Turkic Peoples' Domination of the Near East

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  • 0:02 Turkic Dominance: 1100-1300
  • 1:19 The Great Migration
  • 4:34 The Mamluks Rise Up
  • 5:19 Mamluk Golden Age
  • 6:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Pushed by the same Great Migration that led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Turkic people rose to dominate much of the Middle East by 1100, despite originally arriving in the region as slaves.

Turkic Dominance: 1100-1300

By the year 1100, the Near East was a mess. The Crusaders, Catholic Western Europeans intent on recapturing the Holy Land of the Bible, had just captured a strip of land from Lebanon to the Sinai that included Jerusalem, killing just about everyone they met on the way. Meanwhile, Egypt was no longer following the orders of the Abbasid Caliph, or spiritual leader of Islam, instead proclaiming that they had all the answers. These new rulers of Egypt called themselves the Fatimid Caliphate which meant that fewer and fewer people respected the Abbasid Caliph's orders.

It seemed that the only thing that was going right was that to the north, the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic world's traditional foe comprised of the former eastern Roman Empire, kept getting weaker and weaker. Much of this was due to the Crusaders attacking them as well, but in reality it was a number of new Turkic groups that the Muslims themselves had introduced and who would soon turn on them as well. To understand why Turkic peoples would eventually come to rule in places like Syria and Egypt, we must go back in time to the earliest days of a very different empire: China.

The Great Migration

The steppes of Central Asia had always been a great place for nomads, as they could fatten their animals on the grasses and then raid south into China for anything else they needed.

However, this all came to an end as the Chinese became unified around 200 BC. With Chinese unification under one leader, armies that had once spent time fighting each other could now spend time fighting against these nomads. In fact, they had so much time that they could even build a wall to keep them out.

These nomads now faced a problem. They couldn't go north because it was too cold, nor could they go east because of the sea. With the completion of the Great Wall of China, as well as the fact that China was much more organized, they couldn't go south anymore either.

Instead, as resources on the steppes dwindled and tempers rose, the weaker nomads headed west. Many of the ones who stayed would, in later generations, become the infamous Mongols. This migration took hundreds of years, as it was gradual. In fact, the nomads themselves were not aware of the fact that they were expanding west, all the while pushing other groups of nomads along with them. One of those groups that was moved were the Turkic people, who originally lived just to the north of Persia.

This continual movement west is called the Great Migration, and as more groups moved, they ran into the superpowers of the day, Rome and Persia. Persia and the eastern half of the Roman Empire were strong enough to fight them off, but the western half of Rome fell.

Early Islam had been able to capitalize on the fact that these nomads had weakened the Byzantine Empire, as well as the Persians, and conquered much of their land.

Of course, with this new empire, the Muslims needed someone to defend it, but who? People often showed more loyalty to their family or tribe than the state, and the state needed loyalty. Additionally, there were already significant rivalries between the Arabs and Persians.

As a result, neither side wanted too many Arabs or Persians in the army, nor too many people from one tribe. If only there were a group of people who could be convinced to come fight for the good of Islam and weren't Arab or Persian.

The Muslims realized that the newly arrived nomads would be the perfect group to make up a Muslim army, and many of the newly arrived nomads closest to the Muslims were Turkic. Many of them had already converted to Islam, and as a whole, they were too weak to fight the Muslims head on.

However, the Muslims wanted to make sure that these new nomads stayed loyal to Islam, so they refused to hire adult men. Instead, they purchased boys from an early age, took them to the great cities of the Muslim world, and trained them as soldiers and administrators. Of course, if they weren't already, their new owners were sure to convert them to Islam as well.

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