Malik Shah (r. 1072-1092), the Seljuks reached the zenith of their power with an empire bordering the Byzantine Empire in the west and China in the east.

By this time, the Seljuk Turks had progressed from being the leaders of a nomadic warrior people to become the protectors and propagators of the civilisation they had conquered. The bureaucracy of the Seljuk Empire was populated by many Persian ministers who emphasized their own language and culture, largely eliminating the use of Arabic in government and culture alike, even in areas where Arabs were in the majority.



Many of the administrative and bureaucratic systems that were established in this period survived in the Middle East until relatively recent history.

The most important of the Seljuks Persian ministers was the vizier of Alp Arslan and Malik Shah, usually known by his title, Nezam al-Molk, which means "Order of the Empire". Given the freedom to rule in his name by the young Malik Shah, he enacted far-reaching reforms in many areas of government and society.

In the realm of the military, he replaced the nomadic vassal Turkoman tribes that the Seljuk army was originally built on with salaried slave soldiers or mamelukes whose loyalty to the Sultan was more consistently reliable.

The new armies, financed by a new system of taxation were then used to drive the troublesome Turkoman tribes into outlying territories and into the lands of their enemies.

Al-Molk was also the founder of madreseh (schools) for the education and training of bureaucrats and religious officials. The establishment of these schools was, in part, motivated by the need to establish Sunnite orthodoxy in the face of growing Shia opposition.

The first of the "Nezamieh", as the schools became known, was established in Nishapur and they soon spread to Rey, Isfahan and Baghdad as well as Halab and Damascus in Syria and Cairo in Egypt.

The madreseh taught a range of subjects including theology, philosophy, logic, mathematics, astronomy and the natural sciences and laid the foundation that put the Islamic world at the forefront of science and philosophy from the 11th century to the time of the European Rennaissance. Such luminaries as Mohammad Ghazali, Omar Khayyam and Jalal ad-Din Rumi were all graduates of Nezam's schools.

Another famous "Nezami" was Hasan Ibn al-Sabbah, the notorious leader of the Iranian Ismaili sect. The sect is better known to the West as the "Assassins", a term derived from the myth that they used hashish to drug their followers into believing that they would be rewarded in Paradise for their extraordinary acts of loyalty.

Sabbah ruled an independent Shiite kingdom from the fortress of Alamut in the Alborz mountains and maintained a constant opposition to the ruling Sunni Seljuks. The followers of Sabbah – known as the fedaiun were feared throughout the land for the skills at infiltration and assassination that they would use to dispose of their political enemies. Nezam Al-Molk himself fell victim to a fedaiun assassin.

The death of Malik Shah in 1092 marked the beginning of the decline of the Seljuks. Under his rule, some degree of unity had been preserved but his successors presided over an increasingly fragmented empire. For all the efforts of Nezam al-Molk to instruct them in statecraft, the Seljuk kings still considered their kingdom a family property to be divided amongst sons and nephews.

By the time of the fourth Seljuk Sultan, Berkyaruk (r. 1095-1114) the empire was little more than a confederation of autonomous princes, not all of them Turks, acknowledging only a loose form of Seljuk suzerainty.

Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari

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