The Rise of the Turks & Their Impact on Islam

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  • 0:02 The Turks
  • 0:40 Rise of the Turks
  • 2:14 The Turks and Islam
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the history of the Turks and discover the dramatic impact they had on the spread of Islam. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Turks

Are you ready? I'm about to drop some knowledge on you. The country of Turkey is not named after the main dish we eat during Thanksgiving. Mind-blowing, right?

Turkey is named after the ethnic group who came to dominate the region during the Medieval Era, a people called the Turks. Around the 12th century, Europeans were referring to the Anatolian Peninsula, which is the area between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, as the land of the Turks, or Turkey. The Turks were part of a powerful military empire that unified the region under a Middle Eastern religion called Islam, playing a major role in the spread of Muslim culture leading up to the international religious wars called the Crusades.

Rise of the Turks

The ancient Turks were nomadic peoples who lived near the Altai Mountains bordering modern-day Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan in the sixth century. By the eighth century, Muslim forces from the Arabian Peninsula had formed a massive empire and were pushing steadily into the region. By 751, Arab Muslims controlled the Anatolian Peninsula and most of Central Asia. The Turkic people were first incorporated as servants, and eventually as soldiers, even becoming the favored troops of the Caliph, the political and religious leader of a Muslim state. By the end of the ninth century, Turkic leaders were gaining significant military and political power and started forming their own empires.

The rise of Turkic empires introduced a new power into the region, based originally around their capital south of the Aral Sea. This became very important after they officially adopted Islam as their religion in the tenth century. One group in particular, the Seljuk Turks quickly grew in power, establishing their own empire by 1037. The Seljuk Empire first captured the major city Baghdad in 1055, and around 1071, managed to take control of the Anatolian Peninsula. The Seljuk Empire covered over a million square miles across parts of the Middle East and Central Asia and lasted until 1194, when it fell due to internal factions that formed their own empires.

The Turks and Islam

The rise of the Seljuk Empire turned out to be crucial for the Islamic world. Anatolia was not empty before the Seljuk Turks captured it. In fact, it was part of the Byzantine Empire, the major Christian power east of Rome. When the Seljuk Turks moved in, they brought the Islamic religion, as well as Persian culture, which the Turks had largely adopted after becoming part of the Muslim Empire. Thus began the contentious transition of the Anatolian region from European to Persian in terms of culture, religion, politics, and identity.

As the Seljuk Empire continued to expand, reaching its height around 1092, they incorporated several smaller Muslim kingdoms. They quickly became one of the most powerful Muslim empires in the region and were tied to other Muslim Empires like the Fatimids through religion. This doesn't mean that they didn't fight with these other empires; there were dozens of battles for power within the Muslim world. But when the Byzantine Empire asked the Pope for support against the rise of Islam, the Seljuk were a major factor in uniting the Muslim states against invading Catholic armies.

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