Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Storm from the East; part 2: Turks

(The previous entry looked in overall terms at how Europe and the Near East were periodically under attack by nomads from the East, and outlined the invasions of the Huns, Avars and Magyars. This entry will cover the Turks).

At the start of the 11th century, a degree of stability had been achieved between the frontiers of the Islamic and Christian worlds. The strongest Christian state, the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople, ruled modern Turkey, the Balkans and parts of Italy. Spain, the whole of the African Meiterranean coast, Syria, and eastwards to the frontier of China was Islamic. For more than a century, the only territories to change between the two were the frontier islands: Sicily, Crete and Cyprus. But the Islamic world had long ceased to be a political unity. The Caliph at Baghdad was accepted as the Successor to the Prophet by Sunni Moslems, but Spain had its own Umayyid Caliphate and Egypt was ruled by the Shia Fatimids. This disunity was to prove a great weakness.

In many ways the Byzantine empire and the Caliphate were quite similar. Both were based upon a large capital city with a cultured court and an absolute monarch, assisted by a tax-collecting bureaucracy, hiring mercenary armies & ruling a peasant population. There appeared to be a stable civilisation throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, with a few great cities, Baghdad, Cairo, Constantinople, Salonika, Palermo, and Cordova, controlling a trading network reaching all the way from the Baltic down into Africa and across to China. But this stable situation was about to undergo a revolutionary change in the 11th century - beginning, appropriately enough, around the year 1000.

Umayyid Spain was noted for its learning and tolerance. Almost the whole peninsula was under Moslem rule, and Christian kingdoms survived only in the far north. But under Hisham II a new spirit of intolerance emerged. Berber tribesmen from north Africa were recruited as mercenary soldiers, the great Christian pilgrimage centre of St Iago of Compostella was sacked in 997, the library of Cordova was purged of heretical books and heretical Moslem scholars were crucified. Soon, savage fighting broke out between the Berber troops and their Umayyid employers, and in 1013 the Berbers attacked Cordova and pillaged it. The Umayyid caliphate was permanently ruined and never recovered: Moslem Spain disintegrated into petty princedoms of Berber warlords. The way was opened for the Christian reconquest: in 1085 King Alfonso VI of Leon bloodlessly occupied Toledo. It would be 400 years before the last Moslem cities were captured, and for the moment religious toleration continued, but from this time onwards the Moslems of Spain were always on the back foot.

There were disturbing developments in Egypt at the same time, where in 1009 a new Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim, ordered the destruction of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which caused a shock-wave of horror throughout Christendom. Al-Hakim was soon assassinated, the church was allowed to be rebuilt, and pilgrims continued to visit as before (including, Sweign, brother of King Harold of England) but the damage had been done.

Then two new menaces appeared. In Italy there were the Normans, who first coming as mercenary soldiers, soon managed to carve out a state for themselves in southern Italy, attacking local nobles, Byzantine bases and Moslems indiscriminately. In 1060 the Normans began the conquest of Moslem Sicily, which took 30 years. The Normans were not interested in city culture: what they wanted was land. (The Normans in Italy and Sicily have been covered in an earlier blog entry) And in the east came an even greater threat, which was to end the great days of both the empires.

When we first hear of the Seljuk Turks, they were living in what is now Uzbekistan in central Asia. They were a nomadic people, whose wealth took the form of their huge flocks of sheep, for which they were always searching for fresh pastures. They were noted warriors: horse-archers riding sturdy little ponies. In battle their wives would wait in the rear, with fresh mounts and supplies of extra arrows. They would signal their presence, and frighten their enemies, beating drums made by stretching sheepskins over their cooking pots (hence being known as kettle drums!) They originally appeared in Afghanistan and eastern Iran as mercenary troops, but by the 1030s they were territorial rulers in their own right, and in 1044, under their leader Togril Beg, they moved westwards. In 1055 the feeble Caliph in Baghdad was forced to grant Togril Beg a series of unprecedented titles: “Sultan, Ruler of the east and of the west, vice-regent of the successor of the Prophet, lord of the Moslems”. The Caliphate continued in existence, but was reduced to a mere puppet of the Seljuks. Soon Seljuk territory extended down through Palestine to Mecca itself.

The next Sultan was Alp Arslan, who led his people into the territory of the Byzantines. The Emperor Romanus IV thought this invasion threat should be crushed, and in 1071 assembled a vast army and advanced to meet them at Manzikert in eastern Anatolia: but, in one of the most crucial battles in world history, Romanus’s army was unable to cope with the Turkish warfare of fast-moving mounted archers, varied with occasional feigned flights to lure the enemy into making rash charges. The Byzantine army was destroyed and Romanus himself captured. Next year, 1072, Alp Arslan was killed by one of his own commanders, but was succeeded by son Malik Shah, under whom the advance continued. Soon vast numbers of Turks were flooding westwards, almost reaching the coast. They destroyed the farms to make pasture for their sheep, and many towns were abandoned. The empire at a stroke lost one of its main sources of food, and also of soldiers for its armies. The very survival of the empire was in danger.The result was the appeal by the new Emperor Alexius Comnenus for help from western Europe, which was converted by Pope Urban II into the preaching of the First Crusade.

But in fact, menace less than might seem. Sultan Malik Shah died 1092, and the vast Seljuk territory disintegrated into petty states ruled by Seljuk chieftains or local warlords. Anatolia and Syria had a mixed population of Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and others, with Greeks still in a majority in some areas. Also, there was deadly rivalry between the Turks and the Fatimids of Egypt. The Turks had taken and pillaged Jerusalem, but it was later regained by the Egyptians.

The crusaders (whose best warriors were Norman knights from Italy) first came up against the Turks at Dorylaeum in north-western Anatolia in 1097: they found Turkish tactics of endless volleys of arrows from fast-moving mounted archers very difficult to cope with, and were fortunate to win the battle. But the route across Turkey was never safe, and later crusading expeditions there were massacred. The early successes of the crusaders was very largely due to disunity on the Moslem side. Once Saladin in the late 12th century had abolished the Fatimid caliphate, returned Egypt to the Sunni fold and united it with Syria under his rule, the crusader states were doomed. But Saladin was not a Turk or an Arab: he was a Kurd, the son of a mercenary soldier. The Turks were later reunited under the Ottoman dynasty, but that is another story.

(The next entry will cover at the great Mongol raids of the 13th century)

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