Armies of the Seljuk Turks Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In 750 the ՙAbbāsid Dynasty had succeeded the Umayyad Dynasty as rulers of the Muslim world.

Political Considerations

In 750 the ՙAbbāsids[Abbasids]ՙAbbāsid Dynasty had succeeded the UmayyadsUmayyad Dynasty as rulers of the Muslim world. However, by 1050 ՙAbbāsid authority was greatly reduced; this decline further splintered the followers of Islam. Into this leadership void stepped the Seljuk Turks, and for nearly a century and a half they were the dominant Muslim dynasty ruling abroad in Armenia, Persia, Iraq, and Syria.TurksSeljuk TurksTurksSeljuk Turks

The Ghaznavid Empire, c. 1030

Close to a century earlier, a tribal leader named Seljuq (nomadic Turkic chief)Seljuq (also known as Selchuk or Seljuk) had moved and settled this nomadic band from the region north of the Aral Sea into Central Asia. Around 1040 this tribe, which had been previously identified as part of the larger group of Oghuz TurksOghuz Turks, became known as the Seljuqs or Seljuks. Two brothers, Toghrïl Beg>Toghrïl Beg and Chaghrï BegChaghrï Beg, grandsons of the Seljuq namesake, successfully united various tribes into a Seljuk army, which they led to victory over the GhaznavidsGhaznavid Dynasty (which spanned eastern Iran, central Afghanistan, and modern-day Pakistan) at the Dandanqan, Battle of (1040)Battle of Dandanqan. This decisive victory signaled the end of the Ghaznavid Dynasty and heralded the rise of the Seljuk Turks.

In 1055 the Seljuk Turks seized Baghdad in a bloodless coup. An ՙAbbāsid caliph was left to rule as titular ruler, but the Seljuks were the true political force for the next three generations. In 1067 they were raiding lands claimed by their Christian rivals, the Byzantine Empire;vs. Seljuks[Seljuks]Byzantine Empire. Toghrïl Beg’s nephew, Alp ArslanAlp Arslan (Seljuk sultan)Alp Arslan, led the Seljuks to a decisive victory at the Manzikert, Battle of (1071)Battle of Manzikert in 1071. This one-sided win opened the way for mass Turkish migration into Anatolia. In this same year, Seljuk forces occupied the holy city of Jerusalem.

Alp Arslan was killed the following year in a bizarre duel with an enemy commander, often called an assassination. His son Malik Shāh IMalik Shāh I[Malik Shah 01]Malik Shāh I, along with the grand vizierNiẓām al-MulkNiẓām al-Mulk (Persian vizier)[Nizam al Mulk]Niẓām al-Mulk, brought a short-lived period of stability, organization, and cultural flourishing to what had come to be called the Empire of the Great Seljuks. In theory the “Great Seljuks” were to be masters of all the Seljuk sultan lines, but this was seldom the case. Sultanates operated in territories in Persia and Syria, and a fiercely independent Seljuk state was founded by SüleymanSüleyman (Seljuk Rum founder)[Suleyman Seljuk Rum founder]Süleyman after his capture of the Byzantine city of Nicaea, conquest of (1078)Nicaea in 1078. This became the sultanate of Rum sultanateRum–the Arabic word for Rome was Rum, and this was a fitting designation as the region had once been in Roman/Byzantine possession.

Religious differences between sects brewed dissent among the nations of Islam. These theological disputes sparked the creation of the Assassins (Islamic militant sect)Assassins, a militant Islamic sect that was responsible for the death of Niẓām al-MulkNiẓām al-Mulk (Persian vizier)[Nizam al Mulk]Niẓām al-Mulk in 1092.

Seljuk Turks, c. 1090

Political infighting also hastened the dissolution of the empire. It was common practice to carve up a deceased ruler’s property and dole out separate kingdoms to the surviving sons in grants called iqtāՙ. This ever-increasing collection of disparate emirs and lesser sultans continuously undermined Seljuk central authority. The weakness in this system was especially apparent upon Malik Shāh’s death in 1092, when his brother and four sons began to squabble over the inheritance.

In 1095 the Crusades;First (1095-1099)First Crusade began, and several key Seljuk cities, including Nicaea and Jerusalem, were lost in 1099. Throughout the rest of the Crusades, divisions between the kingdoms led to some Seljuks supporting the Crusaders. By 1200, Seljuk influence had been checked in all but the Anatolia region. The loss at the Battle of Köse Dag, Battle of (1243)[Kose Dag]Köse Dag in 1243 to the Mongols;vs. Seljuks[Seljuks]Mongols reduced the surviving Seljuk kingdoms to a tributary state of the Mongol Dynasty. Finally, in 1307 Sultan Masՙūd IIMasՙūd II[Masud 02]Ghiyath ad-Din Mesud II (Masՙūd II) and his son were killed, ending the once-powerful dynasty. The remnants would be absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, which would endure until the end of World War I.

