The Battle of Manzikert (Malazgirt) on Aug. 26, 1071, was a turning point in the history of the Arab and Muslim East. The victory of the Seljuks over the Byzantine Empire and their subsequent control of large swathes of Anatolia was a decisive moment that turned the northern borders of today’s Arab world into an internal boundary within the larger Muslim homeland.
The Seljuk era was defined by the alliance between Seljuk Turks and Abbasid Arabs, which saved Baghdad from the Shiite Buyids. The Seljuks entered the city in 1055 at the request of the Abbasid Calipha al-Qa'im bi-Amr bi-Amri 'llah “to intervene, spread justice and make good the affairs of the people.”
The Seljuks rescued the Arab Muslim state from the rule of the Buyids, which had lasted more than a century and had stripped the caliphate of the last vestiges of dignity it had once enjoyed. Unlike the previous Arab-Turk alliance at the time of Abbasid Caliph al-Mu’tasim Bi’llah in the ninth century, this was not simply a security partnership but extended into the political and cultural spheres. It was the catalyst for a cultural revival characterized by scholarship and the establishment of the Nizamiyyah Madrasas (School) throughout the Muslim world, including the famous Nizamiyyah School in Baghdad.
For the community, the institutions enhanced Muslim society by creating a new kind of establishment that can rightly be regarded as the first nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
The most notable achievement of these schools was the redirection of the cultural compass following the Shiite Buyids' reign that had drained everything from Arab societies in the region including civic life, the economy and the justice system and overran the capital of the caliphate, Baghdad, in an act reminiscent of today.
Aftermath in right context
The Seljuk-Abbasid era was one of the most fruitful renaissance periods in the history of Islamic civilization and can rightly be called “the first cultural revolution of Ahl al-Sunna.” This period created a shared cultural, political and military identity that liberated the capital of the caliphate from the Buyids and produced a generation of scholars credited with creating the intellectual revival that resulted in the liberation of Jerusalem 100 years later from the Crusaders.
Yet, despite the vital importance of the Battle of Manzikert and the following socio-cultural advancement that engulfed the entire region, the annual celebration of its anniversary is a local event limited to Turkey.
European nations have a common awareness and dynamic, in addition to joint security arrangements. The same can be said of the nations of Southeast Asia, Latin America, North Asia and almost all other regions in the world.
When a man on a Baghdad or Damascus street is asked about the Seljuk period, however, he would probably say that it was a dark period of history. Turkey is right to celebrate such a jewel from her history, but Manzikert and its aftermath was not simply a national Turkish affair. The societal and cultural renaissance that characterized this period goes hand in hand with the Arab Abbasid-Turkish Seljuk partnership first established in the period that followed Manzikert.
Nationalist ideologies have destroyed the ability of our Turk and Arab populations to take a wider regional view of the events that affect us all. This is the reason for the absence of any region-wide joint initiatives between Arabs and Turks – on a social and not a political level – aimed at putting our region on the world map.
The Seljuk era, despite its distance in time, is the closest to us in terms of the challenges we are facing and the solutions it offers. It can still inspire a modern regional, societal and security awareness that will stand us in good stead in the face of a regional struggle that echoes through the ages.
The revival of local services, administrations, legal services and cultural activities in the Syrian Arab towns and cities through Turkish involvement, despite many mistakes, is not dissimilar to the Arab-Seljuk civic inheritance, especially when compared with the destruction of Arab cities under Iranian occupation. Even these mistakes will fade when these matters are put in their right context, allowing both Arabs and Turks to view their security and prosperity from a common regional vantage point.
*Researcher and writer on Arab-Turkish strategic relations and Ottoman studies
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