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Thursday, September 12, 2019

Seljuks - The Crusaders' Prime Enemy

When the Crusaders invaded the Near East at the end of the 11th century, they entered a complex world already fragmented by political rivalries, ethnic divisions, and religious conflict. Far from breaking in upon a peaceful Arab society enjoying a golden age of scientific progress and artistic creativity, they confronted a cauldron of unrest which had seen Jerusalem change hands four times in the thirty years before the Crusaders arrived. The Golden Age of Arab Enlightenment was already a distant memory, and the Levant had become a battleground between the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo and the protectors of the Abbasid Caliphate in Damascus. At the heart of those tensions were the Seljuks whose arrival in the Near East in the first half of the 11th century disrupted previous power structures. 
Today I take a closer look at the Seljuks and their impact on the Levant.  

Central Asia was the home to a large number of nomadic tribes characterized by a warlike nature, which made them excellent fighters and mercenaries, and a mobile lifestyle suited to both following the grass for their herds -- and invading other territories. Historians believe, for example, that the "Huns" were simply one of many Turkic tribes that migrated to the west with devastating effect. The Bulgars were another. There were also Peshenegs, Uzes and Kumans.  Most of these tribes stayed north of the Black Sea, but one tribe led by a certain Seljuk chose to move south through what is now Iran to establish an empire that stretched across the Near East down to the Persian Gulf and to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. 

This tribe had been converted to Sunni Islam in the second half of the tenth century and in 1055 the Sunni Caliph in Baghdad summoned the (Sunni) Seljuks to liberate him from his Shia protectors, the Buyids. This they successfully did, making their leader at the time, Tugrul Beg, the "Sultan" -- i.e. the secular protector of the religious leader, the Caliph. Tugrul Beg died in 1063 and was succeeded by his nephew Alp Arslan, who delivered a crippling defeat to the Byzantine army under Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes at Manzikert in 1071. 

Although Alp Arslan died not long afterward in 1073, his victory over the Byzantines had the effect of opening all of Anatolia to Seljuk conquest and settlement. Furthermore, the Seljuk victory sparked the appeal to the West for aid that culminated in the First Crusade.  Meanwhile, Alp Arslan's successor Malik-Shah moved deeper into Western Syria (Aleppo) and also seized Antioch. However, on the death of Malik-Shah in 1092 the Seljuk empire fragmented among competing rivals and feuding between various warlords.  

Furthermore, the move to the Mediterranean, occupying roughly what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, also brought the Seljuks into direct conflict with the Fatimids based in Cairo. The importance of this confrontation cannot be overstated. 

As Niall Christie explains in his excellent history Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources:

"...this conflict had religious as well as political dimensions. This was not merely a conflict over territory fought between two Muslim powers. The Seljuks, as Sunnis, sought to present themselves as the defenders and promoters of the true faith against dangerous heretics who had taken control of a disturbingly large amount of territory and posed a real threat to the Abbasid caliphate... The Fatimids, in the meantime, saw themselves as the representatives of the true line of caliphs, and saw the Seljuks as supporting a heretical pretender whose ancestors had usurped power in the eighth century. Thus the Levant was the site of struggle between two powers, each of which regarded the other as a legitimate target of holy war fought on behalf of Islam. [1]

In short, jihad was already on the agenda of these powers, but to fight one another. 

Leading crusades scholar Christopher Tyerman points out that: "It was precisely because the Near East was already a scene of violence, competition, disruption and dislocation that [the Crusaders] prevailed at all."[2] 

Obviously, this means that the popular notion that the First Crusade shattered the "irenic peace of a stable, sophisticated and tolerant Arab Muslim world"[3] is wrong -- a fact underlined by the response of contemporary Muslim observers, who "by the 1090s [were] only too familiar with alien foreign conquerors and overlords." [4]

The latter is a vitally important point. Christie summarizes the situation as follows: 
" is important to remember that the region was one in which populations were ruled by people who were in the minority, and often ethnically or religiously different from them. In Egypt, the Fatimids, who were Isma'ili Shi'ites, ruled over a population that was mostly Sunni Muslim, Christian and Jewish. The Fatimid armies in the meantime, consisted of a mix of Nubians, Berbers, Turks and Armenians, all of whom had been imported at one point or another and thus were foreigners in the eyes of the Egyptian population. The Sunni Muslim Turkish Seljuks, in the meantime, based their power above all on Turkish mamluks and Turkomen troops, using them to maintain power over a population that in the Levant consisted largely of Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Christians and Jews from a wide range of ethnicities incuding Turks, Kurds and Arabs.[5]
Christie is actually understating the situation. To the inhabitants of the Levant, the Seljuks -- like the Arabs before them -- represented an alien occupation. Historians from Ellenblum to Jotischky and MacEvitt now believe that more than 50% of the population of the territories later incorporated into the crusader states was Christian. Professor Tyerman points out that "Surviving crusaders' letters and early narratives suggest [the Crusaders] quickly grasped the divided circumstances of the Seljuk princes and how they had terrorised the indigenous peoples of the region."[6]

Thus, while the Seljuks proved formidable foes, whom the Crusaders came to respect as one does a difficult opponent, their oppressive and divided rule also provided the opportunity for Crusader success. It was a situation that the Crusaders effectively exploited for three generations before the Kurdish leader Saladin forged new unity across the Near East. 

Throughout my Award-winning "Jerusalem" trilogy and my newer books, the Islamic enemy is depicted as realistically as possible.

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.

She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick and the barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

[1] Niall Christie.  Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources. [London: Routledge, 2014], 15.
[2] Christopher Tyerman. The World of the Crusades. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019], 31.
[3] Tyerman, 31.
[4] Tyerman, 41.
[5] Christie, 16.
[6] Tyerman, 56.

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