Military Achievement

At the Dandanqan, Battle of (1040)Battle of Dandanqan in 1040 the Seljuks triumphed over the GhaznavidsGhaznavid Dynasty. This gained them a wide swath of land in Iran and central Asia that laid the foundation for their future empire. In 1050, without a battle, the Seljuks gained the important political and military post of Baghdad. Although they were technically subservient to the ՙAbbāsids[Abbasids]ՙAbbāsid Dynasty, they were the power behind the scenes. Five years later, at the Pasinler, Battle of (1055)Battle of Pasinler, the Seljuks won their first significant victory over the Byzantine Empire;vs. Seljuks[Seljuks]Byzantines and their Georgian allies. In the aftermath the Byzantine emperor, Constantine IX MonomachusConstantine IX Monomachus (Byzantine emperor)[Constantine 09]Constantine IX Monomachus, was forced to treat with the Seljuk as victors. In 1067 the Seljuk general Kilic Aslan IIKilic Aslan II (Seljuk general)[Kilic Aslan 02]Kilic Aslan II sacked the Byzantine city of Caesarea, Sack of (1067)Caesarea (also known as Kaisaria), turning it into the capital of a smaller emirate. This further increased the Seljuk holdings and was another chink in the armor of the Byzantine Empire.

The most significant military achievement for the Seljuk Turks was victory over the Byzantium army just over two decades later, in 1071, at Manzikert, Battle of (1071)Manzikert. The Byzantines lost the bulk of their professional army in this engagement, and their emperor, Romanus IV DiogenesRomanus IV Diogenes (Byzantine emperor)Romanus IV Diogenes, was captured and ransomed. This effectively ceded Asia Minor to the invading Turkish bands, who may not have been obedient to the Seljuks but further weakened the Byzantine Empire nonetheless. The ability of the Byzantines to mount future campaigns was greatly crippled, as ceding so vast a territory cost the empire dearly in levies of manpower and other resources. The date of the battle, August 19, 1071, was forever after known by the Byzantines as “the dreadful day.” In 1176, at the Myriocephalon, Battle of (1176)Battle of Myriocephalon, the Byzantine emperor Manuel I ComnenusManuel I Comnenus (Byzantine emperor)[Manuel 01 Comnenus]Manuel I Comnenus suffered another severe setback at the hands of the Seljuks while trying to recover lost territory in Anatolia. This further reinforced the notion of the Turks’ supremacy on the battlefield against their Byzantine rivals.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The Seljuk Turk fighters could accurately be called steppe light Cavalry;Seljukcavalry. The main component of any Seljuk force was mounted archers. Horses and horse riding;SeljukHorses were such an important aspect of the Seljuks’ battlefield philosophy that on extended campaigns each rider brought at least one spare horse to have in reserve. The territorial reserves, the “irregulars,” were also generally mounted.

These riders bore composite Archers and archery;SeljuksBows and arrows;Seljukbows of horn or bone fed by quivers containing thirty to fifty arrows. While the bow was certainly the preferred weapon, missile weapons such as javelins were also used. Bows were scarce among the irregulars; swords and spears were the weapons used most frequently by those in this fighting element. The Seljuks’ primary stopping power was in the bow, but, like any mounted troops, they were prepared to engage in hand-to-hand combat. Swords and maces served as secondary weapons.

In Armor;Seljukorder to maintain a mobility advantage, the Seljuk Turks were unarmored or at best lightly armored. Usually a horse archer carried only a small, rounded shield, usually brightly colored. Some mounted and foot troops were known to wear captured mail, but generally some form of lamellar armor was employed.

The Seljuks appear to have employed no signature uniforms. The chieftains reportedly wore wide-skirted topcoats, cut diagonally with a flap called a muqaylab. Normal tribal clothing, frequently dyed in a bright shade, was worn by other Seljuk forces. Belts, made of leather or overlapping plates, were a key component of these warriors’ battle clothing, used for keeping close at hand such equipment as replacement strings and bows and secondary weapons. In the Seljuk culture, belts were common gifts to mark favor.

Military Organization

The Seljuks relied mainly on the military organization of their predecessors, with a few notable differences. Under their rule a more Feudalism;Seljukfeudal system was established, each province raising and absorbing the cost of a contingent. A Emirs;Seljukruler (usually someone with a hereditary claim), called the amīr al-mu՚minīn (the English word “emir” is derived from this title), was given the revenue for a particular province. A portion of this revenue was expected to be gifted back to the local sultan as a tribute. In times of war the emir was to bring to the fold a certain number of fighters. Some of these would be Askars askars, the forces of regular professional soldiers who served as the bodyguards of the emirs; the men who made up the askars were referred to as askaris. The sizes of askars varied by province or district; an account from the First Crusade lists two thousand askaris hailing from one particular wealthy region.

