conflict between arabs and turks -- 5/19/20

Today's selection -- from The Field of Blood by Nicholas Morton. Enmity between Turks and Arabs was deeply rooted in a conflict that began in the 11th century A.D.:

"When the [Turks] burst into the [Arab] region [from the Steppe] in the 1070s, creating widespread havoc and de­struction, many Arab Muslim dynasties had been swept away by their relentless advance. The Turks had seized control across the land, setting up regional centers of power in formerly Arab cities. It was during that turbulent period that Sultan ibn Munqidh's family had acquired Shaizar, becoming rulers of the town and its immediate hinterland in 1080. Shortly afterward, they too had been compelled to submit to Turkish authority, and in 1086 Sultan ibn Munqidh's brother Nasr had preserved the family's indepen­dence only by ceding vast swaths of territory to the Turkish sultan. The cost of this treaty had been colossal, but, unlike so many Arab dynasties in northern Syria, the Munqidhs had survived.

"In Arab eyes, the Turks were an object of both fear and scorn. Historically they had been viewed with the contempt that settled agricultural civilizations commonly held for their nomadic steppe neighbors. Turks were often depicted as barbaric, stupid, uncouth, and drunken. One irreverent story circulating at this time, one that seems to have been well-beloved among the Munqidhs, concerned the Turkish sultan Alp Arslan during his brief stint in Aleppo. It describes him drinking himself into a stupor one evening and then calling for the execution of the city's Arab governor. An adviser tries to persuade him to relent but ends up being injured when his master hits him with a washbasin. The sultan's wife then arrives and orders her husband to bed; the following morning she berates him for his conduct on the previous evening. The sultan supposedly denies all knowledge of the execution he had ordered. This derisive story, presenting the sultan as a gullible, brutal fool, is a stereotyped anecdote designed to poke fun at the Turks, even if it also tacitly accepts that the Turks were in charge.

"The background to this tale was one of rising Turkish domi­nation. The despised nomads from the steppe were now in power over the very people who used to sneer at them. Whereas previously the Arabs could deride the Turks overtly, now they mocked them covertly. However, there was another, shrewder, response to Turkish rule practiced by many subjugated Muslims during this time. Arab politicians, theologians, and courtiers endeavored to immerse their Turkish conquerors in their own religion and culture, encouraging them to embrace Islam and aspire toward Muslim role models. This approach will be explained in greater detail later, but it represented a strategy that was subtler than straightforward name-calling: if you can't beat them, make them join you.

"No sooner had the Arabs started to come to terms with their Turk­ish conquerors than the First Crusaders came bursting out of Ana­tolia, advancing into Syria in their countless legions. This was a delicate moment for the Munqidhs. Shaizar lay directly on the cru­saders' line of march, and the Franks posed a clear threat. Even so, the Munqidhs also recognized the inherent opportunity in the crusaders' onslaught. By the conclusion of the siege of Antioch, the crusaders had demonstrated their ability to destroy the Turks' main regional field armies, having beaten off four big forces in a little over a year, an unprecedented achievement. The Turks had suffered battlefield defeats before, most notably at the hands of the Fatimids, but never with such consistency. Emboldened, many sub­jugated peoples of the Near East saw an opportunity to resist their Turkish' masters. Consequently, while the Franks were besieging Antioch, Sultan ibn Munqidh seized the moment and began to plot against Ridwan of Aleppo (the most powerful Turkish ruler in the region), giving refuge to Ridwan's vizier, who had fallen out with his master.

"The Munqidhs were not the only Arab dynasty to take ad­vantage of the sudden Turkish reverses during the First Crusade. Following the crusaders' defeat of the Aleppan army during the siege of Antioch, the Arab Banu Kilab tribe (rulers of Aleppo be­fore the Turks' arrival) had risen up and plundered the Aleppan region, further weakening Turkish control. For a moment there had been a real chance that with the relentless cycle of crusader victories over the Turks, followed by a groundswell of rebellions instigated by Armenians, Arabs, and other groups against their for­mer masters, Turkish dominance in northern Syria would be rolled back once and for all."



Nicholas Morton


The Field of Blood


Basic Books


Copyright 2018 by Nicholas Morton


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