Arslan, Alp

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Alp Arslan

c. 1026
Khorasan, Persia

November 24, 1072
Turkestan, Central Asia

Military leader and second Seljuk Turkish sultan of Persia and Iraq

"Never have I invaded any country or attacked any enemy without seeking God's help in the plan. Yesterday, however, ... I said to myself, 'Now I am master of the world and no-one can stand against me.' Now God has undone me through the least of his creatures."

—Alp Arslan; quoted in The Annals of the Saljuq Turks.

Alp Arslan (ruled 1063–72), second of the powerful Seljuk sultans (Turkish leaders), was indirectly responsible for beginning the Crusades, the two-centuries-long conflict between Christians and the followers of the Muslim religion. A military leader of great fame, he solidified Turkish holdings in Persia and Iraq, pushing their new empire to the doorstep of the Christian Byzantine Empire (395–1493), that portion of the old eastern Roman Empire where religious ceremonies were controlled by the Eastern Orthodox Church, as opposed to the Catholic Church of Europe. This empire was based mostly in Asia Minor, or present-day Turkey. With his victory over the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogenes at Manzikert in 1071, he literally opened the door to the West and Europe for Islam. That same year one of his lieutenants captured Jerusalem. These events caught the attention of the pope, who began calling for a Holy War to take back the lands of Palestine and to return the revenues, or income, of Asia Minor to the Byzantine Empire. A tireless warrior, Alp Arslan, whose name means "Hero" or "Courageous Lion," was killed by a captive commander in 1072.

Leader of the Seljuk Turks

Under their first sultan, Tughril Beg (990–1063), the Seljuk Turks stormed out of their Central Asian homeland to establish an empire stretching from the Aral Sea to the Euphrates River. Proven warriors and skillful in their use of the horse in cavalry charges and lightning-quick attacks with both their short-bladed scimitar (curved sword) and bow and arrow, they won the favor of the Abbasid caliphate, the reigning Arab Muslim dynasty in Baghdad. The Seljuks became hired soldiers and eventually assumed real political power in Iraq. In 1060 Tughril was proclaimed "King of the East and West" and occupied Baghdad. As such, the Seljuks, recent converts to Islam and its orthodox (traditional) Sunni sect, took on a new task as protectors of Sunni Islam. Sunni is one of the two major religious divisions of Islam. It holds that successors to Muhammad, the founder of Islam, do not necessarily have to come from his descendants. It stresses instead the importance of Sunna, or Muslim law, as a source for leadership in the faith. The Seljuks also inherited two new enemies: the Christian Byzantine Empire to the north in Asia Minor and the Fatimid dynasty, part of the breakaway Shiite Muslim sect based in Egypt, with holdings in Syria.

When Tughril died in 1063, he left behind no male heirs, so his nephew, Muhammad ibn Daud, became the new sultan of the Seljuk Turks. Better known as Alp Arslan, he was born in Persia around 1026 (some chroniclers set the date of his birth as late as 1039), the son of Chagri Beg, chief of the territories of Khorasan in ancient Persia, or today's western Iran. When his father died in 1061, Alp Arslan inherited these Khorasan territories. When he took over from his uncle, his domain increased with the addition of Persian territories around the Caspian Sea and lands in Iraq. This new sultan immediately set to work securing and expanding his empire. Although he was not in the direct line of succession (to inherit the throne), Arslan looked the part of a ruler. As Tamara Talbot Rice noted in The Seljuks in Asia Minor, Alp Arslan

was to prove worthy of his throne. Both his appearance and his character fitted him for the role of sovereign [king]; he was extremely tall, yet he added to the impression created by his great height by wearing an immensely high hat, and he grew his moustache so long that, when out hunting, he was obliged to knot its ends behind his head that they should not interfere with his aim. His strength was as great as his aim was true, yet his valor exceeded both. Indeed, he was as noble and brave in his conduct as he was magnificent in appearance.

Nizam al-Mulk

The great Persian statesman Nizam al-Mulk ("order of the kingdom") was an able bureaucrat and administrator and also promoted religious education in Seljuk territories through a series of madrasahs, or Islamic colleges and schools. In addition, Nizam wrote a famous book on kingship and statecraft entitled Siyasat-nameh, which has been variously translated as Rules for Kings or Book of Government. Aged forty-two when he became vizier to the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan, Nizam preferred the art of diplomacy and international relations to the rough-and-ready militarism of his sultan. Persian by birth, Nizam al-Mulk brought with him a rich tradition, not to mention the Persian language, to the Seljuk court. Nizam's book on statecraft outlines how a sultan should rule. In that work he created two important institutions that the Seljuk Turks made their own: the office of the atabeg, or military adviser to young sultans, and the right of iqta, or the granting of income from land that a minister manages.

