TURKS: ANCIENT TURKS, ALTAI TURKS AND SELJUK TURKS
There are perhaps 135 million Turkic people in the world today, and only about 40 percent of them living in Turkey. They rest are scattered across Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and northern and western China, making them one of the most widely scattered races in the world. All these people descended from a small tribe of horseman that originated in the Altai region
The word "Turk," is derived from the Chinese character Tu-Kiu, which means "forceful" and "strong." The Chinese believed these Turks descended from wolves and the Great Wall of China may have been built to keep them out. According to legend a gray wolf led the first Turkic tribes from their homeland in Central Asia into Anatolia.
The first Turks were nomads who spoke an Ural-Altaic tongue similar to Mongolian, Finnish, Korean and Hungarian. Other Turkic people include the Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmen in Turkmenistan, Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, Mongolians, Tartars in Russia, Uighars in western China, Azeris in Azerbaijan, Yakuts in Siberia. Some even regard Koreans and Hungarians as the relatives because their languages are similar.
Turks have been known throughout history for their fierceness and fighting skills. Most of the warriors in the Mongol armies were Turks. Turks also dominated the Mamluk forces and beefed up the Persian Safavid and Indian Mogul armies. Turkic tribes were a threat to the Byzantines and Persians starting in the A.D. 6th century. They absorbed Islam during the Arab invasions which began after Mohammed's death in 632.
The Turks were such excellent horsemen. The ancient Chinese called them “horse barbarians.” Turkish women reputedly could conceive and gave birth while riding. Based on excavations and stele observations in Mongolia, archaeologists say that early Turks dressed themselves in silk, wool and animal skin garments; men wore daggers in their belts and earrings in both ears; and both men and women braided their hair.
These ancient Turks raised millet, lived in felt yurts like Mongolian nomads today, and worshiped a fertility goddess, a god of the underworld and their Turkish ancestors. They made swords and spears from iron and were known for their metal working skill. Some of their leaders wore armor made from golden plates.
Throughout Central Asia, Mongolia, the Altai area of Russia and western China they left behind large stone figures known as balbals or man stones. Dated to the A.D. 6th through 8th centuries, they are thought to be memorial erected to honor warrior who had fallen in battle. Almost all face east towards the rising sun. Most hold a sword and a bowl and wear a distinctive belt and earing. They are often found with lines of stone slab that perhaps represent the number of men killed by person the man stone honors.
The ancient Turks were adept hunters, preying on roe deer and mountain goats, which they sometimes drove into pens. They were one of the first groups of people to use saddles with stirrups. This enabled them to swiftly attack their enemies because they could stand up and shoot their long bows while riding. Ancient Turks were so attached to their horses that rulers and warriors often had their fully harnessed mounts buried with them after they died.
Turkic people trace their ancestry back to the A.D. 3rd century Altai Turks, who came from the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.
The Altai (also spelled Altay) Turks were united in A.D. 552 under leadership of a chieftain named Bumin, who, with the help of the Chinese, defeated the overlords that ruled the tribes in the Altai region and then subjugated the tribes on the Mongolian steppe. Later, with the help of the Sassanid Persians, Bumin conquered Central Asia, which gave the Altai Turks control over the Silk Road trade route between China and the West.
The Altai controlled much of southern Siberia and Central Asia from the A.D. 6th century. They were one of the first Central Asian groups to realize the importance of trade and the wealth the trade brought them allowed them to establish permanent settlements.
The ancient Turks of the Altai region developed a written languages which they left in on runic stones as far away as the Yenisei Valley in Siberia to the north and Orkhon Valley in Mongolia to the east. This writing system resembled the script of early Germanic tribes. Later the Uigar script was adopted by many Turkic-speaking peoples. The Uigar script is related to the alphabets of Western Asia and was also used by the Mongols during the era of Genghis Khan.
