The Seljuk Empire (1050–1300 AD) was a medieval Turkish Empire based in central Anatolia. The pastoralist Turks overtook Asia Minor during the 1070’s and ruled until 1300. The Seljuks left a rich historical legacy. They brought Turkic culture and Islam into Anatolia, and later morphed into the Ottoman Empire.
Seljuk Turks descend from the tribe of Oghuz Turkish on the Central Asian steppes. They were fierce nomadic warriors who fought with composite bows on horseback. After they accepted Islam in the mid-900’s, kingdoms along the Silk Road invited these mercenary fighters to help control profitable trade routes. In the 1040’s, the Oghuz Turks conquered Persia and Baghdad to form their own kingdom. Their leader, Toghrul Bey, become the “sultan”—protector of all Muslims. The empire was ethnically Turkish but relied upon educated Persians to administer the empire and Muslim Arabs to provide religious legitimacy.
In the 1060’s, these Turks attacked a weakened Byzantine Empire in Eastern Anadolu. At the Battle of Manzikert (north of Lake Van) in 1071, the Turkish leader Arp-Arslan defeated the Byzantine king. This opened the door for Turkish pastoralists to enter and settle all of Anatolia.
Byzantine emperors gladly welcomed the Turkish warriors to help them fight a civil war, but the Seljuk Turks quickly seized cities for themselves. By 1081, Turkish tribes controlled most of the Anatolian plateau, securing grasslands perfect for their pastoralist lifestyle.
The empire was centered in Konya. This Anatolian Seljuk Empire is also known as the “Sultanate of Rum.” The Arabic word rum was the historical name for the region of Central Anatolia.
Crusaders and Christians
To retake Anatolia cities from the Seljuks, Byzantine kings in Constantinople invited Western Europeans to fight against Muslims, an event known as The Crusades. To raise up an army of Western knights, Pope Urban II in Rome resorted to fear mongering and racists tropes against “The Turks.” Throughout the 1100’s, the Seljuk Turks in Konya constantly fought against Western Crusaders and Byzantine Emperors, but they retained control of the interior of Asia Minor. These constant battles destroyed the Byzantine structures and institutions of Anatolia, thus creating an environment favorable to the Turks pastoralist and decentralized lifestyle. The Byzantine Empire had hoped the Turks would convert to Christianity like other tribesmen in the Balkans, but the Seljuk Turks maintained their Islamic identity as a nation.
Byzantine Christians in Cappadocia, under the Seljuk reign, faced various fates. They would have fled westward to Constantinople, remained as a minority group, or converted to Islam. Consequently, the few cave churches constructed during this era— Karşı Kilise (Gülşehir), Kırk Damatlı Kilise (Ihlara), and Ağaçaltı Kilise (Soğanlı)— incorporate some Turkish art styles.
The Seljuk Empire expanded in the early 1200’s to the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea. Then Mongol hoards invaded and destroyed the Middle East. Many Persians and Arabs fled into Seljuk lands to avoid the dreaded Mongol army. This migration destabilized the Seljuks cultural and political institutions. In the 1240’s, the Mongols entered Anatolia, obliterated the Turkish tribes, and made the Seljuks a small vassal state. After this point, the Turkish tribes of Anatolia disintegrated into small emirates and beyliks. Eventually one Turkish tribe of Osman united the region, conquered Constantinople, and established the Ottoman Empire.
The Seljuk Empire brought significant social changes to the region. Anatolia had been Christian for 800 years and Hellenistic for 1,500 years, but with the Seljuks, Anatolia became “Islamicized” and “Orientalized.” This eastward religious and cultural orientation endures with the modern state of Turkey. Linguistically, the Turkish language replaced Greek as the popular language as well.
In the early 1200’s, the Seljuk developed an advanced political state. They invited many Persian and Arab leaders into the legal, political, and religious system. They also utilized local Greek Christian artisans to build monumental structures.
The sultans of Konya built a string of 100 caravansaries in Anatolia to facilitate trade. A caravansary was a rock-built palace with a large courtyard, designed to protect caravan traders traveling the Silk Road. These safe, ornate structures were spaced one day’s travel apart and attracted many merchants. The profitable trade allowed the Seljuks to develop commercial banking and urban centers.
The Muslim sultans of Konya converted the Christian cities of Byzantium into Islamic urban centers. Seljuk mosques incorporated the floor plan of basilica churches with Islamic architectural design. The central point of Seljuk cities was the educational center called medrese. These structures have large courtyards, two minarets, and porcelain tile decorations. Next to the medrese, Seljuk rulers built public bathhouses (hamam) and soup kitchens (imarethane).
Religion in the Seljuk Empire was a local expression of Islam. For example, central Turkey has over 3,000 turbes, mausoleum-like grave tombs for popular religious figures. These pilgrimage sites expanded Islam into the Seljuk countryside.
The most important religious figure of the Seljuk period was Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi (1207–73), a Sufi mystic-poet from Persia who lived in the Seljuk capital of Konya. His expression of Islam emphasized personal mysticism, religious tolerance, and divine unity. Rumi wrote famous poetry about his mystical experiences and started an ascetic religious order known as the “whirling dervishes.” This mystical religious order integrated traditional Turkish folk dances and music into worship. His large burial temple (turbe) stands in the center of Konya, which remains an important religious city in Turkey.
Although the Seljuk Empire met its demise around 1300, its cultural and religious transformations continue to define Anatolian region. The successor states of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic are heavily indebted—socially, economically, and religiously— to the Seljuk Empire.