UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Seljuks in Mesopotamia - 1055-1194

The flaming zeal which had at first carried the armies of Islam, like a rushing prairie fire, from their ancient Arabian musterground to the desert of Sind in the east and the surge of the Atlantic on the west, had not availed to keep together, in a well-knit organisation, the vast empire so suddenly, so amazingly, acquired. The Caliphate lasted indeed for over six hundred years, but it retained its imperial sway for scarcely a third of that time. The very idea of the Caliphate, which was as much an ecclesiastical as an administrative authority, encouraged the local governors to assume powers which were not irreconcilable with the homage due to a spiritual chief; and the religious schisms of Islam, especially the strange and fanatical devotion inspired by the persecuted lineage of Ali, led by a different road to the dismemberment of the state.

The whole of the districts of Syria and Mesopotamia, from the mountains of Kurdistan to the Lebanon, were in race and politics allied with Arabia. Large tribes of Arabs were settled from early times in the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia, where their names are still preserved in the geographical divisions. Bedawy tribes wandered annually from Arabia to the pasture lands of the Euphrates, as they wander to this day: and many clans were and are still permanently settled in all parts of Syria. The decay of the Caliphate naturally encouraged the foundation of Arab kingdoms in.the regions dominated by Arab tribes, and in the tenth and eleventh centuries the greater part of Syria and Mesopotamia owned their supremacy; but by the twelfth these had all passed away.

After the death of 'Adud-ad-Dawlah the Buyid power declined, and a period of internecine war followed, which only ended in 447 (AD 1055), when Tughril Beg the Saljuk, after suppressing the last Buyid prince, became master of Baghdad. The Turks who swept over Persia, Mesopotamia, and Syria in the course of the eleventh century were led by the descendants of Seljuk, a Turkman chieftain from the steppes beyond the Oxus. In a rapid series of campaigns they first overran the greater part of Persia; other Turkish tribes then came to swell their armies; and the whole of western Asia, from the borders of Afghanistan to the frontier of the Greek empire and the confines of Egypt, was gradually united under Seljuk rule. Persians, Arabs, and Kurds alike bowed before the overwhelming wave of conquest. But wide as was their dominion, the significance of the Seljuk invasion lies deeper than mere territorial expansion. Their advent formed an epoch in Mohammedan history by creating a revival of the Moslem faith.

The Seljuk power rested on an army composed, to a great extent, of hired or purchased soldiers, and officered by slaves of the royal household. Freemen were not to be trusted with high commands, at least in distant provinces; native Persians and Arabs could not, as a rule, be expected to work loyally for their Turkish conquerors; and it was safer to rely on the fidelity of slaves brought up at the court, in close relations of personal devotion to the Seljuk princes. These white slaves or mamlnks, natives for the most part of Kipchak and Tartary, formed the bodyguard of the Sultan, filled the chief offices of the court and camp, and rising step by step, according to their personal merits and graces, eventually won freedom and power. They were rewarded by grants of castles, cities, and even provinces, which they held of their master the Sultan on condition of military service. The whole empire was organised on this feudal basis.

In a general way, there were three leading branches of one family of the Seljuk name, whose original home was Turkestan, N. of Afghanistan. One, the Irak branch, in Mesopotamia and Syria; another, the Rum branch, in Asia Minor; and a third in Persia. The effects of the Seljuk domination reached far and wide; but the dynasty itself was shortlived. Less than half a century after they had entered Persia as conquerors, the vast fabric they had audaciously planned and splendidly maintained split up into fragments. Three Seljuk emperors in succession held their immense dominions under their personal rule without fear of rivalry or revolt; but when Melik Shah died in 1092, civil war broke out between his sons, and the empire was divided.

Seljuks continued to rule at Nishapur, Ispahan, and Kirman; Seljuks at Damascus and Aleppo; Seljuks in Anatolia: but they were divided planks of the mightly bole, unable long to resist the forces which pressed upon them from within and without. Their overthrow was the inevitable consequence of their feudal organisation; they were hoist with their own petard. The slaves whom they imported for their defence became their destroyers, and the great fiefs that they had constructed for the protection of the empire proved to be its chief danger.

