Emerging from the steppes, Turks managed to force their way through entrenched empires.
After a series of military triumphs, they occupied the heart of Asia Minor. This rapid expansion put Christian Europe and many other states on high alert. It also changed the ethnic picture of modern-day Turkey.
But, how exactly did they accomplish this remarkable feat? What are the Turkish origins anyway?
Well, the migration was a geopolitical seismic shift, but it didn’t come out of the blue. By the time Turks shook the gates of the Byzantine Empire, they’ve already come a long way– figuratively and literally.
They enforced their rule over a diverse array of linguistic, religious, and ethnic groups. Such a fractured political landscape may seem like shaky foundations for the new empire.
We would argue it was a double-edged sword that Turkic warlords knew how to wield. So, let’s examine this thrilling journey from tents and rags to palaces and riches.
The Quest for Turkish Origins
Modern Turkey isn’t the ancestral homeland of Turks.
The whole of Asia Minor was long-inhabited by various other people. Hittites were easily the most dominant forces of the early antiquity. Then, we saw the rise of the Persians, who eventually fell before Alexander the Great.
This conquest brought the phenomenon of Hellenization. It set the stage for Greeks to become the majority in the region, which they had long had contact with.
Until Turkmen people entered the big historical stage, this status quo prevailed. What’s interesting is these people weren’t natives. We can track their origins many hundreds of kilometers to the North-East.
Speaking of which, the original fatherland of Turkic tribes is a matter of dispute. Some experts propose Transcaspian steppe, South Siberia, and even Manchuria. Still, the Altai Mountains are the most likely candidate.
This part of central Asia is where modern-day Mongolia, Russia, China, and Kazakhstan come together. It was the hearth of many horseback-riding nomads since the time immemorial. They lived in tents, which made them incredibly mobile.
Ancient Silk Road helped their cause as well. It brought considerable wealth, which tribal chieftains used to fund expansion.
Steppe Masters Long Way from Home
We call these tribes Turkic people and Turks are one of its subsets.
Most of these entities adopted Islam. Hence, the term Turk usually pertains to Islamized Turkic tribes. They are distinct from non-Muslim people, such as Tatars and Bulgars.
Another term that calls for clarification is Oguz, also known as Turkish Ghuzz, or Oghuz. It refers to the tribal confederation that was the principal player in Central Asia. The Seljuks, who went on to expanded Turkic influence to other regions, are a branch of Oguz.
They likely came from the region around the Aral Sea.
But, how far in the past should we look for Turkic origins remains a complex question.
Some people believe Sumerians, who were not Mesopotamian natives, are related to Turks. This is to suggest they also came from Central Asia.
The very name “Sumer” comes from Akkadian. Although the etymology isn’t clear, it was perhaps used to also denote people of Proto-Turkic origin. There are indeed some lexical similarities between the Turkish and Sumerian languages.
The problem is a big time gap between the two in recorded history. Chinese sources were the first to mention Turks in the 6th century.
Yet, it’s possible as well the term “Kiengi(r)”, found on Uruk pottery, was used to indicate Proto-Turkic tribes. We might never know for sure.
The Gras Looks Greener over There
The process of migration to modern Turkey was gradual.
We can divide it into three distinct phases. Do note though that they don’t tell every chapter of expansion of settlement. Some suspect the first Turks came as early as the 6th century.
There is also evidence they entered military service under Abbasid caliphs from the 7th century on.
Due to a limited impact on political and ethnic tissue, we aren’t going to cover this period. Besides, Turks didn’t conquer most of Central Asia until the 10th century.
The first real wave of migration came in the first half of the 11th century. It led to widespread assimilation and displacement of Iranian-speaking nomads. Turks also imposed their rule over settled people in Asia Minor and Caucasus.
In the 11th century, they finally made their first appearance in Anatolia, the courtyard of Asian Minor. Back then, most Turks still served as mercenaries for the Kingdom of Armenia and the sprawling Byzantine Empire.
They also embraced some Persian traditions and cultural traits. This convergence was the birth of a Turko-Persian tradition.
The Ascend of the Seljuk Empire
Seljuk Empire was the first Turkic state to become a regional powerhouse.
Founded in Nishapur, in 1037 CE, it swept across the lands of its neighbors. Namely, it seized vast territories in Levant, Turkmenistan, Persia, and Iraq. The expansion established Turkic rule over the likes of Kurds and Arabs.
The Great Sultanate wasn’t as coherent as many people assume today. It soon split into two factions that fought for leadership. Islamic religion and culture kept them from devouring each other.
For the purposes of this analysis, we have to empathize that the Seljuk state was the glue that held various Turkic people together. Tribes that identified as Oghuz still existed and they overran parts of the Middle East.
They acquired various fiefdoms that were semi-independent from the central authority.
Nevertheless, the conquest was helmed by the Seljuk Dynasty, which exerted undisputed suzerainty. And this endeavor was ground zero for Turkic conquest of the Middle East and South Asia.
Even the mighty Abbasid Caliphate fell under the might of invaders.
The Imperial Chess Match
The meteoric rise of Seljuk also put the dynasty on a coalition course with the Byzantine Empire.
The two states now shared a large border and were separated by religion. It wouldn’t be long before they clash on the battlefield.
But, there was another strategic rival in the form of the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. This mighty state was Shia, while Turks embraced Sunni Islam. Not only that, but Fatimids controlled religious centers of Mecca and Jerusalem.
They also installed their puppet in Baghdad, the pearl of the Middle East.
Meanwhile, internal struggles threatened to severe the fabric of a newly-formed empire. Various Turkic tribes launched raids on the population ruled by the Seljuk dynasty. They also started chipping away at the Byzantine borders.
