the rise of the turks – 11/9/21
Today's selection -- from A Concise History of the Middle East by Arthur Goldschmidt Jr. with Aomar Boum. The rise of the Turks:
"The origin of the Turkic peoples has been lost in the mists of legend; we will know little until archaeologists have excavated more of Central Asia and Mongolia, where the Turks probably began. We do know that they started as nomadic shepherds who rode horses and transported their goods on two humped camels, although some became settled farmers and traders. Their original religion revolved around shamans, who were wizards supposedly capable of healing the sick and communicating with the world beyond. They also served as guardians of the tribal lore.
"Around 550 the Turks set up a tribal confederation called Gokturk, which Chinese sources call the Tujueh. Its vast domains extended from Mongolia to Ukraine. But soon the Tujueh Empire split into an eastern branch, which later fell under the sway of China's Tang dynasty, and a western one, which became allied with Byzantium against the Sassanids and later fell back before the Arab conquests. This early empire exposed the Turks to the main sixth-century civilizations: Byzantium, Persia, China, and India. It also led some Turks to espouse such religions as Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, and Buddhism. Some had even developed a writing system.
"The transmission of cultures among the various Eurasian regions seems incredible until you stop to think that people and horses have crossed the steppes and deserts for ages, forming one of the world's oldest highways, the Great Silk Route. In the eighth century a group of eastern Turks, the Uighurs, formed an empire on China's northwestern border. Its official religion was Manichaeism, and its records were kept in a script resembling Aramaic. This shows how far the Turks could take some of the ideas and customs they had picked up in the Middle East. Meanwhile, one of the western Turkic tribes, the Khazars, adopted Judaism, hoping to get along with its Christian and Muslim trading partners, while distancing itself from both sides.
"Eventually, though, most Turkic peoples became Muslim. The Islamization process was gradual, and it varied from one tribe to another. Once the Arab armies crossed the Oxus River -- if not long before then -- they encountered Turks. Even in Umayyad times, some Turks became Muslims and served in the Arab armies in Transoxiana and Khurasan. Under the 'Abbasids, you may recall, the Turks became numerous and powerful in the government. The first Turkic soldiers for Islam were probably prisoners of war who were prized for their skill as mounted archers but were viewed as slaves. Most historians think that the institution of slavery grew in 'Abbasid lands to the point where some tribes would sell their boys (or turn them over as tribute) to the caliphs, who would have them trained as disciplined soldiers or skilled bureaucrats. These slaves became so imbued with Islamic culture that they no longer identified with their original tribes. In addition, whole Turkic tribes, after they had embraced Islam, were hired by the 'Abbasids or their successors (notably the Samanids) as ghazis (Muslim border warriors) to guard their northeastern boundaries against the non-Muslim Turks. As for Sunnism versus Shi'ism, those Turks who served a particular Muslim dynasty usually took on its political coloring. The ghazis cared little about such political or doctrinal disputes. Their Islam reflected what had been taught to them by Muslim merchants, mendicants, and mystics, combined with some of their own pre-Islamic beliefs and practices.
"Two Turkish dynasties, both Sunni and both founded by ghazi warriors for the Samanid dynasty, stand out during this era: the Ghaznavids and the Seljuks. The Ghaznavids got their name from Ghazna, a town located 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of Kabul (the capital of modern Afghanistan), because their leader received that region as an iqta' from the Samanids in return for his services as a general and a local governor. The first Ghaznavid rulers, Sebuktegin (r. 977-997) and his son Mahmud (r. 998-1030), parlayed this iqta' into an immense empire, covering at its height (around 1035) what would now be eastern Iran, all of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and parts of northern India. It was the Ghaznavids who extended Muslim rule into the Indian subcontinent, although their efforts to force Hindus to adopt Islam have discredited them among some Indians.
"The other major dynasty, the Seljuks, takes its name from a pagan Turkic chieftain who converted to Islam about 956. Later Seljuk enrolled his clan as warriors for the Samanids. His descendants became one of the ablest ruling families in Islamic history, making themselves indispensable first to the Samanids and then to the Ghaznavids as ghazis in Transoxiana against the pagan Turks. In return, they received iqta's, which they used to graze their horses and to attract other Islamized Turkic tribes, who would occupy the grazing lands with their sheep and goats, horses and camels. As more Turkic tribes joined the Seljuks, they increased their military strength as well as their land hunger. The trickle became a flood; in 1040 the Seljuks and their allies defeated the Ghaznavids and occupied Khurasan. The Buyids had grown weak, leaving western Persia and Iraq open to these military adventurers who had the encouragement of the 'Abbasid caliph himself, eager to welcome Sunni Muslims."