Considered one of the most brilliant ministers of the medieval East, Nizam al-Mulk went on to advise Alp Arslan's son and successor, Malik-Shah, in effect becoming the real sultan, for he trained and dominated the young ruler. Nizam became atabeg to Malik-Shah, the first time this title was applied after being mentioned in his own book. Nizam attracted many scholars and poets to the Seljuk court in Isfahan, including the Persian mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam (c. 1048–c. 1131), who became famous for his poetry but was far better known in his day for his work in mathematics and reforming the calendar. Under Nizam's leadership, the Seljuks created one of the largest empires in the world, with holdings in the Caucasus, Persia, Anatolia, Syria, Iraq, and parts of Arabia. Unlike Alp Arslan, however, Nizam acquired new lands by means of treaty and negotiation rather than through battle. Such success in the end led to jealousy, and Nizam al-Mulk had many enemies at court. He was murdered in 1092 by an Assassin, a member of the breakaway Islamic religious cult that often committed such political murders for self-defense or for hire. His sultan, Malik-Shah, died less than a month later. Following their deaths, the Seljuk empire was broken up into smaller domains and was never again as strong as it once had been.

Alp Arslan was a fighter and a conqueror. Luckily, he had an able administrator to help run his huge empire. Nizam al-Mulk (1018–1092) was a Persian who joined the services of Alp Arslan when he was a governor of Khorasan and soon became his vizier, or chief administrative counselor. Nizam served both Alp Arslan and his son and successor, Malik-Shah (1055–1092). Since Nizam was not only an able administrator but also a statesman, Alp Arslan was free to do what he did best—namely, fight the enemies of Islam and unite the Seljuk Empire. He faced his first challenge in 1064 when his father's cousin, Kutulmish, opposed his succession and took up arms against him. Alp Arslan and his troops fought this renegade at the Battle of Damagan, during which Kutulmish was thrown from his horse and killed. Following this episode, Alp Arslan had to put down revolts from within his own family when his brother, Kawurd, rose up against him in 1064 and again in 1067.

Meanwhile, the sultan also had neighbors to keep in line. He tried to maintain peace with other Turkish rulers to the east. He accomplished this with the Ghaznavid rulers, whose territories stretched from northeastern Iran and Afghanistan into India, but he was forced to engage in military action against the Qarakhanids, who ruled the region known as Transoxania, in Central Asia, with Samarkand as its central city; this area is now known as the regions of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and part of Turkmenistan. With these neighbors to the east finally brought into line, Alp Arslan was able to turn his attention and ambition westward.

Expansionist Policies

In 1064 Alp Arslan first pushed his armies into the valleys of the areas known as Georgia and Armenia, on the borders of Asia Minor, conquering the Georgians, who accepted the Seljuks as their sultans. He also was able to capture the former Armenian capital of Ani as well as the city of Kars. Thus, the Seljuks were in a good position to launch raids into the Anatolian peninsula itself and the Byzantine Empire. Briefly turning south, Alp Arslan and his forces struck the fortified cities of Antioch and Edessa, near the Mediterranean, and then swung north again to invade the Roman Empire in 1068, crossing the Euphrates River, which for centuries had served as the boundary between East and West. He fought Byzantine armies at Keyseri and by 1069 had reached the Aegean Sea, past the fortified town of Konya.

Further action in Asia Minor was put on hold, however, when Alp Arslan took up the request of Baghdad to deal with the Fatimids in Egypt. He mounted a major expeditionary force, first taking Aleppo in Syria. Now his empire stretched from eastern Persia to the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, however, his troops were resisting renewed efforts by the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogenes to push the Seljuks out of Asia Minor. By 1070 these efforts had succeeded in part, and Alp Arslan's army had been shoved back across the Euphrates again. Word reached Alp Arslan that the Byzantine emperor was planning to mount an even more powerful attack against the Seljuk army left behind in Asia Minor. Romanus assembled an army consisting of two hundred thousand troops, recruiting the faithful and hiring the rest. These mercenaries (paid soldiers) included Norsemen, Slavs, Turks, and even French Normans. Many Sicilians served in his officer corps. Romanus began moving these men east in the summer of 1071, hoping to take the Seljuks by surprise and secure the territory of Armenia as a buffer zone against them.