Mercenaries Mercenaries;Turkmensupplemented these corps of regulars. For manpower, the emirs turned to the varied Turkmen tribes, which were headed up by their own leaders, called beys. These mercenaries were the bulk of the Seljuk military; when rallied and merged with the regulars, these combined armies could be more than 100,000 strong.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

At the heart of the Seljuk military manifesto was the bow. One outside observer remarked, “The Turks, indeed, who themselves continually seek to develop their skills with bows and arrow, pressed without ceasing.” Hunting and intertribal warfare provided ample opportunity for the Seljuks to hone their skills in the use of this vital weapon from a very young age. These large composite missile weapons, when partnered with men on swift horses, gave the Seljuks a decided advantage against the slower, more heavily armored Byzantine and Crusader foes.

The Seljuk Turks were expert light Archers and archery;MongolsCavalry;MongolCavalry;Seljukcavalry and, until the emergence of the Mongols;vs. Seljuks[Seljuks]Mongols, the supreme horseback archers. A typical Seljuk encounter would involve a spirited charge like the one described in this contemporary account: “The Turks began, all at once, to howl and gabble and shout, saying with loud voices in their own language some devilish word which I do not understand . . . screaming like demons.” After unnerving the enemy with such a disconcerting outburst, they would attempt an envelopment while keeping far enough away not to engage in hand-to-hand fighting. Again, a contemporary account captures this particular stratagem and its potential devastation:

It was like an earthquake with howling, sweat, a swift rush of fear, clouds of dust and not least hordes of Turks riding all around us. Depending on his speed, resolution and strength, each man sought safety in flight. The enemy chased them, killing some, capturing some and trampling others under the horses’ hooves. It was a terribly sad sight, beyond any lamenting or mourning.

If their opponents held together, the Seljuks would continue to pepper them with arrows from distances that astonished their enemies. One stated, “After we had set ourselves in order the Turks came upon us as from all sides, skirmishing, throwing darts and javelins and shooting arrows from an astonishing range.” When the Seljuk archers were pressed, or when they were attempting to execute a more complex plan, they would break and feign retreat. If their unwary foes tried to pursue, they would find it just as dangerous as standing their ground, as the Seljuks would turn and, from their mounts, fire a hail of arrows.

While the bow was the cornerstone of their offensive, the Seljuks recognized the need to close for melee, as this contemporary account shows:

[The Turks] surrounded our men and shot such a great number of arrows and quarrels that rain or hail never darkened the sky so much and many of our men and horses were injured. When the first bands of Turks had emptied their quivers and shot all their arrows, they withdrew, but a second band immediately came from behind where there were but more Turks. These fired even more thickly than the others had done. . . . The Turk, seeing that our men and horses were severely wounded and in great difficulties, hung their bows instantly on their left arms under their armpits and immediately fell upon them in a very cruel fashion with maces and swords.

Medieval Sources

The Itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta regis Ricardi Itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta regis Ricardi contains an invaluable primary account of the Crusades;Third (1187-1192) Third Crusade (1187-1192) and provides a very good descriptive account of the Crusaders’ clash with the Seljuks in 1191. William of TyreWilliam of Tyre (Latin prelate) William of Tyre, an archbishop and chronicler of the Crusades and the Middle Ages, left behind several works of interest to those studying this period and looking for a firsthand account of Seljuk Turk warfare. His account of the Crusades is bundled into the Recueil des historiens des Croisades (William of Tyre) Recueil des historiens des Croisades, a large collection of period documents. Matthew of EdessaMatthew of Edessa Matthew of Edessa, another period chronicler, provides information on the Harran, Battle of (1104) Battle of Harran (1104) as well as on the political climate of the day. The eleventh century History produced by Armenian historian Lastivertsi, AristakesLastivertsi, Aristakes Aristakes Lastivertsi contains a wealth of information about the events of that time, including the Seljuk invasions and the Manzikert, Battle of (1071) Battle of Manzikert in 1071.TurksSeljuk Turks

Books and Articles
  • Asbridge, Thomas. The First Crusade. New York: Free Press, 2005.
  • Contamine, Philippe. War in the Middle Ages. Translated by M. Jones. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991.
  • Jones, Archer. The Art of War in the Western World. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. The Ottoman Empire, 1326-1699. New York: Osprey, 2003.
  • Wise, Terrance, and Gerry A. Embleton. Armies of the Crusades. New York: Osprey, 1978.
Films and Other Media
  • Byzantine Era. Documentary. CreateSpace, 2009.
  • Byzantium: The Lost Empire. Documentary. Koch Vision, 2007.
  • Crusades: Crescent and the Cross. Documentary. History Channel, 2005.
  • Kingdom of Heaven. Feature film. Twentieth Century Fox, 2006.

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