Among the reasons given to justify the First Crusade, the Turkish conquest in the East figures prominently. First slaves in the Abbasid armies, the Turks gained political importance during the tenth century, and some of them, thanks to the title of sultan given by the caliph, managed to carve out principalities and to extend Turkish influence to Syria and Anatolia. Among these Turkish peoples, the Seljuks, who during the 11th century asserted their authority over the region, going so far as to threaten Byzantium. It is precisely this struggle between the Seljuks and the Byzantines that culminates in the battle of Manzikert. For what consequences?
The Seljuks masters of the Muslim East?
The Turks were in Islam, until the 11th century, military slaves (Mamluks). From the 9th century, they formed the bulk of the Caliph Guard and their wives populated the harems of Baghdad. It was then various nomadic Turkish peoples who began to settle in the Muslim East, entering the service of the Caliph and becoming Islamized. The Abbasid caliphate was weakened in the tenth century, and soon came under the tutelage of the Buyid Shiites, which made it easier for the Turks to settle. Some of the latter take important positions in the army, but also in the administration, sometimes with the title of vizier.
Among the Turkish peoples who became influential during the 11th centuries are the Oghuz, led by Seldjouk (who will therefore give his name to the dynasty). During the 1030s, they undermined the domination of the Ghaznavids and Buyids in the East, and in 1055 they imposed themselves by force as protectors of the Abbasid caliph al-Qâ'im, when their sultan Tughrîlbeg (or Tuğrul Bey) entered Baghdad. They hold the de facto power, driving the Buyids out of the Abbasid capital.
However, the Seljuk push does not stop in Iraq. Tuğrul Bey's successor, Alp Arslân (sultan in 1063), dismisses his rivals and advances further west, particularly towards Anatolia. It also threatens Syria and the possessions of Baghdad's rival caliphate, that of the Cairo Fatimids. On the eve of the battle of Manzikert, the Seldjoukids are therefore in full swing to conquer.
A weakened Byzantine Empire
The 11th century means for Byzantium the return of internal divisions. In fact, Basil II left no heir when he died in 1025. A competition began to create a new dynasty capable of succeeding that of the Macedonians. After the brother of Basil II, Constantine VIII, it was the latter's daughters who "made" the emperors, and instability left to last for half a century, despite the relatively long reign of Constantine IX Monomachus (1042-1055) . The struggle opposes large aristocratic factions, including the Macedonians of course, but also the Diogenes or in Constantinople the Comnenus. It is precisely a representative of this last dynasty, Isaac Comnenus, who imposed himself for a time in 1057, thanks to the support of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michel Cérulaire (famous for his role in the schism with Rome in 1054). But quickly worn out despite its qualities, it must give way to Constantin X Doukas barely two years later!
The reign of the new emperor is not easy, because the Byzantine Empire is still in a difficult situation, besieged almost perpetually by attackers from all sides: Pechenegs, Normans, and soon Turks. The latter became even more threatening from the 1060s. It was at this time that Constantine X died (in 1067); his wife Eudoxie succeeds him as regent, with their child Michel VII Doukas as emperor. But Eudoxie quickly remarried Romain Diogenes, who finally held the de facto imperial power. Romain IV Diogenes then decides to establish his uncertain legitimacy by launching offensives against external enemies, in particular the Seljuk Turks. This is what will lead to the Battle of Manzikert.
The Battle of Manzikert, an announced disaster?
Turkish raids in Anatolia began as early as the 1050s, with raids launched by the Turcomans. Already in 1054, Tuğrul Bey was stopped in front of the fortress of… Manzikert, pushed back by Basile Apokapès and a garrison of Frankish mercenaries.
When Romain IV Diogenes came to power in Constantinople, the Seljuks turned to their great rival, the Fatimids. Sultan Alp Arslân attacked the Syrian city of Aleppo, and is not currently concerned with Byzantine Anatolia. He conquered the Manzikert fortress in early 1071, but signed a truce with the Byzantines to turn to Syria. The Byzantine emperor took advantage of this time to complete the training and equipment of his army (about 70,000 men), and to prepare for his offensive.
After having crossed the Bosphorus in March 1071, the basileus decides to divide his army in two, which seems to have been his big mistake. Indeed, its best troops, headed by strategist Joseph Tarchaniotès, were sent to the North to reinforce the army of the Norman mercenary Roussel de Bailleul; some sources then speak of a defeat following a surprise attack by Alp Arslân, others evoke a betrayal of the strategist and the Norman, perhaps influenced by the Doukas, supporters of the young Michel VII, put away from the power through his stepfather and his mother Eudoxie. Either way, and although he easily recaptured Manzikert, the basileus finds himself weakened as the Turks abandoned the siege of Aleppo and turned to the Byzantines.
Very quickly the army of Romain IV Diogenes was harassed by the Seljuk archers, even in the middle of the night. Yet, oddly enough, the Sultan does not seem sure of his strength, especially in a pitched battle, and he attempts a negotiation. Without success. Indeed, the emperor needs this victory, not only to ward off the Turkish danger but also to legitimize his power and enter Constantinople as a victor. The armies then put themselves in order of battle.