The Altai Region is a mountainous area in central Asia where Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan and China all come together. Situated between the Gobi Desert and the Siberian Plain, it is regarded as the homeland of the of the Mongolians, Turks, Koreans and Hungarians. Ural-Altaic languages are named after the region. Ancient petroglyphs found in the area are believed to have been made the ancestors of the Altay.
The Altay region today is one of the wildest and most interesting parts of Mongolia and Russia. It is varied region with forest, steppes, wild river, lakes, deserts, snow capped mountain and abundant wildlife. On windward sides of the mountains are some of the wettest places in Mongolia, with glaciers, streams and numerous lakes. On the leeward side are some the driest areas.
Natural vegetation in the region includes steppe grasses, shrubs and bushes and light forests of birch, fir, aspen, cherry, spruce, and pines, with many clearings in the forest. These forest merge with a modified taiga. Among the animals are hare, mountain sheep, several species of deer, bobac, East European woodchucks, lynx, polecat, snow leopard, wolves, bears, Argali sheep, Siberian ibex, mountains goats and deer. Bird species include pheasant, ptarmigan, goose, partridge, Altai snowcock, owls, snipe and jay, In the streams and rivers are trout, grayling and the herring-like sig.
The Altai Mountains stretch for 1,200 miles across southwestern Mongolia from Siberia to the Gobi Desert. The mountains are of moderate height. There are several peaks over 4,500 meters. Those that are higher than 3,000 meters are snowcapped throughout the year. The region is rich in lakes and streams. The Ob, Irtysh and Yenisei all have their sources in the Altai. The Altai people live mainly in the broad plateaus, steppes and valleys of the ranges, where water is plentiful. The Altai complex of mountain ranges embraces the water divide mountains for all of Asia: the South Altai, the Inner Altai and the east Altai. The Mongolian Altai is connected to this mountain complex, rising to the southeast of the Siberian Altai region.
The climate is continental with extremes in temperatures between the summer and the winter. The mountains help to mitigate the extremes to some extent by causing a winter temperature inversion that produces an island of winter temperatures that are warmer than those in the Siberian taiga to the north and the Central Asian and Mongolian steppes to south and east. Even so temperatures drop as low as -48°C in the winter. The mountains are a gathering point for precipitation in a region that otherwise is dry. The most rain falls in July and August, with another smaller period of rain in late autumn. The western Altai receives around 50 centimeters of precipitation a year. The eastern Altai receives less: around 40 centimeters a year
The archeological and historical evidence that the Altai Mountains is the original homeland of all Altaic-speaking people is a bit flimsy. The argument is based on simple geography: the fact that it lies at the center of a scattering of Turkic-speaking peoples.
In the first millennium B.C., the Altai were inhabited by pastoral nomads who domesticated sheep, horses and other animals. See Pazyryk, History
Historical and archeological evidence indicate that the people that lived here from 5th to the 1st centuries B.C. were a herding people under the rule of chief or king. These people had contact with peoples in Central Asia. The language of these people is unknown but it seems unlikely that there were Turkic speakers. Turkic speakers arrived in the Altai region at a later time, some time in the A.D. first millennium.
Early Turkish States
The Turks began their rise to power when one of their leaders was denied the hand of daughter from another tribe, the Juan Juans, who enlisted the Turk's help. The leader married a daughter of Chinese group who united with Turks to break the Juan Juans. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]
The first great state which carried the name Turk was the Kok-Turk State which extended from Manchuria to the Black Sea and Iran between the A.D. 6th and 8th centuries. This empire had trade links with China, Iran and the Byzantines and left behind inscriptions and an unusual alphabet on stones in Mongolia.
Turkish Tribes in the Middle Ages
Dominant Turkic tribes in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries included the Uighars, Khazars, Kipchacks and Seljucks. The Mongols were slightly related to Turkic groups. One of the main differences between the Mongols and the Turks is that the Mongols tended to return home after their conquests while the Turks tended to stay in their conquered lands. The Russians lumped the Mongols, Tatar and Turks together and called them "Tatars."
