Seljuk Empire: Origins, Formation, Rulers, & Facts

Seljuk Empire – Rise and Fall | Map: The Seljuk Empire at its peak around the year 1092

At its peak, the Seljuk Empire covered areas from western Anatolia, the Levant, and many areas in Central Asia. Brothers Tughril (990-1063) and Chaghri (989-1060) are credited with the formation of the Seljuk Empire in the 11th century AD. The territorial acquisitions of large parts of Anatolia by the Seljuks incurred the wrath of many Christians in Western and Eastern Europe. It’s been said that their expansion triggered the First Crusaders (1095-1099), whose goal was to recover those lost lands as well as the ones in the Holy Land that was at the time in the hands of Islamic rulers.

Seljuk Empire: Fast Facts

Period: High Middle Ages (1000-1250 AD)

Languages: Persian, Oghuz Turkic, Arabic

First Sultan: Toghrul I

Last Sultan: Toghrul III

Religion: Sunni Muslim

Founders: Tughril and Chagri

Area: 3,850,000 km2 (1,480,000 sq m)

The Seljuk dynasty

In the 10th century, a warlord from the Oghuz Turkic tribes known as Seljuk established the Seljuq dynasty. Seljuk is believed to have hailed from the Qiniq tribe, one of the numerous tribes that made up Oghuz Turkic people.

That same century, the descendants of Seljuk migrated to Khwarezm  (Chorasmia) in western Cenral Asia, where many of them became Muslims. After bloody power struggle in the region, the Seljuks became a dominant force. From Central Asia, the Seljuks headed into mainland Persia, particularly the province of Khurasan in eastern Iran, where they came into confrontation with the Ghaznavid Empire. Among the Seljuks that made their way to Iran in the early part of the 11th century included brothers Tughril and Chagri, the grandsons of the warlord Seljuk.

Formation of the Great Seljuk Empire

At the Battle of Nasa Plains in 1035, the Seljuks, led by warlords Chagri and Tughril, defeated the Ghaznavid dynasty, a Persianate Muslim dynasty of Turkic Mamluk origin. By the mid-11th century, they had gone on to become the dominant power in the region, supplanting the Ghaznavids. Their rule over Khurasan was given the approval by the Abbasid caliph al-Qa’im.

Out of those victories, the Seljuks were able to establish an empire that would later become the Great Seljuk Empire.

Expansion – Early Seljuks incursions into the Byzantine Empire

With the passage of about a decade since supplanting the Ghaznavids, the Seljuks turned their attention to the Byzantine frontier region of Iberia. The Battle of Kapetrou, which took place in September 1048, saw the Seljuks face off a Byzantine-Georgian army of more than 45,000. The Seljuk Empire came out on tops, leaving the Byzantine Empire extremely shocked. According to Ibn a-Athir, an Arab chronicler, the Seljuks returned from the battle with vast riches and several tens of thousands of captives.

Sultans of the Seljuk Empire

Sultans of the Seljuk Empire

Examples of famous Seljuk rulers (i.e. “Great Seljuks”) include Tughril, Alp Arslan, and Malik Shah I | Image (L-R): Alp Arslan and Tughril

The rulers of the Seljuk dynasty were known as the Great Seljuk. The first ruler of the Seljuk Empire was Tughril (c. 993-1063), who was born Abu Talib Muhammad Tughril ibn Mika’il. Tughril is regarded as the founder of the Seljuk Empire. Tughril, who co-ruled with his brother Chagri, was a powerful military leader who brought many Turkmen warriors of Central Asia under his control.

During Tughril’s reign, the Seljuks marched on many places in western Iran. Under the approval of the Abbasid caliph, Tughril captured the city of Baghdad, removing the Buyid dynasty from power.