Toghrul Beg (d. 1063), founder of the Irak branch, captured Baghdad in 1055. His nephew Alp Arslan (d. 1072) took Aleppo and worsted the Byzantine Emperor Diogenes in a great battle at Manzikert (Aug. 1071). "The foundation of the Seljuk Empire of Rum was the immediate result of this great victory" (Enc. Brit.). About the same year his general, Atsiz, wrested Palestine and Syria from the Fatimite Caliphs.

Mahmud II11181131
Tughril II11321134
Mas'ud 11341152
Malik Shah III11521153
Mohammed II11531160
Sulaiman Shah11601161
Arslan Shah11611176
Tughril III11761194
Baghdad, and latterly, Hamadan, on the Persian border, seem to have been the capitals of this branch, which lasted until 1194. It was with these Sultans and, even more, their 'atabegs' (father-beys) or Emirs of towns like Damascus, Emesa (Horns), Aleppo, Mosul and their adjacent territories, that the Crusaders were continually at war on their eastern frontier. Zangi (d. 1146) and Nur ed Din (d. 1174) were 'atabegs' of Mosul and Aleppo respectively.

With Toghrul Beg began the period of the Saljuk supremacy (the fourth period in the history of the Abbasids), which lasted about a century, and is celebrated for the acts and deeds of Alp Arslan and Malik Shah. The Saljuks were of the Turk race (the Buyids had been Persians), and unlike their predecessors, the Saljuk princes for the most part did not reside in Baghdad, but maintained there a deputy in their stead. He acted as their Lieutenant-Governor of Mesopotamia, and resided permanently at Baghdad, occupying the Buyid Palace now generally called the Palace of the Sultan. In other words Baghdad, during Saljuk times, was no longer even nominally the seat of government in Islam.

The twelfth century saw the greater part of the Seljuk empire in the hands of petty sovereigns who had risen from the ranks of the mamluks and converted their fiefs into independent states. In Persia, and beyond the Oxus, a cupbearer and a major domo had founded powerful dynasties; and the slaves of these slaves, a generation of "gentlemen's gentlemen," had established minor principalities on the skirts of their masters' dominions. In this way a slave became regent over his master's heir and on his death assumed regal powers at Damascus; thus Zengy, founder of the long line of Atabegs of Mosil, was the son of one of Melik Shah's slaves ; and the Ortukids and other local dynasts of Mesopotamia traced their fortunes to a similar source. However servile in origin, the pedigree carried with it no sense of ignominy. In the East a slave is often held to be better than a son, and to have been the slave of Melik Shah constituted a special title to respect. The great slave vassals of the Seljuks were as proud and honourable as any Bastard of medieval aristocracy; and when they in turn assumed kingly powers, they inherited and transmitted to their lineage the high traditions of their former lords. The Atabegs of Syria and Mesopotamia carried on the civilising work begun by the wise Vezir of Melik Shah. The work was interrupted, indeed, by internal feuds, but its chief hindrance during the twelfth century came from the Crusades.

Sultan Tughril III [r. 1176-1194] was a sovereign, and the son of a sovereign, and a person of great magnificence ; and his reign was contemporary with that of Sultan 'Ala-ud-Din, Takish, Khwarazm Shah 3. His strength was so very great, that not a warrior of his day could lift his mace 4 from the ground, and he was a man of great stature and of awe-striking presence. Persons of credit relate, that the hair on his upper lip was so long, that he used to draw his moustaches back, and put them behind his ears. He was one of the brother's sons of Sultan Sanjar, and was very young in years on the decease of his father.

After Sultan Tughril had acquired supremacy over the territory of 'Irak, and had reigned for a considerable period, a number of his servants despatched letters to Sultan 'Ala-ud-Din Takish Khwarazm Shah, ruler of the Khwarezmid Empire and invited him to come into that country. In accordance with that request, Sultan Takish invaded 'Irak with a large army. When the two armies came into proximity with each other, one or two ingrate slaves acted treacherously towards Sultan Tughril, and came up behind his august back and martyred him.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:48:44 ZULU