All the Turkic tribes converted to Islam except for the reindeer herding Yakuts in Siberia and the Chuvash in the Volga region of Russia, but the wolf mythology stayed with them. Ninth century stelae in Mongolia show young Turkic children suckling from the teats of a mother wolf like Romulus and Remus, and the Osmanli Turks, the forbears of the Ottomans, marched with banners depicting a wolf's head when they conquered their way from Central Asia to the outskirts of Constantinople.
In the 11th Turkish tribes began invading western Asia from their homelands in Central Asia. The strongest of these tribes was the Seljuks. In the wake of the Samanids (819-1005)—Persians who set up a local dynasty in Central Asia within the Abbasid Empire— arose to two Turkish dynasties: the Ghaznavids, based in Khorasan in present-day Turkmenistan, and the Karakhanids from present-day Kazakhstan. Karakhanids are credited with converting Central Asia to Islam. The established a large empire that stretched from Kazakhstan to western China and embraced three important cities: Balasagun (present-day Buruna in Kyrzgzstan), Talas (present-day Tara in Kazakhstan) and Kashgar. Bukhara continued as a center of learning. The Karakhanids and Ghaznavids fought one another off and on until they were both out maneuvered diplomatically and militarily by the Seljuk Turks, who created a huge empire that stretched from western China to the Mediterranean.
Historians believe that the original Turkmen—of present-day Turkmenistan—were nomadic horse-breeding clans known as the Oghuz from the Altai region of what is now Mongolia and Siberia. They began migrating from their homeland around the 6th century, then were driven out by the Seljuk Turks, and formed communities in the oases around the Kara-kum deserts of modern Turkmenistan and also parts of Persia, Anatolia and Syria.
The Orguz first appeared in the area of Turkmenistan is the A.D. 8th to 10th centuries. According to legend Turkmen are descended from the fabled Orghuz Khan or the warriors who formed clans around his 24 grandsons.
The name Turkmen first appeared in 11th century sources. It referred to groups among the Oghuz that converted to Islam. During the 13th century Mongol invasions they fled to remote areas near the shores of the Caspian Sea. There they remained relatively isolated. Unlike many other Central Asian peoples, they were not influenced much by Mongol culture or political traditions.
In the 11th and 12th century Orguz-Turkmen established the Khorosan and Khorsem khanates, the core of the future Turkmen nation. In the 15th century what is now Turkmenistan was divided between the Khivan and Bukharan khanates and Persia..
The Seljuk Turks were nomadic horsemen who converted to Islam and recognized the Abbasid caliph. They conquered much of Central Asia and the Middle East. They were named after one of one their early leaders and converted as a group to Islam through the efforts of Arab missionaries.
The Seljuk Turks created a huge empire that stretched from western China to the Mediterranean and included modern-day Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and parts of Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Palestine. At their height, the Seljuk sultan had himself invested as emperor by the caliph of Baghdad. Their success was largely accidental.
The Seljuks emerged at a time when the Bagdad caliphate was weak and the Muslim world was in chaos and was made a number of shifting independent states that fought among themselves with none eing able to establish dominance until the Seljuks came along. The Seljuks ruled for about a century before they were weakened by fights for succession that thrust Central Asia into another period marked by chaos and conflicts between feuding states.
Seljuk Turks in Central Asia
The Seljuk Turkish from Central Asia converted to Islam in the 990s. In the early 11th century they entered the area around Uzbekistan with a cavalry of nomadic troops and began claiming more and more territory.
The Seljuk Turks gained power in Central Asia by out maneuvering, both diplomatically and militarily, the feuding Karakhanids and Ghaznavids. In the 11th century, Sultan Sanjar made Merv in present-day Turkmenistan the capital of the Seljuk Empire and used it as a base for its conquests of Afghanistan and Persia. By 1040 the Seljuks had taken western Iran from the Ghazanids.
