The Turkification of Anatolia: tales of Rome's last conquerors
1,000 years on the western frontier of the Turkic world
The year 1066 marks the end of Anglo-Saxon England and the beginning of the Norman yoke, the last successful military invasion of the British Isles by a mainland European power, and the beginning of the transmogrification of Beowulf’s Anglo-Saxon into Shakespeare’s thoroughly French-steeped tongue. A quick Amazon search yields over 1,000 English history books covering the events of 1066. In contrast, the year 1071 yields only 12 entries for Middle Eastern history.
But this latter year was arguably far more momentous in world history than 1066; this is when in the shadow of Mount Ararat, the Seljuk Turks under Sultan Alp Arslan crushed Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV’s army at Manzikert. The Seljuk victory unleashed chaos in the Byzantine Empire; Romanus IV lost his throne, and Turks of the Oghuz tribes wasted no time in claiming the empire’s vast Anatolian heartland for themselves. Within a generation, the Seljuks had made the old core of the Byzantine Empire one of their permanent domains, the westernmost appendage of an empire as extensive as that of Darius the Great and Xerxes’ Persia, stretching from the Aegean to the borders of China. The linchpin of Alp Arslan’s possessions was Iran, but unbeknownst to him, it was out of Anatolia that the enduring influence of the Oghuz would radiate in the centuries to come.
Though in the long run, Byzantium would partially recover from the defeat at Manzikert, after 1071, it retrenched and reinvented itself as a Balkan power. To be sure, the erstwhile East Romans held onto the northwest quadrant of Anatolia, as well as coastal fringes like Trabzon in the northeast. But the Sultanate of Rum loomed over all of these territories, occupying the southwest, center and east of the peninsula, a constant menace to ancient Greek cities like Nicea and Smyrna. The term “Rum” is plainly a rendering of Rome; the Seljuks regarded themselves as rightful heirs to the East Roman Empire. When the Seljuk dynasty declined in the 1200’s, it was replaced by dozens of statelets locked in seemingly futile cycles of internecine warfare. But out of this maelstrom emerged a new paramount Anatolian power led by the Ottomans. This new parvenu dynasty would eventually take Constantinople, and make it the capital of their Empire. In 1453 AD, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror not only captured the most storied city in all of Christian Europe since the fall of Rome nearly 1,000 years earlier, ending Byzantium, but he also declared himself Qayser-i Rûm, the “Emperor of the Romans.”
Though the Turks originate in western Mongolia, and modern Turkic languages are distributed from the twilight shores of the Arctic Ocean to the Fertile Crescent’s sun-drenched deserts, today half the world’s Turkic speakers live in the Republic of Turkey, the vast majority in Anatolia. Alp Arslan’s Oghuz Turks conquered Anatolia without planning to (Seriously. What was initially just a reactive impulse to repeatedly swat back the aggressive Byzantines then relentlessly probing their shared frontiers unexpectedly culminated in capturing the emperor and a rebellion in the capital. So Arslan went with it. He pushed further into Anatolia almost with a shrug and the attitude that they had come so far, it would almost be rude not to.), but the peninsula was to be the Seljuk’s western redoubt once they lost Iran to a fresh wave of Turkic tribes from Central Asia less than a century after Manzikert. Though Iran and Iraq have significant Turkic-speaking minorities today, in all of the Middle East, Turkic-speakers are the ethnic majority only in Turkey. Turkey has also taken a leadership role among the newly independent Central Asian nations, offering refuge to many Uyghur nationalists driven out of China. Today it’s clear that Manzikert marked the beginning of the end of Indo-European languages’ more than 4,000-year dominance in Anatolia; Greek and Armenian fell into minority status in the face of Turkish cultural hegemony, and the westernmost peninsula of Asia became the frontier of a Turkic world stretching all the way to the edge of China.
And yet the question remains whether this transformation of Byzantine Anatolia into modern Turkey occurred through wholesale population replacement or acculturation of native Greek and Armenian people (or a mixture of both dynamics). Modern genetics tells us that the latter comes closest to the truth (with a few exceptions), and the Oghuz tribes were just a new stratum atop the older Greek and Armenian base. The acculturation process occurred through Islamization, followed by Turkification as the newly converted Muslims assimilated into the ethnolinguistic identity of their ruling elite.
The Turkic conquest of Anatolia was the latest salvo in a long-running civilizational war that would eventually bring the curtain down on more than a millennium of Christian and Greek hegemony over the lands between the Black and Mediterranean Seas. The Ottoman Empire’s rise brought Anatolia once more to the center of the civilized world; at its peak, Rome’s latest heir enjoyed dominion over lands stretching from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Caspian, and reaching north into Europe’s very heart, positioning the ghazi warriors of Islam to finally swallow up Christendom’s last remnants.
Fury out of the east
The Turks have been central to Eurasian history since the rise of Mongolia’s Xiongnu more than 2,000 years ago. Exploding out of the supercontinent’s brutally cold heartland, they wreaked havoc everywhere they went. In the far west, this began with the explosive arrival of the Huns after 300 AD. In the centuries to come, stray sorties turned into periodic, concerted bursts of violence as warriors sought both plunder and virgin pastureland. By 576 AD, the Turks figured as more than mobile marauders in the historical record for the first time; the Ashina clan of the Göktürk held territories stretching from the Sea of Azov in the west to Manchuria in the east.
After the collapse of the Ashina, various Turkic tribes rose to power and interposed themselves into the affairs of the settled peoples along the fringe of their steppe homelands. In the west, the Bulgars and Avars ruled over Slavic peoples into whom they were absorbed. To the east, the Uyghurs and Shatuo Turks became kingmakers, or in the case of the latter, literally the Emperors of China. But the Turks’ most significant impact was in the southwest where they initially trickled into the lands of Islam in the 9th century, becoming slave warriors to the Abbassid Caliphs. Within a century the dam broke and hordes of Central Asian pastoralists migrated into the Middle East, where, by 1000 AD, they had conquered vast swaths of the Dar-al-Islam. During their journeys, the Turks morphed from shamanist Siberian foragers on the edge of the Chinese Empire to masters of vast territories stretching from the Mediterranean to Korea. These western Turks would accrue the ancient titles of Padishah, Caesar and Caliph. Today the fruits of those diverging itineraries are visible in the faces of modern-day people who call themselves Turks, from the burghers of Ankara to the trappers of Yakutia.