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Gonzalo Roa
Gonzalo Roa

The Seljuk Legacy: How They Influenced the Modern World

Seljuk: The Rise and Fall of a Turco-Persian Empire

The Seljuk Empire was one of the most powerful and influential states in the medieval Islamic world. It spanned from Anatolia to Central Asia, from the Levant to the Persian Gulf, and from the 11th to the 13th century. It was founded by a branch of Oghuz Turks who converted to Islam and allied with the Abbasid Caliphate. It challenged the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia, defended Islam against the Crusaders in Syria, supported Sunni orthodoxy against Shiism, patronized Persian culture and literature, and fostered a remarkable civilization that left a lasting legacy in art, architecture, education, and law. However, it also faced internal divisions, external invasions, and political fragmentation that led to its eventual demise. In this article, we will explore the history, culture, society, achievements, decline, and legacy of the Seljuk Empire.


Who were the Seljuks and where did they come from? What were their main achievements and contributions to Islamic civilization? What were the causes and consequences of their decline and collapse? These are some of the questions that we will try to answer in this article. But first, let us define what we mean by the Seljuk Empire.


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The term Seljuk refers to a dynasty of rulers who belonged to a branch of Oghuz Turks called Qïnïq. They traced their ancestry to a chief named Seljuk, who lived in the 10th century near the Aral Sea. The name Seljuk also applies to their followers, who were mostly nomadic or semi-nomadic tribesmen who spoke Oghuz Turkic languages. The term Seljuk Empire, however, is a modern convention that encompasses several political entities that were ruled by different members of the Seljuk family or their descendants. These entities include:

  • The Great Seljuk Empire (10371194), which covered most of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Anatolia, and Palestine.

  • The Sultanate of Rum (10771308), which was an independent state in Anatolia that emerged after the Battle of Manzikert (1071) and contested with the Byzantine Empire.

  • The Sultanate of Kerman (10411186), which was a semi-autonomous state in southeastern Iran that was ruled by a cadet branch of the Seljuk dynasty.

  • Other smaller states or principalities that were founded by Seljuk governors or generals in various regions such as Syria, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Anatolia, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, etc.

In this article, we will focus mainly on the Great Seljuk Empire as it was the most prominent and influential among these states. We will also briefly mention some aspects of the other Seljuk states when relevant.

The Origins and Expansion of the Seljuk EmpireThe Origins and Expansion of the Seljuk Empire

The Seljuk Empire was founded by Tughril Beg, a grandson of Seljuk, who united the various Oghuz tribes under his leadership and established his capital at Nishapur in northeastern Iran in 1037. He was recognized as the sultan (ruler) by the Abbasid caliph al-Qa'im in 1055, after he entered Baghdad and expelled the Shi'ite Buyid dynasty that had dominated the caliphate for over a century. Tughril Beg thus became the protector and ally of the Sunni Abbasid caliphate, which granted him legitimacy and prestige among the Muslim world.

Tughril Beg's successor, Alp Arslan (10631072), expanded the Seljuk Empire to its greatest extent. He conquered Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and parts of Anatolia from the Byzantine Empire, which he defeated decisively at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. He also annexed Khwarezm (modern-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) and Khorasan (northeastern Iran and northern Afghanistan) from the Ghaznavid Empire, which he defeated at the Battle of Dandanaqan in 1040. He also faced the Fatimid Caliphate, a rival Shi'ite state that controlled Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, and fought against them in several battles. Alp Arslan was known for his courage, generosity, justice, and tolerance. He was also a patron of culture and learning, and supported many scholars and poets at his court.

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Alp Arslan's son, Malik Shah (10721092), continued his father's policies and achievements. He consolidated the Seljuk Empire and maintained peace and stability within its borders. He reformed the administration, taxation, coinage, and law of the empire, and appointed a famous Persian vizier (prime minister), Nizam al-Mulk, who was also a renowned scholar and statesman. He also promoted the development of science, philosophy, theology, literature, and art in his realm, and founded many madrasahs (Islamic colleges) that attracted students from all over the Muslim world. He also supported the astronomical observatory in Isfahan, where Omar Khayyam, a famous Persian poet and mathematician, worked on the reform of the calendar. Malik Shah also sponsored the construction of many mosques, caravanserais (roadside inns), bridges, canals, and hospitals throughout his empire.

The Culture and Society of the Seljuk Empire

The Seljuk Empire was a remarkable example of a Turco-Persian synthesis, where Turkish and Persian elements blended harmoniously in various aspects of culture and society. The Seljuks were originally nomadic Turks who adopted Islam and Persian culture as they settled in Iran and Iraq. They spoke Oghuz Turkic languages as their mother tongue, but they also learned Persian as the language of administration, literature, and diplomacy. They respected the Persian heritage and traditions, and employed many Persian officials, scholars, poets, artists, and craftsmen at their courts. They also patronized Persian schools of thought such as Ash'arism (a Sunni theological school) and Sufism (a mystical branch of Islam).

The Seljuks were also instrumental in reviving Sunni Islam in the regions that had been dominated by Shi'ism or heterodoxy for a long time. They supported the Abbasid caliphate as the symbol of Sunni authority and unity, and defended it against its enemies such as the Fatimids, the Buyids, the Qarmatians, and the Ismailis. They also established madrasahs (Islamic colleges) that taught Sunni jurisprudence (fiqh), theology (kalam), hadith (traditions of Muhammad), Quranic exegesis (tafsir), logic (mantiq), philosophy (falsafa), and other sciences. The most famous madrasah was the Nizamiyya in Baghdad, which was founded by Nizam al-Mulk in 1065. It was attended by many eminent scholars such as al-Ghazali (a renowned theologian and philosopher), al-Juwayni (a leading jurist), al-Bayhaqi (a prominent historian), and al-Mawardi (a distinguished political scientist).

The Seljuks were also known for their architectural and artistic achievements that reflected their cultural diversity and creativity. They built many mosques that combined Turkish and Persian styles such as the Masjid-i Jami' (Friday Mosque) in Isfahan and the Masjid-i Jami' (Friday Mosque) in Nain. They also built many caravanserais (roadside inns) that facilitated trade and travel along the Silk Road, such as the Ribat-i Sharaf in Khorasan. They also developed a distinctive style of pottery that featured geometric and floral motifs, calligraphy, and luster glaze, such as the Kashan ware. They also excelled in metalwork, woodwork, leatherwork, and textile production, and created many beautiful objects such as candlesticks, bowls, chests, belts, and carpets.

The Decline and Disintegration of the Seljuk Empire

The Seljuk Empire reached its peak under Malik Shah, but after his death in 1092, it began to decline and disintegrate. The main reasons for this were:

  • The succession disputes and civil wars among the Seljuk princes, who fought for power and territory. The empire was divided into several rival states that competed with each other and weakened the central authority.

The external threats from the Crusaders, Mongols, and Khwarazmians, who invaded and conquered parts of the Seljuk lands. The Crusaders launched


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