Under the Seljuk Turks in 11th and 12th centuries Merv was the greatest city in the Islamic world and was known as “Merv, Queen of the World.” It also believed to have been the inspiration for a number of tales in Thousand and One Nights. Under the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan, the Seljuk empire stretched from Afghanistan to Egypt and Merv became a city full of palaces, libraries, observatories, and canals that nourished parks and lush gardens.
The Seljuk army stayed close to its nomadic roots. They were a Mongol-like cavalry horde that “were a law unto themselves” and traveled with their animals wherever they wished
Seljuk Turks Conquer Baghdad
The Seljuks defeated the Persians and began moving westward and took over Baghdad, then the capital of the Islamic caliphate, in 1055. They came to a special relationship with the Muslim caliph, who at the time was very weak and needed military support. In return for propping up the caliph, the Seljuks—still close to the ir nomadic horseman roots—were able to conquer in the name of Islam and keep the spoils of their conquests.
The Seljuks usurped power from the Abbasids and then embraced their culture, claiming Sunni Orthodoxy, declared themselves sultans "holder of power." The Seljuks proceeded to unify the Muslim world again by conquering Iraq and eastern Asia Minor. The y helped make the Muslim world stringer by allowing the regions to serve a Muslim hierarchy but maintain a degree of autonomy that stretched beyond Seljuk territory. Although places like Cairo, Samarkand and Cordova were not under Seljuk rule they were able to prosper due to stability in the Muslim world and independence at home.
The Seljuks reached their peak under the brilliant Persian vizier Nizamulmulk (ruled 1063 to 1092), who wanted to use the Turks to unify Muslims and rebuild the old Abbasid bureaucracy. He augmented the Seljuk cavalry with a new slave corp that was able to expand the Seljuk empire as far Yemen in the south, Afghanistan in the west and Syria in the west. Under Nizamulmulk, the Seljuk Turks captured Jerusalem and the Holy land in 1071 and held it during the time of the First Crusade.
Seljuk Turks in Anatolia
The Seljuks established a small sultanate on Anatolia call Rum (Rome). From here they attacked the Byzantines in Asia Minor, and Arabs in Syria and Palestine. In 1070 the Seljuks took Syria from the Fatimids and entered Byzantine territory. In 1071, they defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert near Lake Van, and took the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogense prisoner. This effectively ended Byzantine rule in Anatolia.
At first only a few Seljuks entered Asia Minor, but when they defeated the Byzantines at Malazgirt the floodgates opened and waves of Turkish immigrants poured in. Anatolia was seen as the new frontier . Seljuk military hordes roamed freely through Anatolia with their animals and set up small states.
Seljuks were led by fierce and competent rulers that expanded their empire across Anatolia, establishing a provincial capital in Nicaea (Iznik), not far from the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, and engaged in commercial relations with Italian republics such as Venice.
Seljuk Turk Government and Culture
The Seljuk empire was not a centralized state but rather a group of semi-independent kingdoms ruled by members of the same extended family. The Seljuk empire had few formal political institutions. Seljuk leaders maintained order on the local level through amirs, nomadic military regimes that were mostly independent and took in revenues mostly for themselves, and ulumas, Muslim clerics who used their influence to gain political power in a way not unlike modern Ayatollahs.
The ulumas established the madrassahs (Islamic theological schools). They helped standardize Islamic learning and in doing so they raised the status of the clergy and created a bureaucracy that gave them power. The Seljuks built madrassahs throughout the Muslim world and acted as links between local rulers and the Seljuk-Persian rulers in Baghdad and acted as local judges for the amirs.
The power of the amirs was short-lived but the power of the ulumas was more long-lasting. Under the uluma system, local communities felt less like subjects of a remote caliphate and more like a part of greater Muslim community. This in turn made Islam stronger and unified the Muslim world on deeper more individual level.
Turks who moved into Anatolia and the Middle East came under the strong influence of Islamic culture. They were Sunnis with a strong tendency towards Sufism.
