Bloody Shovel 3

We will drown and nobody shall save us


So in the last post we saw how the Byzantine Empire thought that playing a soap opera style family feud was more important than the lives of 10 million Greek Christians in Asia Minor.

Vyronis tells how this crushing defeat woke up all the Greek nation to the danger of the Muslim Turks:

The strife between the generals and bureaucrats not only did not abate, but the very appearance of the Turks in Anatolia seemed to add a certain zest to the struggle as each side strove to outdo the other in purchasing Turkish military aid in a quest for power. This graphically illustrates how narrow and selfish political considerations outweighed all other factors, the Turkish danger included. By this time the true nature of the Turkish menace was apparent to all, to both bureaucrats and generals, but the desire for the imperial crown was overpowering.

Oh.  But the infighting topic is already getting boring, so let's talk about the new boss: the Turks.

I remember reading some years ago some smartass claiming that the Turkish conquest was a good thing, because the Byzantines had double taxes to pay for State and Church, and Muslims have it more streamlined. Yeah he really said so. Of course when one just sees the maps changing colors it doesn't seem like the change was more than just one boss going out and a new boss coming in. The old story of how feudal wars were a trivial business because nobody wanted to harm the peasants who actually pay the taxes, so it was just some dozens of knights slashing each other without doing much harm.

Well the Turkish assault in Asia Minor was nothing of the sort. First of all Turks weren't feudal, nor knights. They were nomadic horse riders, born and raised fighters who waged war while carrying their horses, sheep, tents, women and children with them. A literal nation at war. Or basically a band of bandits grown too big. They mostly raided each other's herds until they found out they could gang up and raid settled villages, for mutual profit. The day the Turks figured that one up, the future of the Middle East was sealed.

When the Seljuqs settled down in Persia, the Sultan sent their nomadic kin up north to raid the Byzantines so they wouldn't raid their Persian subjects. Turkmen (how Vyronis calls the nomadic part of the Seljuq nation) usual way of waging war was this. I quote randomly:

When the Muslim Nur al-Din captured the city of Edessa (...)  30,000 were killed, 16,000 enslaved, and only 1,000 escaped

Melitene and its population of wealthy Syrian, Armenian, and Greek merchants suffered the fate of Artze, as great numbers of the inhabitants were either killed or enslaved, and the booty the Turks took-gold, silver, and other loot-was great

The most important Byzantine city in Armenia, Ani, was taken and many of the inhabitants put to the sword or carried into slavery.

During the reign of Manuel the armies of Kilidj Arslan sacked the city so thoroughly, that it eventually had to be restored.

In 1108 Turks burned the villages about Edessa and enslaved the farming population

 The Turks reached the important Cappadocian city of Caesareia after having been let through by the recalcitrant troops guarding Melitene. They plundered, destroyed, and burned the city, singling out the famous shrine of St. Basil. This they looted, carrying away all the holy items of the church, and attempted to break into the structure housing the saint’s remains, The church was desecrated and the inhabitants massacred.

The Syrian city of Hierapolis, the Turkish bands raided farther into Anatolia, and for the second time in the long history of the Christian- Muslim holy war, the famous city of Amorium was sacked by a Muslim army, and its citizens massacred.

The city of Chonae had been savagely pillaged by the Turks. The famed shrine of the Archangel was profaned and turned into a stable for the Turkish horses, and the raiders “filled the region with murder,” The inhabitants, who were accustomed to flee to the caverns, where the river went underground in the vicinity of the sanctuary, were all drowned when the river suddenly flooded.

The invaders destroyed Croulla and Catoicia and the inhabitants were put to the sword and enslaved. The regions of Scamander, Ida, Assus, and Pegae were desolated, and Cenchrae was reduced by blockade. When the Turks entered the latter town they killed the majority of the inhabitants, pillaged the town, and then intentionally destroyed it by fire.

Ever read those stories about Gengis Khan's armies? Well the Turks are the Mongols distant cousins and neighbours. And those are the nomads rules of engagement. All of the above stories weren't done by a cohesive state in a process of conquest. This was done by bands of bandits looking for plunder and blood. And plunder and blood they got plenty. All those slaves were eventually to be found in Persia's harems and farms. See, nomads don't give a shit about keeping the peasants productive and leaving off them. If the peasants die and the land isn't cultivated, that's more pasture for them.

During the next century a new military dynasty, the Komnenos, won the imperial throne, and with Crusader assistance, went to reconquer most of the lost lands. The Turks didn't like it:

When the emperor began to attack Neocaesareia, the fury of the Turks against the Christians increased in all the lands which they held. Whosoever mentioned the name of the emperor, even by accident, received the sword, and his children and house were taken. In this manner many perished in Melitene and in other lands, up until the emperor suddenly departed.

But the Christian armies were stopped at Konya, the old Ikonion, were some Turks built a state in the central and eastern Anatolian plateau, the eerie sounding Sultanate of Rum (Rome). The Sultanate was a settled realm administered in Persian, but not all Turks settled down. Thousands kept their nomadic style, making pasture of the lands of the peasants they had killed or sold into slavery. Nomads were unruly but very handy as a military force.

