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How the Seljuk Empire Changed the Middle East: Culture, Religion, and Politics

The Seljuk Empire: A Turco-Persian Powerhouse in the Middle East


The history of the Middle East is full of empires that rose and fell, leaving behind their marks on the region's culture, religion, and politics. One of these empires was the Seljuk Empire, a high medieval, culturally Turco-Persian, Sunni Muslim empire that spanned from Anatolia and the Levant in the west to the Hindu Kush in the east, and from Central Asia in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. Founded and ruled by a branch of Oghuz Turks, the Seljuks were instrumental in shaping the Islamic world during the 11th and 12th centuries, as they restored Sunni orthodoxy, promoted Persian culture, challenged Byzantine power, and faced off against Crusaders and Mongols. In this article, we will explore the origins, rise, peak, decline, and legacy of this remarkable empire.

seljuk empire

What was the Seljuk Empire?

The Seljuk Empire was named after its founder, Seljuk (or Selçuk), a chief of a group of nomadic Turkic tribes that migrated from Central Asia to Iran in the 10th century. His grandsons, Tughril and Chaghri, established themselves as independent rulers in Khorasan and expanded their domains by conquering Iran, Iraq, Syria, and parts of Anatolia. They also gained recognition from the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad as his protectors and sultans. The Seljuk Empire reached its zenith under Alp-Arslan (1063-1072) and Malik-Shah (1072-1092), who consolidated their authority over a vast territory and fostered a flourishing civilization. However, after Malik-Shah's death, the empire fragmented into several smaller states, such as the Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia, which continued to bear the name of Seljuk until the 13th century.

Why was the Seljuk Empire important?

The Seljuk Empire was important for several reasons. First, it revived Sunni Islam as the dominant sect in the Muslim world after a period of Shi'ite dominance under the Buyids and Fatimids. The Seljuks supported Sunni scholars and institutions, such as madrasas (Islamic colleges), which provided education and training for religious and political elites. Second, it fostered a cultural synthesis between Turkic and Persian elements, creating a distinctive Turco-Persian civilization that influenced later dynasties such as the Ottomans and Safavids. The Seljuks patronized Persian literature, art, architecture, and science, while also adopting Persian as their official language and administrative system. Third, it reshaped the geopolitical map of the Middle East by challenging Byzantine hegemony in Anatolia and opening up new frontiers for Turkic migration and settlement. The Seljuks also faced external threats from Christian Crusaders from Europe and Mongol invaders from Asia, which tested their military prowess and resilience.

The Rise of the Seljuks

The Origins of the Seljuks

The ancestors of the Seljuks were Oghuz Turks, a nomadic people who lived in Central Asia and spoke a Turkic language. They were originally animists or shamanists, but gradually converted to Islam under the influence of Muslim The Conquest of Iran and Iraq

The Seljuks began their conquest of Iran and Iraq in the 1030s, taking advantage of the weakness and disunity of the local dynasties, such as the Ghaznavids, the Buyids, and the Kakuyids. They also faced resistance from the Qarakhanids, another Turkic state that ruled in Transoxiana and eastern Iran. The Seljuks defeated the Ghaznavids at the Battle of Dandanaqan in 1040, which gave them control over Khorasan and eastern Iran. They then moved westward and captured Nishapur, Ray, Isfahan, Hamadan, and Baghdad, where they were welcomed by the Abbasid caliph as his saviors from the Shi'ite Buyids. The Seljuks also annexed Azerbaijan, Armenia, and parts of Georgia, establishing their dominance over the Iranian plateau and Mesopotamia.

The Battle of Manzikert and the Expansion into Anatolia

One of the most significant events in the history of the Seljuk Empire was the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, which marked a turning point in their relations with the Byzantine Empire. The Seljuks had already raided Byzantine territories in eastern Anatolia since the 1060s, but they did not intend to permanently occupy them. However, when the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogenes launched a large-scale campaign to drive them out, he was met by a smaller Seljuk army led by Alp-Arslan at Manzikert, near Lake Van. The battle ended in a decisive Seljuk victory, as Romanus was captured and his army was routed. Alp-Arslan treated Romanus with respect and released him after a ransom was paid, but the Byzantine Empire was severely weakened by the defeat and never recovered its control over Anatolia. The battle opened up new opportunities for Turkic migration and settlement in Anatolia, which eventually led to the formation of the Sultanate of Rum, a Seljuk successor state that ruled most of Anatolia until the Mongol invasion in 1243.

The Peak of the Seljuk Empire

The Reigns of Alp-Arslan and Malik-Shah

The Seljuk Empire reached its peak of power and glory under the reigns of Alp-Arslan (1063-1072) and his son Malik-Shah (1072-1092), who are considered the greatest Seljuk sultans. Alp-Arslan was a brave and charismatic leader, who expanded the Seljuk domains to their maximum extent, defeating the Byzantines, the Fatimids, and the Qarakhanids. He also reformed the Seljuk army, introducing a system of fiefs (iqta) that granted land to his loyal commanders (atabegs) in exchange for military service. He also established a network of fortresses and roads to secure his borders and facilitate trade and communication. Malik-Shah continued his father's policies and achievements, maintaining the unity and stability of the empire. He also supported the development of science, philosophy, and theology, patronizing scholars such as Omar Khayyam, al-Ghazali, and al-Biruni. He also initiated the reform of the Islamic calendar, which resulted in the adoption of the Jalali calendar, which is still used in Iran today.

The Role of the Vizier Nizam al-Mulk

One of the key figures in the success of the Seljuk Empire was Nizam al-Mulk, who served as the vizier (chief minister) of Alp-Arslan and Malik-Shah for more than 20 years. Nizam al-Mulk was a brilliant statesman, administrator, and scholar, who devised and implemented a system of governance that ensured the efficiency and harmony of the Seljuk state. He centralized the authority of the sultan, while also delegating some powers to local governors and officials. He supervised the collection of taxes, the administration of justice, and the maintenance of public order. He also founded a series of madrasas (Islamic colleges) known as the Nizamiyya, which provided education and training for religious and political elites. He also wrote a famous treatise on statecraft called Siyasatnama (The Book of Government), which offered advice and guidance to rulers on how to deal with various issues and challenges. Nizam al-Mulk was assassinated by a member of the Ismaili sect known as the Assassins in 1092, which triggered a crisis in the Seljuk Empire.

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The Cultural and Religious Achievements of the Seljuks

The Seljuk Empire was not only a political and military force, but also a cultural and religious one. The Seljuks fostered a cultural synthesis between Turkic and Persian elements, creating a distinctive Turco-Persian civilization that influenced later dynasties such as the Ottomans and Safavids. The Seljuks patronized Persian literature, art, architecture, and science, while also adopting Persian as their official language and administrative system. Some of the most famous works of Persian literature were produced during the Seljuk period, such as Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), Nizami's


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