On August 26, 1071, the basileus placed his army (probably more than 50,000 men) in a long, deep line of several ranks, with the cavalry on the flanks. The emperor is surrounded by various generals, including the talented Nicephore Bryenne and, more surprisingly, Constantine X's nephew, Andronicus Doukas, who does not hide his contempt for him. For their part, the Seljuks (an army of 30,000 men, mainly cavalry) let the Greek army advance and formed a crescent, causing their archers to gallop on the Byzantine flanks which found themselves sprayed with arrows.
The Byzantine emperor, located at the center of his army, is quickly frustrated by this refusal of frontal combat on the part of Alp Arslân. Night is near, and he decides to turn back; Now is the time the Sultan chooses to launch his attack! The versions therefore differ: was the basileus betrayed by Andronicus Doukas, who would have spread the rumor of his death? Did Greek troops ambush as they turned back? The result is the same: the Byzantine army is completely disorganized by the attack of the Sultan, who drives the point home with a general assault. The nobles, around Andronicus Doukas, quickly give up the fight and flee with most of the mercenaries. Only Nicéphore Bryenne's left wing resisted and managed to support the center and Romain IV Diogenes, avoiding total disorganization and arguably many more losses (which would have had even more dramatic consequences). The basileus is unfortunately injured and loses his horse: he must surrender to the Turks.
The consequences for the Byzantines
With the Emperor captured, there is no greater humiliation for the Empire. The situation is more complicated, however: the questionable legitimacy of the basileus can quickly settle the matter. This does not prevent the Sultan from treating his prisoner well and accepting payment of an affordable ransom.
Thus, Romain IV Diogenes can return to Constantinople, but he will not enter it hoping for triumph. On the contrary, he is welcomed by the supporters of Michel VII Doukas, determined to assert his right to the imperial throne and finally succeed his father. The emperor in place but defeated is imprisoned, his eyes are gouged out, he is locked up in a monastery where he dies shortly after. His wife, however mother of the new emperor Michael VII Doukas, is sent into exile.
The deposition and death of Romain IV Diogenes does not mean the end of the problems for the Empire. Political instability remains, the economic crisis deepens and despite the lenient conditions offered by Alp Arslân after the battle of Manzikert, the Turkish advance in Armenia and Anatolia is confirmed in the following years. It was not until the advent of Alexis Comnenus in 1081, ten years after Manzikert, for the bleeding to stop.
Manzikert and the Seljuk conquests
If on the Byzantine side the defeat of Manzikert was an earthquake, on the Turkish side we quickly moved on to something else. Alp Arslân’s main objective remains the war against the Fatimids. However, soon after his victory in Armenia, he must travel to the east of his empire to fight revolts, and he is assassinated in Transoxiana.
He is succeeded by his son Malik Shah, who is even more successful. He establishes Seljuk power in Iraq, then conquers nothing less than Mecca, Yemen, Damascus, Aleppo and finally Baghdad, between 1072 and 1087! On the other hand, in Anatolia the Seljuks let the Turcomans settle.
The death of Malik Shah in 1092 nevertheless signified the end of the Seljuk expansion. The succession quarrels, the power of the local emirs, the Fatimids still present, then the relative Byzantine revival with Alexis Comnenus lead to a new fragmentation of the Middle East on the eve of the call to the Crusade of Urban II, in 1095 .
A pretext for the Crusade?
Among the arguments given to Pope Urban II for launching the First Crusade on November 27, 1095, the Turkish threat and more particularly its military symbol, Manzikert, are often advanced. The Turks have a bad reputation, even in the West, not only through the Byzantines but also the Fatimids. We hear in the West that they would make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem more difficult, that crossing Anatolia would have become almost impossible. Worse, during their occupation of Jerusalem, they would have persecuted Christians, like the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim at the beginning of the 11th century (he had burned the Holy Sepulcher).
However, the argument seems unlikely. The Seljuk conquest, on the contrary, for a time stabilized the region, and it seems that they even re-established the rights of minorities, including Christians. These minorities do not suffer either from the quarrels between Turks, and they escape the massacres which follow the revolt of Jerusalem against the Turcomans in 1076. But the image of Manzikert remains, added to striking anecdotes, like this Seljuk who shoots an arrow in the ceiling of the Holy Sepulcher. The voices of Eastern Christians, who salute Seljuk policy (as the author of The History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria), do not reach the West and the crusade is well underway, to save Byzantium and liberate the Holy Sepulcher from the Infidels, of which the Turks then represent the most shared image.
The battle of Manzikert is therefore a milestone on several levels: for Byzantium, for Eastern Islam and the Turks, and for the West since it is one of the causes (many and under debate) of the First crusade.
- J-C Cheynet, Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, A. Colin, 2006.
- C. Picard, The Muslim world from the 11th to the 15th century, A. Colin, 2001.
- P. Jansen, A. Nef, C. Picard, The Mediterranean between the countries of Islam and the Latin world (mid 10th to mid 13th century), Sedes, 2000.