Today in history, on August 26, 1071, one of the most decisive battles in all world history took place, that of Manzikert, without which there would be no modern nation of Turkey to speak of—much less centuries of jihadist conquests and atrocities in the Balkans.
It is, in fact, a battle that Turkey is celebrating today, as it does annually. Its hero, Seljuk sultan Muhammad bin Dawud — better known in the West by his Turkish nickname, Alp Arslan, meaning “Heroic Lion” — is a personal favorite of Turkish president Erdoğan. After all, as historian Carole Hillenbrand explains, the battle “symbolized the subjugation of Christianity by Islam. Manzikert was perceived to be the first step in an epic story in which Turkish-led dynasties would defeat the Christians and proclaim the triumph of Islam.”
As such, it may behoove the Western reader to become acquainted with that pivotal encounter that occurred today in history.
By the middle of the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks had virtually annihilated the whole of Armenia — massacring and enslaving hundreds of thousands, according to contemporary records. They continued riding westward across Asia Minor, then part of the Eastern Roman Empire (“Byzantium”), leaving a trail of smoke and destruction in their wake.
Although several Byzantine rulers equivocated, on becoming emperor in 1068, Romanus Diogenes made it his priority to act. By 1069, he had amassed and marched a massive army deep into Asia Minor, liberating numerous cities from the Turks.
The two forces eventually met near the city of Manzikert, just north of Lake Van. Sultan Muhammad bin Dawud sent a delegation to parley with Romanus on “the pretext of peace,” though in reality, he was “stalling for time,” explained Michael Attaleiates, who was present. This only “roused the emperor to war.”
Romanus spurned the emissaries, forced them to prostrate themselves before him, and commanded them to tell their sultan that “there will be no treaty … and no going home except after I have done in the lands of Islam the like of what has been done in the lands of Rome [Asia Minor].” Then, having “dismissed the ambassador with the greatest contempt,” Romanus incited his men to war with “words of extraordinary violence.”
Muhammad exhorted his men to jihad and reminded them of its win-win promise: “If we are given victory over them, [well and good]. If not, we will go as martyrs to the Garden.” “We are with you!” cried the men in unison when he finished his harangue, followed by a barrage of “Allah akbars” that reportedly “shook the mountains.”
Thus, as “martial music resounded from both sides and the dust of the battlefield billowed up like clouds in the sky,” the two armies met on that fateful Friday, August 26, 1071.
The battle ensued in the usual way: Turkic horsemen, in a crescent formation that hid their fewer numbers, sped forward and unleashed volleys of arrows, before swiftly retreating. Throngs of Christian men and their horses fell; some even broke rank and fled. Undaunted, Romanus maintained the line and marched his forces forward, but because the Muslims had unlimited terrain to fall back on, the Christian army never managed to corner and finish them off, even as the Turks continued to engage in effective hit-and-run tactics.
When the day was nearly spent, Romanus ordered an about-face back to camp, the only place to feed his men and water their horses. Once he turned his back, the Turks launched an all-out assault, “hurling themselves fiercely upon the Romans with terrifying cries.” Havoc ensued, not least as some of Romanus’s generals betrayed and fled. “All were shouting incoherently and riding about in disorder; nobody could say what was going on. … It was like an earthquake with howling, sweat, a swift rush of fear, clouds of dust, and not least Turks riding all around us,” Attaleiates later remembered.
Romanus’s Varangian Guard (the empire’s elite unit of Nordic warriors who were always attached to the emperor they served) was surrounded and, despite fighting valiantly, butchered to the last man. Seeing that he was
abandoned and completely cut off from help, [Romanus] unsheathed his sword and charged at his enemies, killing many of them and putting others to flight. But he was surrounded by a crowd of adversaries and was wounded in the hand. They recognized him and he was completely encircled; an arrow wounded his horse, which slipped and fell, dragging its rider down with it. Thus the emperor of the Romans was captured and led in chains to the sultan.
Worse, the once proud and imperious Romanus became the first Roman emperor in over a thousand years to experience the ignominy of being taken prisoner from the field of battle. As for his men, one Muslim chronicler writes that the Christians “were killed to such an extent that a valley there where the two sides had met was filled [with their corpses].”
Sultan Muhammad declared victory and hurriedly dispatched “the cross and what had been taken from the Byzantines” to Baghdad, and “the caliph and the Muslims rejoiced. Baghdad was decorated in an unprecedented fashion and domes were erected. It was a great victory the like of which Islam had not seen before,” writes a Damascene historian.
As seen, the battle opened the doorway to the permanent conquest of Asia Minor. Before he was assassinated a year later, Muhammad had commanded the Turks to “be like lion cubs and eagle young, racing through the countryside day and night, slaying the Christians and not sparing any mercy on the Roman nation.” This they did, and “the emirs spread like locusts, over the face of the land,” invading every corner of Anatolia, sacking some of ancient Christianity’s most important cities, including Antioch, where the word “Christian” was coined, and Nicaea, where the Christian creed was formulated in 325. “All that was left were devastated fields, trees cut down, mutilated corpses and towns driven mad by fear or in flames.” Hundreds of thousands of Anatolian Christians were reportedly massacred or enslaved.
By the early 1090s, the Turks had taken the last Christian bastion, Nicomedia, only 2,500 feet away from the imperial capital of Constantinople, across the narrowest point of the Bosporus strait. Not only did that occasion the First Crusade, but centuries later, on May 29, 1453, it led to the fall of Constantinople and much of the Balkans to the Turks. But that is another story — one which still has to reach its finale.
Note: Quotes from this article were excerpted from and are documented in the author’s book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West.