Manzikert

I’ve been to eastern Turkey several times, but never was able to visit Manzikert. But last October, I finally made it. Shortly before sunset, I was on the site where, in August 1071, a famous battle was fought. From Tatvan, it’s a drive of about an hour and a half; the road had been perfect until Ahlat, but had become worse and worse and worse,but in the end, after a chaotic ride through the mountains, the first view of the snow-covered mountain Süphan and the first view of the plain, were unforgettable.

Why did I go there? Because the battle near Manzikert is one of the few really important ones in world history. On the one hand were the Turks, recently converted to Islam and commanded by their sultan Alp Arslan: the most powerful man in the Sunnite world, who wanted to convert the Shi’ites to the right beliefs. His aim was, therefore, the conquest of Egypt, where the Fatimid dynasty claimed the caliphate. For Alp Arslan, it was unacceptable that a heretic could be commander of the faithful.

He was, therefore, on his way from Iran/Iraq to Egypt and had already reached Syria, when he heard that the Byzantine Emperor, Romanus IV Diogenes, was marching to Armenia, with an army of no less than 70,000 men. Had the army been smaller, Alp would not have felt threatened and would have continued to Egypt. He had no quarrel with Byzantium. But an army of this size, in his rear? This was dangerous. The Byzantines might attack his lines of communication.

Romanus had just become emperor. He was a brave and capable ruler, but had to cope with the opposition from Byzantine aristocrats. Therefore, he sought some military success, and Armenia was the perfect target. There are no indications that he wanted to continue his attack to Iraq or Iran, but Alp Arslan decided to return to the north. And so, in August 1071, the armies met at Manzikert.

From the very beginning, Romanus’ position was bad. His most important colonel, one of the aristocrats, was absent – perhaps betraying his emperor. Nevertheless, with a weakened army, Romanus marched out of Manzikert, advancing towards the Seljuk Turks, who retreated slowly. They marched for several kilometers on a very hot day. The soldiers, with their heavy panoplies, were already tired when the Seljuks unexpectedly turned back and attacked. A couple of Byzantine aristocrats fled, and the remaining troops panicked, and although there had been no real fight, the battle was already over. Many Byzantine soldiers were killed.

As a battle, the fight at Manzikert was not very important. Romanus was captured, but Alp Arslan almost immediately released him. The sultan wanted Egypt. His peace proposal was comparatively easy to accept. After all, if he asked more, he would be forced to leave garrisons to occupy the newly conquered cities, or soldiers to collect the money. So, it was better to send back the humiliated Romanus, who would be grateful, and would never again be a problem.

However, Romanus was dethroned and killed by the aristocrats, who refused to obey the new treaty. This was a real blunder. Now, Alp Arslan was mad as hell, and he decided to invade Anatolia, which a boy-emperor of twenty-one was supposed to defend. Within a couple of years, the most important provinces of the Byzantine Empire were lost, and became part of what is now called Turkey.

Few battles have had such conseques. In the first place for the world if Islam. In Egypt, the Shi’ite caliph remained on the throne, and the Islam remained divided between Sunnites and Shi’ites. In the second place, for Byzantium. The emperor was forced to hire mercenaries to replace his lost army. It was impossible to stop the advancing Seljuks. After some twenty years, the emperor decided to ask for reinforcements in the West. These reinforcements arrived in great numbers in Constantinople, swore allegiance to the emperor, reconquered part of Anatolia, and captured Antioch. After some diplomatic troubles, they refused to continue the struggle against the Seljuks, and went south, to Jerusalem: the First Crusade.

So, after Manzikert, the Byzantine Empire was in decline. Anatolia, its most important source of manpower and income, was lost. The Crusaders became increasingly hostile, capturing Constantinople in 1204. The Seljuks recovered their positions, and although the Crusaders were eventually expelled from Constantinople, things went from bad to worse.

Without Manzikert, it is likely that Islam would have been united under one, Turkish ruler, without conflict with Byzantium. There would have been no Crusades, western Europe would not have learned much from the Arabs, the Italian Renaissance would have been a satellite of the cultural innovations in the Byzantine Empire. Perhaps Byzantium would have expanded its power after the Mongol campaigns against the Seljuk.

Of course, this is all speculation. But it’s certain that Manzikert changed the world. The modern visitor can, perhaps, feel that if Romanus had not been betrayed, his own life would have been different too. Mea res agitur. This experience, which is sometimes called “the historical sensation”, is what makes history so nice.

I love to travel over badly paved roads to experience the past in this way. Even when there is nothing to be seen. To make you share in it, below is a nice photo: the plain, the mountain Süphan, and a view on a site that changed your life too. That is enough.

The photo (3,5 MB) is here. It is a composite; the photos were taken by Rolof van Hövell tot Westerflier, and were matched by Robert Vermaat. Thanks!

2 Responses to Manzikert

  1. So were both Alp Arslan and Romanus “a brave and capable ruler” incapable of elementary diplomacy? From your account neither protagonist seems to have been particularly interested in a war with the other. Alp Arlan’s concern about having a large Christian army in his rear is understandable, but if Romanus was principally concerned with (Christian) Armenia, it should surely have been possible for them to have arrived at an temporary understanding about spheres of influence rather than going to war without notice.

  2. I agree that this was a failure of diplomacy. I am afraid that as such, it is hardly unique in human history…

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