Battle of Manzikert, Seljuk Turks against Byzantines

Turkey celebrates the 950th anniversary of the historic Battle of Manzikert

The battle, which in 1071 pitted a force of 30,000 Seljuk Turks against an army of 100,000 Byzantines, changed history forever.

On Tuesday, the celebrations for the 950th anniversary of the historic Battle of Manzikert (Malazgirt, in Turkish) began in several towns in eastern Turkey, and although they will last for three days, the main ceremony took place today in the province of Bitlis – where the Turkish Seljuk army is believed to have camped – attended by President Erdoğan, while a second event was held in Muş, where the fighting took place.

During the ceremony in Bitlis, held in the Ahlat district and marked this year by security measures and public restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, Erdoğan stressed that Ahlat itself has for centuries been a bridge of civilizations between the East and the West, and the place where the nomadic Turks from Central Asia met on their migration to the Western lands.

In Malazgirt, a district of the Muş province in the vicinity of which the battle took place, a parade was held and various yurts (nomadic tents) were displayed showing the history of Turks and Seljuks; competitions were also held in traditional sports such as horse archery, cirit – an ancient Turkish sport in which horse riders throw javelins – and horse racing. On the occasion of its anniversary, Turkey is even preparing a movie premiere.

The truth is that the exact location of the crucial confrontation that took place in the year 1071 in Manzikert between Turks and Byzantines remains unknown, although experts are still looking for the remains of this great historical battle that marked the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire and opened the gates of Anatolia (Asia Minor) to Turks for the next thousand years.

The consequences of the battle went further, since it was the disastrous Byzantine defeat at Manzikert that led Romans to seek help in the West and more specifically in the Pope: just over 20 years after the battle, and before the request of aid by the Byzantine emperor Alexius II, Pope Urban II would promulgate in 1095 the first crusade, which would be followed by several more in successive centuries.

More than 100,000 Byzantine soldiers versus 30,000 Seljuk Turks

As the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan managed to conquer territories in Syria and eastern Asia Minor from the Armenians – in 1064 the Seljuks had conquered Ani, the capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom – many nomadic Turkic peoples from the East who had emigrated from Central Asia began to make inroads into Anatolia, then under the control of Byzantines.

The new Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV, an experienced Cappadocian general, had come precisely to the throne promising to end the incursions of the Turks into Asia Minor, which was the main source of soldiers, grain, and taxes for Byzantium. Alp Arslan did not have control over all these Turkish peoples and clans that carried out raids in the borderlands of the Byzantines, but these were determined to end the problem and decided to attack Alp Arslan.

Romanos IV recruited a formidable army for the time that possibly was around 100,000 soldiers, although other sources raise it to 200,000; with it, the emperor assured that he would reach Mesopotamia and conquer Baghdad. Faced with such a force, the Seljuk Sultan was only able to recruit a force of about 30,000 men, most of them light cavalry of horse archers.

Despite the Sultan’s attempts to reach an agreement, Romanos IV continued to advance with his army; this, however, was a heterogeneous force made up of a core formed by the Varengian palace guard and the most professional soldiers of the themes, later reinforced with European mercenaries, peasant levies from the provinces with little experience in combat, and even Turkish nomads in service of the emperor in exchange for money.

The many mistakes of the Roman emperor

Many of these European mercenaries would end up causing more destruction on their march east than the incursions of the Turkish nomads, and they would end up revolting. But that’s another history. Another problem for this army were the internal disputes for the Byzantine throne, and within this army there were some generals who had aspirations to overthrow Romanos IV… so, the army, in addition to being very heterogeneous, was divided.

In addition, the Byzantine cavalry was mainly heavy – made up of cataphracts – and was not prepared to face the Seljuk light cavalry and typical combat tactics from the steppes, which were very different from the “Roman” way of fighting used by the armies of Byzantium.

Even so, Alp Arslan saw in the advance of that huge army a great threat; it is said that before the battle, he dressed in a white shroud used for Muslim burials to show his soldiers that he was ready to die, and he told them: “If I become a martyr, bury me with this cloth and give the throne to my son Melikşah”.

However, several factors played in favor of the sultan. Romanos IV was so confident in his numerical superiority that he did not even send scouts to check the movements or the situation of the Seljuks and, camped outside the city of Manzikert, north of Lake Van, he decided to divide his forces by sending a contingent of some 30,000 men to the south, supposedly to trap Alp Arslan between two fronts in a classic pincer movement.

The day of the battle

Alp Arslan, who did follow all the movements of the Byzantines, first attacked this contingent: it is not known whether these soldiers fled or were massacred, but they did not participate in the battle and chronicles do not mention them again. The sultan then moved north to face the main Byzantine force: there were still some 70,000 Byzantines ready to face only 30,000 Turks.

Here, Romanos IV made another mistake, and allowed his rival to choose the terrain for the combat. It is very possible even that the arrival of the Turkish force surprised the Roman emperor and his forces, who were deployed on a too wide front and tried all along the battle to pursue Turks, who were constantly firing and retreating and then attacking again and retreating, following the usual combat tactics of the nomads.

By the end of the day, the main force of the Byzantine emperor – in the centre of the battlefront – was surrounded and isolated, the left wing of his army had been annihilated, while the right wing had retreated believing their emperor dead. The rear, commanded by a general from a rival family of Romanos IV, simply abandoned him to his fate and fled to Constantinople to fight for the throne.

After the Battle of Manzikert, all of Anatolia came under the control of the Turks

Byzantine soldiers trapped alongside their emperor fought to the end, suffering enormous losses; Romanos IV survived but was wounded: so deplorable was his condition after the battle, that when a Turkish soldier led him into the presence of the sultan, at first the sultan refused to believe that the dirty, bruised man dressed in torn clothes was actually the emperor of the Romans.

However, once he recognised him, the sultan cured him, treated him as a honor guest for a week, and negotiated with Romanos IV an advantageous peace treaty that only obliged the Byzantines to give up some border cities and to pay an annual fee, which the sultan even reduced after the emperor told him that it was too high. Afterwards, Alp Arslan offered him a group of soldiers to escort him safely back to Constantinople.

However, on his return to the Byzantine capital, Romanos IV found that he had been accused of being a traitor for negotiating with the Turks and that a conspiracy of his rivals had overthrown him. The Roman emperor was blinded and imprisoned, and his successor broke the treaties with the Seljuks, so Alp Arslan considered that he was no longer obliged to comply with the agreement and Turks started to penetrate into Anatolia, seizing the main cities in just a few years; the disunity of the Byzantines themselves, immersed in their disputes for the throne, also helped them.

Only 6 years after the historic battle of Manzikert, Seljuk Turks seized Nicea (İznik), considered the gateway to Asia and one of the main cities of Byzantium, definitively consolidating their presence in Anatolia. Less than 4 centuries later, in 1453 Turks took over Constantinople, puting an end to the Byzantine Empire forever, almost 1,000 years after the fall of Rome.