Who Were the Seljuks?

Seljuk Sultan Sanjars Tomb
Michael Runkel via Getty Images

The Seljuk (pronounced "sahl-JOOK," and variously transliterated as Seldjuq, Seldjuk, or al-Salajiqa) refers to two branches of a dynastic Sunni (maybe, scholars are torn) Muslim Turkish confederation that ruled much of Central Asia and Anatolia in the 11th–14th centuries CE. The Great Seljuk Sultanate was based in Iran, Iraq, and central Asia from between about 1040–1157. The Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, which is what the Muslims called Anatolia, was based in Asia Minor between 1081–1308. The two groups were strikingly different in complexity and control, and they did not get along due to disputes between them over who was the legitimate leadership.

The Seljuks called themselves a dynasty (dawla), sultanate (saltana), or kingdom (mulk); it was only the central Asian branch who grew to empire status. 

Origins of Seljuk

The Seljuk family has its origins with the Oghuz (Turkish Ghuzz) who lived in 8th century Mongolia during the Gok Turk Empire (522–774 CE). The Seljuk name (in Arabic "al-Saljuqiyya"), comes from the long-lived family's founder Seljuk (ca. 902–1009). Seljuk and his father Duqaq were military commanders of the Khazar state and may well have been Jewish—most of the Khazar elites were. Seljuk and Duqaq revolted against Khazar apparently in conjunction with a successful attack by the Rus' in 965 which ended the Khazar state.

Seljuk and his father (and about 300 horsemen, 1,500 camels, and 50,000 sheep) headed for Samarkand, and in 986 arrived in Jand near modern Kyzylorda in the northwest of modern Kazakhstan, when the region was in significant turmoil. There Seljuk converted to Islam, and he died at the age of 107. His elder son Arslan Isra'il (d. 1032) took over leadership; becoming embroiled in local politics he was arrested. The arrest exascerbated an already-existing division between Seljuk supporters: a few thousand called themselves the 'Iraqiyya and migrated westward to Azerbaijan and eastern Anatolia, eventually forming the Seljuk sultanate; many more remained in Khurasan, and after many battles, went on to establish the Great Seljuk Empire.

The Great Seljuk Empire

The Great Seljuk Empire was a central Asian empire that to some degree controlled an area from Palestine on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to Kashgar in western China, far larger than competing Muslim empires such as the Fatimids in Egypt and the Almoravids in Morocco and Spain.

The empire was founded in Nishapur, Iran around 1038 CE, when the branch of Seljuk descendants arrived; by 1040, they had seized Nishapur and all of modern eastern Iran, Turkmenistan, and northern Afghanistan. Eventually there would come to be an eastern and western half, with the eastern based at Merv, in modern Turkmenistan, and the western in Rayy (near modern day Tehran), Isfahan, Baghdad, and Hamadhan.

Bound together by the Islamic religion and traditions, and at least nominally subject to the Abbasid caliphate (750–1258) of the Islamic empire, the Great Seljuk empire was made up of an astoundingly diverse range of religious, linguistic, and ethnic groups, including Muslims, but also Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. Scholars, pilgrims, and merchants used the ancient Silk Road and other transportation networks to maintain contact.

The Seljuks intermarried with Persians and adopted many aspects of the Persian language and culture. By 1055, they controlled all of Persia and Iraq as far as Baghdad. The Abbasid caliph, al-Qa'im, awarded the Seljuk leader Toghril Beg the title sultan for his assistance against a Shi'a adversary.

Seljuk Turks

Far from a monolithic, unified state, the Seljuk sultanate remained a loose confederation in what is today Turkey was called "Rum" (meaning "Rome"). The Anatolian ruler was known as the Sultan of Rum. The territory, controlled by the Seljuks between 1081–1308, was never exactly defined, and it never included all of what is today modern Turkey. Large parts of coastal Anatolia remained in the hands of various Christian rulers (Trebizond on the northern coast, Cilicia on the southern coast, and Nicaea on the western coast), and the piece that the Seljuks controlled was most of the central and southeastern part, including parts of what is today the states of Syria and Iraq.

Seljuk capitals were at Konya, Kayseri, and Alanya, and each of those cities included at least one palace complex, where the sultan and his household lived and held court.

Collapse of the Seljuks

The Seljuk Empire may have begun to weaken as early as 1080 CE, when underlying internal tensions broke out between the sultan Malikshah and his vizier Nizam al Mulk. The death or assassination of both men in October 1092 led to the fragmenting of the empire as rival sultans battled one another for another 1,000 years.

By the 12th century, the remaining Seljuks were targets of the Crusaders from western Europe. They lost much of the eastern part of their empire to Khwarezm in 1194, and the Mongols finished off the Seljuk remnant kingdom in Anatolia in the 1260s.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Basan, Osman Aziz. "The Great Seljuks in Turkish Historiography." University of Edinburgh, 2002. 
  • Peacock, A. C. S. "The Great Seljuk Empire." Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015. 
  • Peacock, A. C. S., and Sara Nur Yildiz, eds. "The Seljuks of Anatolia: Court and Society in the Medieval Middle East." London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. 
  • Polczynski, Michael. "Seljuks on the Baltic: Polish-Lithuanian Muslim Pilgrims in the Court of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman I." Journal of Early Modern History 19.5 (2015): 409–37. 
  • Shukarov, Rustam. "Trebizond and the Seljuks (1204-1299)." Mésogeios 25–26 (2005): 71–136.