History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization
Nomad Empires in the Middle East
In the previous lecture, we looked at one episode from the Middle Period
of Islamic History that most people in this part of the world are reasonably
familiar with -- the Crusades. The major point I tried to make in
that lecture is that the Crusades were important in the development of
Western Europe, and especially in the development of European Christian
attitudes toward Islam. But as far as Islamic civilization itself
was concerned, for all the fame of the Crusades in our historical
tradition, they were actually of very little importance.
In this lecture, we are going to look at a situation that is precisely
the reverse. We are going to look at a situation that most of us
know next to nothing about, but which had a tremendous amount of impact
on the development of Islamic civilization. That subject is the rise
and fall of new nomadic empires in the Middle East, in the years between
1000 and 1500 A.D.
You will recall that a few lectures back I talked about more or less
this same period, 1000-1500 A.D., in terms of how Islam came to terms with
decentralized government. Now I’m talking about empires again in connection
with the same area, and empires are usually considered to be the exact
opposite of decentralized government. But I will hope you will
see, as the lecture goes along, that I’m not contradicting myself.
Before we looked at how Islamic life was organized near the grassroots,
and how Islamic law and custom was one of the major factors that tied individual
communities together, despite the ebb and flow of high politics.
But, if we now raise our eyes to the plane of high politics during the
same period, we see quite a different picture, and one that is equally
important for our understanding of the development of Islamic civilization.
Back at the beginning of the course, I talked at length about the dynamic
tension between urbanites and tribal people, in which the attractions of
urban and agricultural wealth for the tribespeople and the need for
urban civilizations to accommodate themselves with surrounding tribal people
created a cycle of empires
This cycle did not cease to operate after the Arab conquests.
For a long time, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates were strong enough
to discourage would-be conquerors from outside the Middle East, or the
rise of strong nomadic forces within the Middle East.
After 900, however, with the caliphate falling apart as a practical
political community, nomadic groups had their opportunity, and some took
Where did these new nomads come from?
One source was the edges of the Sahara desert. The Berbers
of this area were often a key factor in the politics of what is now Morocco,
Algeria, Tunisia, Spain and Portugal. Using their military
skill and hardiness to advantage, they were sometimes able to come together
into effective tribal confederations, conquer the disunited cities, coasts
and plains, and establish large, if rather short-lived empires.
Another group that made a lot of trouble for the cities and villages
of the same part of the world may surprise you: the Arabs!
By the year 1000, being an Arab was nothing all that special in itself.
Just as in the 7th century A.D., there were many poor, nomadic Arabs, living
in out-of-the-way locations. The main effect of the great conquests
of the past for these people, was to spread Arabs over a much wider area
than they had been before. Sometimes these scattered
Arabs united briefly to make a grab for booty or political power.
This area was a tremendous reservoir of nomadic tribes; it was on some
of the main trade routes between Europe, the Middle East and China; it
had its own oasis-based urban centers; in other words, it was an
area where there was a constant interaction between tribal and urban cultures.
And, strategically speaking, it was right next door to the Islamic heartlands
of Iraq and Iran. The nomads of this area -- and many of the townspeople
too -- spoke one Turkic language or another, and so we can call them Turks.
We must remember that there were many different forms of Turks and many
different Turkic languages -- just as there are many different “Latin”
languages today. In particular, we can’t identify these Central
Asian Turks with the Turks of present day Turkey, though there is a historical
and linguistic connection.
But the most important source of nomadic migration and nomadic political
activity during this period, 1000 to 1500, was Central Asia.
The influence of Turkic Central Asia on the politics of the heartland
came in two forms.
The nomad empires rose and fell dramatically, as a result of the usual
dynamic, over the period 1000-1500.
First, there was recruiting of slave-soldiers, who for a long time before
1000 A.D. had been enslaved, converted to Islam, and then shipped to wherever
they were needed to serve as soldiers in regiments made up of people more
or less like them. Central Asian or Turkish soldiers held a strategic
situation in many Middle Eastern societies, especially when the most successful
ones seized power and set themselves up as amirs or sultans. This
Another form of Turkic and Central Asian influence came through the more
usual processes of invasion and migration.
The three most important nomad based empires of the period
The first is the Seljuk sultanate, shown here at the height of their
power in the 1090s A.D. The Seljuks were a family who gained the
leadership of the Oghuz Turks in the early 11th century A.D.
They left what is now Uzbekistan (which was under the domination of another
Turkish clan) and conquered Iraq and Iran by 1055. After that,
they gave the Byzantine Empire a near-fatal wound at the Battle of Manzikert
in Armenia in 1071, and overran the important region of Anatolia or Romania.
This loss weakened the Byzantines, whose power never really recovered.
The Seljuks rise to power briefly re-united most of what had been the Abbasid
Caliphate (though not Egypt), and the Seljuk menace was one inspiration
for the First Crusade. But even if their armies were formidable,
the Seljuk empire was pretty fragile. It’s indicative of the weakness
of all these empires that the Seljuks were unable to stop the Crusaders
from taking Jerusalem. The Turks had more troops and were infinitely
closer to their bases of operations; but the various amirs and rival sultans
would not cooperate, but rather attacked the Crusaders one at a time.