Sultan Tughril

Tughril’s victory in Baghdad allowed him to unite the various Muslim tribes under the Sunni caliphate. | Image: Tughril’s portrait on Turkmenistan’s paper currency

Sultan Alp Arslan (reign – 1063-1072)

The great-grandson of founding father of the Seljuks, Sultan Alp Arslan is said to have secured the help of many Turkomen (Turkmen) during his quest to have full control of the Anatolian region. Alp inherited the throne upon the death of his father Sultan Tughril. Beginning in 1059, he served as the governor of Khorasan.

In his ascent to the throne, he had to fend of his uncle Kutalmish at the battle of Damghan in 1063. His deceased father had picked his younger brother Suleiman to be the next sultan. With the help vizier of Nizam al-Mulk, Alp was able to wrest the throne from his opponents.

Similarly when the time came for him to invade Armenia and Georgia in 1064, Sultan Alp Arslan relied heavily on Vizier Nizam. Alp also conquered Ani, the capital city of Armenia, after a 25-day siege.

Seljuk Empire

Alp Arslan’s conversation with Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes

After Sultan Alp and his Seljuk forces famously defeated the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Sultan captured Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes (c. 1030-1071). Romanos was humiliated while held captive by the Seljuks. Subsequently he was treated nicely and later freed. Unfortunately for the humiliated emperor, while he was held captive by the Seljuks, he was overthrown in a palace coup in Byzantium.

How Sultan Alp Arslan expanded the Seljuk Empire

When translated into Turkish, Sultan Alp Arslan’s name means “Heroic Lion”. His name certainly befits the feats that he accomplished. | Image: Statue of Alp Arslan

After Tughril’s death in 1063, his nephew Alp Arslan (son of Tughril’s brother Chaghri Beg) succeeded him to the throne. Alp Arslan continued in the footsteps of his father and uncle by expanding the boundaries of the Seljuk Empire into Armenia and Georgia in 1064. In the latter part of the 1060s, Arslan conquered the remaining part of Anatolia.

In 1071, he led his Seljuk warriors to victory over the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Manzikert. The victory in effect removed the influence Byzantium had in Anatolia.

To manage his ever growing empire, Sultan Alp Arslan divided his empire into territories, which were each governed by an atabeg (i.e. a governor) loyal only to the monarch. The Seljuks continued to expand as far as the Aegean Sea. Although the Byzantine Empire fell about four centuries later (in 1453), the defeat it suffered at the Battle of Manzikert marked the beginning of the end of Byzantium.

On November 24, 1072, he was killed by an enemy soldier during his campaign in Turkestan.

Malik Shah I (reign – 1072-1092)

Upon the death of Sultan Alp Arslan, his son and heir Malik Shah I became sultan of the Seljuk Empire. With the help of two viziers from the era of Sultan Alp – Nizam al-Mulk and Taj al-Mulk – Malik Shah I was able to intensify the Empire’s expansion into many places, including Iran, Byzantine Empire, and other Arab territories.

The golden age of Great Seljuk

Sultan Malik-Shah I (8 August 1055 – 19 November 1092) is credited with ushering in the golden age of Great Seljuk, a period that saw tremendous growth in the social and economic fortunes of the Seljuk Empire, as well territorial gains. Such was Malik-Shah I’s fame that the Abbasid Caliph described him as “The Sultan of the East and West” in 1087.

Also during Malik-Shah I’S reign, the capital was moved from Ray to Isfahan. Historians praise the sultan for investing quite heavily into education and science. His vizier Nizām al-Mulk established Nizāmīyyah University in Baghdad.

His reign was slightly perturbed by the rise in assassinations which were perpetrated by assassins (Order of Assassins, often referred to as the Hashshashin) under the command of Hassan-I Sabah. A number of Malik-Shah’s top officials fell at the hands of those assassins, including his most trusted advisor, Vizier Nizām al-Mulk,

Sultan Malik-Shah I died on November 19, 1092. His death came while hunting. It’s been said that he was most likely poisoned by one of the supporters of Nizam al-Mulk.