These developments paved the way for the next big military operation. It commenced in 1045 and altered the course of history.
The Battle of Battles
The Armenian and Georgian states were first victims among many.
They were no match for Seljuks and fell to the invading forces. This only put additional pressure on the Byzantines, who finally decided to respond in 1071.
They deployed a massive army (40,000 strong) to stop Turkish advance in its tracks. However, it was a risk to leave heavily-defended forts on the frontier. Moreover, Byzantine Emperor, Romanus IV Diogenes, committed a cardinal strategic mistake.
He didn’t realize Seljuk tribes that organized raids had only loose ties to the Seljuk Empire. The Turkic state had its eyes on Fatimid Egypt, not Asia Minor.
Yet, the Eastern Roman Empire has forced the hand of Seljuks. Sultan Alp Arslan couldn’t ignore the threat and he summoned the bulk of the army in response. It marched to eastern Turkey and met the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071.
The ensuing three-day battle was a crushing defeat for the Christian army. It resulted in the capturing of the Emperor Romanus, who was later ransomed.
Navigating the Aftermath
Breaking the backbone of Byzantine military prowess, the battle was instrumental in tarnishing Byzantine influence in modern Turkey.
In the wake of Manzikert, several smaller Turkic states and principalities were formed. They ruled over natives, who had lived in Asia Minor for centuries.
Historians see this momentous event that opened the floodgates to Turkification of Anatolia. Byzantine Empire could no longer effectively protect its borders. It was plunged into bloody civil war and the economic crisis undermined its ability to project imperial power.
Over the course of the next decade, Seljuk Sultan conquered much of the Asia Minor. In 1081, his forces were looking at seemingly-impregnable walls of the burgeoning Constantinople (modern Istanbul).
The city would not fall for a long time, but Byzantines and their allies never regained the momentum. They were simply trying not to lose more ground to pouring Turkic tribes.
Crusades were only a temporary setback for Seljuks and they didn’t have lasting effects. By 1461, Ottomans took over the last remnants of the once glorious empire.
The Inroads and Meanders of State-Building
Manzikert marks the dawn of the second major stage of Turkmen settlement.
It must be said that this period reshuffled the ethic configuration in other ways too. Pecheneg, Kuman, and Kipchak mercenaries came in large numbers. Other colonizer regiments followed.
Despite this increasing diversity, Turkmens would remain uppermost faction.
And one can’t overstate how crucial this expansion was in dismantling the Byzantine presence. Asia Minor was the heartland of the empire and its most populous part. This means it was also the economic and military mainstay.
Without it, the Byzantines lacked the resources needed to fuel imperial ambitions.
But, it should be noted the imperial rise isn’t always a straightforward endeavor. Sooner or later, powerful states come at odds with even more powerful forces. Their conflicts don’t always have clear-cut effects.
Nothing proves this better than the Mongol invasion. It sent shockwaves across the continent and ushered in the third stage of migration.
Lords of War and Peace
It’s may seem contradictory, but woes of Seljuks reinforced Turkic foothold in Asia Minor.
Many people were forced to flee the scourge of Mongols from Persia and Central Asia. By migrating, they hoped to stay out of their path of destruction. We can observe these flows in both rural and urban areas.
Therefore, despite collapsing in 1260, the Seljuk state has fulfilled its role.
Indeed, it’s precisely in the 13th century that we see outlines of a truly Turkish country. Even Europeans started calling Asia Minor “the land of the Turks” (Turchia or Turkey). This is the epitome of how ethnicity sometimes gives rise to geographical names.
Furthermore, we have to point out to one unique factor. Throughout history, we see examples of minorities assimilating into native majorities. However, this didn’t happen in the case of Turks.
What is this exception the result of?
Well, the answer is a complex one. We’ll unravel in the final chapter.
The Two Sides of the Power Medal
Many historians argue turbulent frontier conditions acted as a perfect storm.
It prevented majorities from swaying the newcomers. In other words, the vacuum of power enabled Turks to gain a lasting foothold and build the empire from the ground up.
In regions torn by centuries of conflict, locals saw them as welcome guardians. Greeks and Armenians, for example, accepted the role of clients to Turkic warlords. These relationships were the blueprint for many other client-patron bonds that the Ottomans later formed.
Ultimately, the assimilation wasn’t just a matter of military dominance. Its driving forces were religion (Islam), culture, and language (Arabic). The convergence of these factors brought about the Turkification in its full glory.
Ottoman Empire embodied this historical process. It emerges in 1299 when a young emir called Osman broke away from Seljuks. Within the borders of a new state, Turkish language and culture attained the official gravitas.
As for the migrations, they continued until the 16th century.
Consequently, Asia Minor became the region with the densest concentration of Turkic people in the world. It remains so to this date.
The original homeland in Central Asia remains distant, yet serves as the mythical source of identity. This identity transcends both geographical and political obstacles our world is fraught with.
The Origin Story Retold
Turkish origins are forever rooted in the steppes of Central Asia.
The majority of people in Modern Turkey harkens back to that homeland. This isn’t to imply the genetic similarity, but a heap of historical ties that still last.
The Seljuk Dynasty championed the expansion of Turkic people. It was far from a monolithic and unified state. Yet, it brought together diverse ethnicities, cultures, and languages into a melting pot of Turkish identity.
We saw how Turks flooded into Asia Minor after a decisive victory over the Byzantines. This reminds us as some empires crumble to ashes, new orders arise. Such has been the ebb and flow of history since the primordial mists of civilization.
Of course, the formation of a Turkey as a state entity was a centuries-long process that had its peaks and valleys. What it eventually amounted to was geopolitical and ethnic change of epic proportions.
Those who are in-tune can feel tremors even today.
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