When word of this Byzantine advance reached Alp Arslan, he cut short his campaign against Egypt and the Fatimids, leaving Atsiz ibn Abaq, his vassal (a person under the protection of a lord) in charge of the campaign, and led his army to rejoin his other men in Armenia. Atsiz used this opportunity and newfound power to attack and greatly damage Jerusalem, thus releasing the city from Fatimid control. Subsequently, however, the Seljuk rulers refused to allow pilgrims of various faiths to gain access to the holy spots of the city, a policy that would have lasting consequences.

Meanwhile, Alp Arslan gathered his forces near Manzikert, north of Lake Van (in the far eastern part of contemporary Turkey, along its borders with Armenia, Iran, and Iraq). Vastly outnumbered by the Byzantine forces, Alp Arslan and his men managed to trap the imperial army thanks to the superior tactics of their cavalry. It also helped that large numbers of mercenary forces deserted Romanus just before the fighting began. The Byzantine soldiers were defeated, and Romanus was taken prisoner—the first time a Byzantine emperor had ever been captured by a Muslim leader. However, instead of taking the captive to Baghdad to show him off, Alp Arslan decided to use the emperor to regain lost land, form an alliance with Byzantium, and attain a long-lasting truce with the Byzantine Empire. Once the ransom for Romanus was paid and he had been returned to Constantinople, the emperor found himself ousted, or removed, from the throne by a new monarch, who imprisoned and blinded him. When Romanus died in prison, the treaty with the Seljuks ended with his death. However, the victory at Manzikert still opened all of Byzantium to Turkish invasions by roving bands, who nibbled away at much of Asia Minor over the next decade.

Alp Arslan Turns East and Faces an Ironic Death

Next, Alp Arslan returned to reconquer his homeland and to battle once again against the Qarakhanids of Transoxania. Before he and his men could cross the Oxus River, south of the Aral Sea, he had to capture a fortress defended by Yussuf Kothual, the governor of the region. When the fortress fell, Yussuf was brought before Arslan, who, forgetting his usual mercy toward prisoners, ordered that the man be killed. Arslan's famous skill at archery came into play in this final act of his life, for when Yussuf began to curse the sultan, Arslan commanded his guards to untie Yussuf's rope bonds. Taking aim with bow and arrow, Arslan had decided to kill the prisoner himself. But his marksmanship failed him at this critical moment, and the arrow missed Yussuf. Taking advantage of the occasion, Yussuf suddenly leaped at Arslan, drawing a hidden dagger, and stabbed the sultan. Arslan died of his wounds a few hours later, but not before making his peace with God for his arrogance. Arslan used his last breath to name his son, Malik-Shah, his successor.

During his short reign Alp Arslan had managed to cut deeply into the Byzantine Empire, delivering a blow at Manzikert from which the empire would never recover. Though the Byzantine Empire stumbled on for almost four more centuries, it would never regain the power it had before the arrival of Arslan and the great Seljuks of Persia. The Battle of Manzikert marked the beginning of Turkish power in the Middle East. Arslan's Seljuks, virtual rulers of Iraq and Syria as well as sultans of Persia and parts of Asia Minor, were now also in control of Jerusalem, the holy city that represented three religions. The coincidence of these events finally led to appeals by the Byzantine emperor to the pope in Rome for help in dealing with the Seljuks. These appeals were at last heard by Pope Urban II (see entry), who in 1095 delivered his famous speech at the Council of Clermont, in the south of France, where he pleaded for a holy war against the Muslims. Urban II got his wish, for in 1096 armies set off from Europe bound for the Holy Land, initiating two centuries of periodic war between Christianity and Islam.

For More Information


Barthold, W. Turkestan down to the Mongol Invasion. 4th ed. London: E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust, 1977.

Bosworth, C. Edmund, ed. The History of the Seljuq Turks. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2001.

Rice, Tamara Talbot. The Seljuks in Asia Minor. New York: Praeger, 1961.

Richards, D. S., trans. The Annals of the Saljuq Turks. London: Routledge Curzon, 2002.

Web Sites

"The Seljuk Empire." All Empires. (accessed on June 22, 2004).

"The Seljuk Turks." Islamic History. (accessed on June 22, 2004).

"The Turks." Istanbul Life. (accessed on June 22, 2004).

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Arslan, Alp

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