Onset of chaos and divisions in the Empire

The Seljuk Empire had its first major internal strife following the death of Sultan Malik-Shah I in 1092. In Anatolia, Kilij Arslan I succeeded the Sultan. In Syria, Malik’s brother Tutush I became sultan, and in Persia, his son Mahmud I took the reins of power. However, Mahmud I’s claim to the throne was contested by three other children of Malik – Barkiyaruq in Iraq, Ahmad Sanjar in Khorasan, and Muhammad I in Baghdad. Further divisions emerged following the death of Tutush I as his sons Duqaq and Radwan fought each other for control of Syria.

With all those divisions in the Seljuk Empire, the First Crusaders (1095-1099) hardly met any resistance when the crusaders run amok, seizing the territories of Syria and Palestine from Muslim control in 1098. By the following year, the crusaders had taken the Holy Land and established the first Crusader states in the Middle East. The Seljuks appeared not to be bothered as many factions fought each other to consolidate their reign.

The Seljuk Empire lost places like Nicaea (iznki), Iconium (Konya), Antioch (Antakya) to the Princes’ Crusade.

In some cases some independent atabegs in places that were formerly under firm control of the Seljuk Empire allied with the crusaders to fight against rival atabegs.

When the First Crusaders made their way into the Middle East, the leaders of the Seljuk Empire could not put a up a strong fight against the invaders as they did not have a united front against the crusaders. | Image: The leaders of the Crusade on Greek ships crossing the Bosporus, a romantic painting from the 19th century

Ultimate collapse

After the death of Sultan Ahmad Sanjar (ruler of Khorasan – 1097-1118; Seljuk Emperor – 1118-1157), bigger divisions and fractures appeared in the Seljuk Empire.

During the reign of Sultan Togrul III (reign – 1176 to 1194), the Abbasid caliph an-Nasir formed an alliance with the Khwarezmshah Takash. The Seljuk sultan suffered a humiliated defeat at the hands of Takash, the Shah of Khwarezmid Empire.

It did not take too long for the Seljuk Empire to collapse. The empire was survived by only the Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia.

The Seljuk Empire is said to have reached its peak during the reign of Sultan Malikshah I.

List of Sultans of the Seljuk Empire (1037-1194)

Sultan Reign
Toghrul-Beg (c. 990-1063) 1037-1063
Alp Arslan (1029-1072) 1063-1072
Malik-Shah I (1056-1092) 1072-1092
Mahmud I (1087-1094) 1092-1094
Barkiyaruq (1181-1105) 1094-1105
Malik-Shah II
Tapar (1082-1118) 1105-1118
Mahmud II (1105-1131) 1118-1131
Sanjar (1085-1157) 1118-1153
Dawud 1131-1132
Tughril II (1109-1134) 1132-1134
Masud (1108-1152) 1134-1152
Malik-Shah III 1152-1153
Muhammad-Shah (1128-1159) 1153-1159
Suleiman-Shah 1159-1161
Arslan-Shah 1161-1176
Toghrul III (1168-1194) 1st reign – 1176-1191

2nd reign – 1192-1194

Qizil Arslan 1191

More Seljuk Empire Facts

As the Seljuk Empire increased in size, Sultan Alp Arslan and his viziers came up with a governance system of Atabek/Atabey/Atabeg (i.e. governor) to steer the affair of the various principalities in the empire.

The gains made by the Seljuk Empire in eastern Anatolia likely triggered the First Crusade (1095-1099).

Examples of rulers to hold the title of Sultan of Seljuk Empire include Malik Shah I (reign – 1072-1092), Mahmud bin Malik Shah (reign- 1092-1094), and Muhammad I Tapar (1105-1118).

During the reigns of Alp-Arslan and Malik-Shah, the Seljuq Empire grew to cover all of Syria, Palestine, Iran and many other Mesopotamian areas.

Alp-Arslan famously defeated the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Manzikert. He also took into custody the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogenes.

Sultan Alp Arslan married one of the widows of his uncle Tughril – Akka Khatun – in 1063.

The Seljuk Empire reached its peak around the year 1092, just shortly after the death of Sultan Malik-Shah I (r. 1072-1092).

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