The Seljuks were ambitious builders who constructed great madrassahs, mosques, hospitals, inns, bridges and roads from stone. Features of Seljuk architecture include gateways with monumental “stalactites” known as muqarnas. ogival archways and ceramic tiling. Seljuks developed the classic mosque plan with four iwans, barrel-vaulted chambers, arranged around a court. They used brick with great sophistication to create arches and domes as well as complex surface patterns. Alladddin Mosque and Ulu Mosque in Konya are fine examples of Seljuk architecture.
Seljuk Turks and the Assassins
The greatest threat to Seljuk rule came from radical Sufis and Shiites, who had became disillusioned by the corruption of the Fatimid empire and remained disillusioned under the Seljuk. The most powerful and radical of these Sufi sects were the Ismaili, also known as the Assassins, a medieval terrorist groups the seized Seljuk strongholds, and murdering leading amirs. By 1092, the were leading a full scale revolt they believed was championing the rights or ordinary people.
The terrorist campaign by the Assassins was met with strong counter attacks. The amirs launched a military and propaganda campaign against them and rounded u suspected Ismailis and had them executed. This campaign was effective. In end it made ordinary people suspicious of not only the Ismaelis but also Shiite Muslims and Sufis.
The first victim of the infamous assassins, an 11th century Muslim sect living in a cliffside fortress in Persia, was Nizam al-Mulk, Grand Vizier of the Seljuk sultan Malikshah. The executioner, disguised as a holy man, stabbed the vizier with a dagger while he was being carried on his litter to his harem. [Source: Pico Iyer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986 (√)]
Later, the Seljuk sultan Sanjar was warned it was in his best interest to sign a peace treaty with the assassins when a dagger was plunged next to his bed while he slept. A message that followed read: "Did I not wish the sultan well that dagger which was struck hard into the hard ground would have been placed in his soft breast." This point was driven home when Sanjar was given a demonstration of assassin loyalty by their leader Hasan-i Sabbah. When Hasan gave the word one young follower slit his own throat and another threw himself of the fortress walls to his death. Hasan said that he had 60,000 other men who prepared to the same: Sanjar showed good judgment, many would agree, by signing the peace treaty.√
See the Assassins, Under World Topics, Terrorism
Seljuk Turks and the Crusaders
The Seljuk dynasty began declining at the end of the 11th century. The uluma system remained in place but without strong central authority and local leaders constantly fought among themselves. This became most apparent during the Crusaders, when European invaders were able to move relatively easily through Seljuk territory because local amirs were preoccupied with fighting each other.
In 1091, the Byzantine Emperor asked Pope Urban II for help battling the Seljuks. In 1095, the Crusaders came to the aid of the Byzantines and helped drive the Seljuks from Iznik and western Anatolia. The Byzantines had struck a deal, allowing the Crusaders to pass through Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land in return for handing over any territory they took from the Seljuks.
With the help of the Crusaders of the First Crusade, Byzantine was able to win back much of the territory lost to the Seljuks. In 1097, the Seljuks were kicked out of Nicaea and driven eastward into Anatolia. The Seljuks then established a provincial capital in Konya. Later the Seljuks were able to win back much of the land taken by the Crusaders and managed to hold on to Anatolia through all Seventh Crusade. Konya reached its peak under the leadership of Sultan Alaeddin Keykubat in the 13th century but the Seljuk empire as a whole was never as strong as it was.
End of the Seljuk Turks
The Seljuk empire was divided into states in the 12th century: one was ruled by Seljuks and the other by Mamluks (a military caste of former Turk, Kurd and Circassian slaves). The Mamluks occupied Egypt and the Holy Land until the Ottomans took over.↕
The Seljuk dynasty ended with the invasion of the Mongols in 1243. The Mongols destroyed Baghdad and a number of other great Muslim cities. The Seljuks in Konya surrendered and submitted to the Mongols and after that lost their hold in Anatolia and disappeared from history.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin; History of Arab People by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000); and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated November 2012
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