By the early 1100s, the Sultanate was badly fragmented.
The second big empire was the Mongol empire of the 13th century A.D.
Although the leading family in this case came from much farther east than
the Seljuks, the success of the Mongols in the west rested upon their ability
to rally Turkic people under their flag. The Mongol empire
was much larger than the Seljuk one. It contained a great deal of
territory not on the map, including, by the time of Kublai Khan, all of
China. But impressive and important as the Mongol empire was, by
the third generation it had definitively split into rival monarchies, in
Central Asia, in China, in Southern Russia and the Ukraine, and in Iran
The third big empire is the empire of Timur (1370-1405), a man of Turkic
descent from present-day Uzbekistan. He is commonly called Tamerlane
in English. As in the earlier cases, Timur conquered Iran and Iraq;
he seized, at least for a while, a good part of India; and he died trying
to take China. As before, his descendants divided up his empire.
His empire is also important as the last really big empire of this sort.
What was the impact of these invasions?
Initially, these invasions tended to be extremely destructive to urban,
These invasions introduced an important new nomadic element into the conquered
lands. The destruction of cities and agricultural countryside opened
up new areas for nomadic expansion, and the conquerors themselves supplied
the herding populations to fill them up. Iran, Iraq, and Anatolia
thus saw a shrinkage of cultivated area, and the growth of herding.
This meant in many areas a long-term drop in total population, since herding
cannot support as many people in a given area as irrigated agriculture
can. There was also ethnic change: Lapidus says that since
this period the population of Iran has always been 25% Turkic.
Anatolia or Romania, formerly an area of Greek and Armenian culture, was
likewise transformed into “Turkey,” the leading Turkic country.
The nomad empires spread Islam into areas where it had never existed before.
In the realm of high culture, there was also a change.
The descendants of conquering families soon wanted to be seen as monarchs
as civilized and cultured as those of preceding centuries.
In Central Asia and most of the area conquered by the nomads, Persian was
the high prestige language, and the patronage of nomad conquerors went
largely into Persian culture. However, the Turkic languages
gained in prestige as well. The Turks were not entirely illiterate:
the cities of Central Asia, such as Samarkand and Bokhara had been centers
of culture for a long time, and their importance in this period encouraged
the use of Turkic languages for all kinds of sophisticated purposes.
A literary Turkish evolved that became the third great Islamic language.
The conquest of Anatolia by the Seljuks is a dramatic case.
It was from Anatolia that the later Ottoman Turks would arise to conquer
Constantinople and much of Europe.
Another area of great expansion was the steppe areas of Central Asia
and Eastern Europe. Muslims had been in contact with non-Muslim
peoples in Central Asia from the end of the seventh century, but this had
not resulted in any dramatic conversions. It was only in the tenth
century that Turks in Central Asia began to become Muslims.
When the Mongols became important in the thirteenth century, it seemed
for at least a generation that they might with equal ease adopt one of
the other two religions. They did in fact adopt Islam, which influenced
other nomadic peoples. They eventually all went over, and a huge
part of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, as far west as the Crimea and
farther north than Moscow, became predominantly Muslim.
The years between 1000 and 1500 were therefore a distinct era in the life
of Islamic civilization. It had both its positive and negative aspects.
A third area of expansion is one that I have not mentioned yet, and that
is India. Islamic expansion into India had stalled at the Indus
River at the beginning of the 8th century A.D. But in the years
around 1000 A.D., a family called the Ghaznavids, basing themselves on
Turkic and Afghan tribal forces, were able to make a breakthrough into
the Ganges plain. The long-term result was the extension
of Islamic rule over the most populous and developed part of India.
Though the vast majority of Indians remained Hindus, Islam, and the culture
of Persia and Turkic Central Asia penetrated deeply into the subcontinent.
There has never been a day from then till now that Islam has not been an
important factor in Indian life, and for most of the years between
1000 A.D. and today, the dominant rulers of India have been Muslims.
On the negative side, the older centers of Islamic life suffered very
badly, especially but not only during the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth
century. Baghdad was reduced from the cultural metropolis of the
Islamic world to an impoverished provincial town; Iraq and many other areas
that had developed on the basis of irrigated agriculture had their infrastructure
seriously and permanently undermined.
At the same time, new areas were drawn into the Islamic orbit.
The conquerors were or soon became Muslims, and introduced the religion
and the culture that had originated in the Middle East into areas where
it had never existed before. The nomad empires, especially the Mongol
one, are famous among world historians for their opening up of communication
between Europe, India, the Middle East and China, resulting in wider trade,
and technological and cultural exchanges. The Mongol conquests
made possible the journeys of Marco Polo and diplomatic contact between
Paris, Rome, and Karakorum, the Mongol city of the Khans. This
is the western European view of the wide open roads of the era around 1300.
But from the Islamic view, one of the most important things being carried
along those open roads was the message of the Holy Qur'an.
In some ways this was an era of crisis; but the Islamic world came out
of it much larger than before.
Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.