Thursday, April 11, 2013

The battle of Matzikert:The astounding victory of Arp Aslan and the beginning of the end of the Byzantines in Anatolia

The Seljuk Turks first entered the Middle East some time during the 10th century and conquered the eastern Islamic lands that included Persia at that time. Although there were battles and skirmishes along their borders, they never seemed to have had any intention of advancing into Anatolia and conquering the Byzantines. They were far more interested the lands along the Mediterranean like Syria, Lebanon and eventually Egypt – actually they were particularly interested in Egypt, which was ruled by the Fatimid dynasty and was Shiite Muslim while the Seljuk Turks were Sunni Muslims.

The Seljuks had to contend with nomadic Turkish tribes who were entering the Middle East and they developed a policy of encouraging these people to continue on West into the pseudo no man’s land that had developed between the Byzantines and the Seljuks. There the nomads could fight each other, rather than unite and rebel against the central authority. In fact a peace treaty had even been signed by the Seljuks and Byzantines in 1069. 
Seljuk warriors
The Byzantine army, under the direct command of Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes, was a mixture of elite Byzantine, mercenaries of various sorts including Turks, and an enormous imperial baggage train; it numbered anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000. Some sources give the number as 100,000. The emperor’s intent was not to actually fight the Seljuk Turks. In fact he thought the Turks were engaged in military action in Syria with a view of conquering Egypt. Romanos actually wanted to retake a number of Armenian cities that the Seljuk Turks had conquered from the Byzantine Empire. As Lars Brownworth has written about this period in time, “There was no Armenia, just a collection of princes, a population sharing common dialects, and vague, shifting borders.”

Reaching Manzikert

Byzantine Emperor Romanos in 1071 decided the Seljuks under Sultan Alp Arslan were busy elsewhere allowing him to retake the area of what had been Armenia and was, at that time, under Byzantine control. Romanos offered to renew the treaty between them to make sure the sultan would move in the direction of Aleppo. And the latter laid siege to Aleppo as a result. But when he caught wind a large Byzantine army was approaching, the Seljuk Tukish ruler Sultan Alp Arslan raised his siege of Aleppo and marched into Anatolia to fight the advancing force. It was August 1071. 

Romanos was so sure of himself and his abilities as an army commander that he assembled an army at Constantinople in March1071 and went on the march until August, losing his German mercenaries along the way and his Turkish allies, when the army reached Manzikert north of Lake Van. There it easily overpowered the Seljuk force manning the fortress. Romanos didn’t lack for military intelligence.
Now he heard that Alp Arslan had abandoned his siege of Aleppo and was moving eastward along the Euphrates River but received no further information. So Romanos split his army in two and sent one half South to head the Seljuk army off because he thought the Seljuks would come from that direction. 

What happened to those soldiers is a matter of speculation as the force that went south disappeared. Either it was totally annihilated or the Byzantines spotted the advancing Seljuks and retreated without informing Romanos. Yet a third theory has it that the commander of this force was Turkish and so were his men who hadn’t been paid in some time. They may have deserted to the Seljuks. Whatever happened, it left the Byzantine Emperor with only half his army although he didn’t know it. He also wasn’t aware that Alp Arslan had led his force north and come up around the eastern side of Lake Van. 

The battle of Manzikert took place on a plain set in rocky, hilly terrain. On Aug. 24 advance scouts from the Byzantines made contact with the Seljuk army and lost part of their cavalry. The next day, the Seljuks sent an offer of a peace treaty to the Byzantines, but this was rejected. So on Aug. 26 Romanos drew up his army on the plain in fighting order. He took charge of the central section and placed two commanders on his right and left flanks. His reserves were kept back under the command of Andronikos Doukas who happened to be his enemy. Opposite the Byzantine army Alp Arslan arranged his men in the form of an arc so that when the enemy advanced, it could hit the soldiers with arrows and cause considerable damage. 
The battle of Matzikert(from a french manuscript)
The center of the Turkish line retreated, drawing the Byzantine center further in as the archers who were on horseback attacked and retreated on the sides, inflicting further damage. Towards evening the Byzantines were even able to capture the Turkish camp, but then the center turned back since it hadn’t been able to force a decisive engagement on the enemy. However, the Byzantine right flank didn’t retreat and this opened up a chance for Alp Arslan to attack. Meanwhile the reserves under Doukas didn’t go cover the emperor’s retreat; instead he had his men leave the field, abandoning the Byzantine center and the emperor. The latter fought until he was injured and couldn’t hold his sword and so he was captured. 

When Romanos was brought before Alp Arslan, the latter put his foot on the Byzantine emperor’s neck and forced him to kiss the ground as a sign of his having been conquered. Afterwards, the sultan had him treated with respect and even dined with him at his own table. He held him for a week and demanded a ransom of ten million, an amount that was reduced to 500,000 thousand plus 360,000 annually. The cities of Manzikert, Edessa, Antioch and Hieropolis were to be surrendered to the Turks. And one of Romanos’ daughters was to be married to one of Alp Arslan’s sons. 

Treaty signed after the battle
The Byzantine and Seljuk empires at the aftermath of the battle
Following this disastrous defeat, Romanos was dethroned, his eyes were blinded and he was sent to a monastery. He died in 1072 as a result of an infection that he acquired when he was blinded. Alp Arslan also died in 1072 under suspicious circumstances while he was a prisoner of a fortress commander.

The treaty signed after the Battle of Manzikert was never honored on the Byzantine side under the circumstances and Alp Arslan was more interested in Fatimid Egypt than in Anatolia. But the sultan instead encouraged the several nomadic tribes to enter Anatolia proper and, due to the power struggles going on in Constantinople, these groups were not only able to reach the Aegean but went as far north as Nicaea (Iznik) which became the capital in 1077 of the nomads who became known as the Rum Seljuks. They later established their capital at Konya. 

How ironic that 941 years after the Battle of Manzikert Sunnis are still fighting Shiites, and Aleppo is again a battle zone and Turkey’s southeast region is still troubled


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