The White Sheep and the Black: Nomad Empires of Anatolia

We’ve been talking some about the Turkic peoples that lived, and fought, in the interstices between the Byzantine and Persian empires. Marissa over at Midiaeval Musings wrote the other day about two of them, namely the White Sheep and the Black Sheep (no I’m not kidding) It’s pretty interesting information about some history that few of us know much about. Here’s Marissa.

For most of us, life is sedentary. We may commute between work and home, but that home is fixed firmly to the ground, giving us shelter. Instead of travelling between areas of natural abundance, too, we take advantage of a global supply chain which brings products from every season and climate straight to our doorstep. At the same time, though, the ease and comfort of our sedentary lives comes with risks–as the latest round of storms on the eastern seaboard of the United States chillingly demonstrates.

The wide spaces of central and eastern Anatolia facilitated the movement from winter to summer pasture.

The wide spaces of central and eastern Anatolia facilitated the movement from winter to summer pasture.

It is because of this fragility in settled life that many people have, throughout human history, chosen to become nomads–migrating between seasonal pastures, keeping their wealth in herds, and trading for the settled goods unavailable on the steppe. These ways of life have been practiced across the breadth of Eurasia, but became increasingly influential in Anatolia (a traditional cross-roads of civilisations) from the 11th century to the 16th.

This was an era when nomads didn’t simply arrive on the scene of Byzantine decline; first as tribes, and then as confederations, these Turkic-speaking nomads aspired to create their own empires. And in some cases, they succeeded.

Byzantine experience with nomads was long-standing. During the war with Persia around the turn of the 7th century, they had relied upon the Gok Turk empire and its nomadic warriors to swing the balance of power in their favour. Later, they also experienced the penetrating raids of Arab forces into the Anatolian heartland.

Religious monument in Konya, the Seljuk capital.

Religious monument in Konya, the Seljuk capital.

In 1071, however, a new phase in the relationship between the Byzantines and the Turkic nomads opened. In this year, the Seljuk leader Alp Arslan delivered a humiliating defeat to the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes. His victory opened eastern Asia Minor to subsequent Seljuk leaders, and laid the foundation for the Seljuk Sultanate (centred around Konya) encountered by the First Crusaders.

When they, too, suffered defeat at the hands of the Mongols in 1243, however, the region disintegrated into a patchwork of tribal principalities known as beyliks. These beyliks were Turkic-speaking, often ruled by a nomadic military elite, and included several now-forgotten kingdoms, like Karaman and Aydin, as well as that of Osman–founder of the Ottoman dynasty.

Among them, two different tribal groups–bitter rivals–gained control of eastern Anatolia, and even expanded into Iraq and Iran before their brief ascendancy was quashed between the Ottomans in the west and the Safavids in the East.

Continue reading The White Sheep and the Black: Nomad Empires of Anatolia | mediaevalmusings.

Now you know as much about this as I do, if you know more, please tell me.



Fascinating News: 13th Century Byzantine Chapel Found

From the NY Times a very fascinating story, via the Anchoress

Myra-Andriake Excavations

DEMRE, Turkey — In the fourth century A.D., a bishop named Nicholas transformed the city of Myra, on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey, into a Christian capital.

Myra-Andriake Excavations

One wall of the chapel has a cross-shaped window that, when sunlit, beams its shape onto an altar table.

Myra-Andriake Excavations

A vibrant fresco that is unusual for Turkey was perfectly preserved.

Nicholas was later canonized, becoming the St. Nicholas of Christmas fame. Myra had a much unhappier fate.

After some 800 years as an important pilgrimage site in the Byzantine Empire it vanished — buried under 18 feet of mud from the rampaging Myros River. All that remained was the Church of St. Nicholas, parts of a Roman amphitheater and tombs cut into the rocky hills.

But now, 700 years later, Myra is reappearing.

Archaeologists first detected the ancient city in 2009 using ground-penetrating radar that revealed anomalies whose shape and size suggested walls and buildings. Over the next two years they excavated a small, stunning 13th-century chapel sealed in an uncanny state of preservation. Carved out of one wall is a cross that, when sunlit, beams its shape onto the altar. Inside is a vibrant fresco that is highly unusual for Turkey.

The chapel’s structural integrity suggests that Myra may be largely intact underground. “This means we can find the original city, like Pompeii,” said Nevzat Cevik, an archaeologist at Akdeniz University who is director of the excavations at Myra, beneath the modern town of Demre.

Mark Jackson, a Byzantine archaeologist at Newcastle University in England, who was not involved in the research, called the site “fantastic,” and added,“This level of preservation under such deep layers of mud suggests an extremely well-preserved archive of information.”

Occupied since at least the fourth century B.C., Myra was one of the most powerful cities in Lycia, with a native culture that had roots in the Bronze Age. It was invaded by Persians, Hellenized by Greeks, and eventually controlled by Romans.

Fascinating stuff

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