The fighting continued for decades, leaving a trail of desolation and scorched land behind each army, but with neither side gaining an upper hand.  Until the Komnenian dynasty collapsed in 1180. Then the Turks unleashed the nomads to go in a new cycle of plunder, while Greeks rebelled and Byzantine soap opera went running again. While Byzantium kept busy fighting himself and her Christian cousins from the Fourth Crusade (who had the nerve to conquer Constantinople itself), the Sultanate too collapsed after 1250, when the Mongols invaded from the east, and Turkmen nomads rebelled and established dozens of small lordships. The collapse of central authority in the Turkish held land was a really bad deal for the Greek population, for it unleashed the vicious nomads who went on besieging cities and putting their inhabitants to the sword. The collapse of the Sultanate also meant that literate Persian culture was replaced by more basic Turkish customs, and the Turkish language was used in the administration for the first time. And instead of a more or less traditional king who cares about the big picture, you get less tolerant petty lords with narrower interests. By 1300 all of Anatolia was on the hands of small petty kingdoms constantly warring with each other. One of them, in Bithynia, the north-west belt of the peninsula, was the house of Osman, who during the next 150 years would put the rest of Byzantium under its boot.

The 13th century Ince Madrassa in Konya

Whole Christian villages would be forced to pay a tithe (besides state taxes) to support Islamic madrassas, hospitals or charities, which would set aside income especially for attending the necessities of converts to Islam. All the institutions used income extracted from Christians to proselytise. Which they did, and quite successfully. Why wouldn't a Christian convert? The Empire had fallen, miserably, and the Christian population had been massacred, enslaved and victimised in any way imaginable. Surely God didn't love Christians much when it allowed that to happen. Again from Bryennios:

Our rulers are unjust, those who oversee our affairs are rapacious, the judges accept gifts, the mediators are liars, the city dwellers are deceivers, the rustics are unintelligible, and all are useless. Our virgins are more shameless than prostitutes, the widows more curious than they ought to be, the married women disdain and keep not faith, the young men are licentious and the aged drunkards. The nuns (have) insulted their calling, the priests have forgotten God, the monks have strayed from the straight road. ... Many of us live in gluttony, drunkenness, fornication,adultery, foulness, licentiousness,hatred, rivalry, jealousy, envy, and theft. We have become arrogant, braggart, avaricious, selfish, ungrateful, disobedient, irreconcilable....It is these things and others like them which bring down upon us the chastisements of God.

The psychological ground was there for people to switch their faith. All that was needed was a little push. And push they did. Islam gets a bad rep for their tradition of forced conversion, and while that is true and it happened quite often, forced conversions don't really work well. Faith lives in the deepest part of people's soul, and while the threat of death might make you obedient, most forced converts would just keep their faith to themselves at their homes while pretending otherwise in public. Islam's success story owes as much to the sword of its warriors as to the mendicant preachers of the dervishes. The great Sufi dervish orders appear in the borders of Persia just in the eleventh century, and their missionary zeal naturally took them to the newly conquered lands of old Byzantine Asia Minor. Dervish orders was a heterodox, emotional movement, not dissimilar to the first missionaries in the early Middle Ages of Western Europe, or the Methodist preachers in the United States. While dervishes were often expelled from old Islamic kingdoms for their heterodoxy, they thrived in the tumultuous environment of Turkic Anatolia. Deprived people have a weak spot for ascetic wanderers preaching the path to heaven.

While today most of the history is the stuff of legends, with stories of missionaries becoming animals, making miracles, and converting people by sheer wisdom:

One day a Greek architect constructed a chimney in the house of the Mastcr. The friends, by way of joking, said to him: “Since Islam is the best religion, why do you not become a Muslim ?”

He replied: “I have been a follower of Christ for fifty years. I fear Him and would be ashamed to abandon His religion.” The Master suddenly entered and spoke: “The mystery of faith is fear. Whosoever fears God, even though he be a Christian, is religious not irreligious.” After having pronounced these words, he disappeared, The Christian architect was converted, and become a disciple and sincere friend as well.

Christians were probably more than willing to convert to a religion that preached to them, gave them charity, and erased the crushing legal disabilities that Islam forces on infidel subjects. The combination of demoralisation, effective preaching and economic incentives created a fertile ground for conversion, and in three centuries time the process was almost complete. And with conversion came Turkification. Most urban centers had been destroyed, and new ones rebuilt under Turkish leadership, which made most towns Turkish speaking very early on. Dervishes also operated in Turkish, as all of the administration. The association of Islam with the Turkish language was a very natural one.

Pockets of Greek speakers survived in the Black Sea coast, where a branch of Greek nobility had kept independence in Trebizond even longer than Constantinople itself (1460), and some isolated mountain villages. In fact the religious situation in the area more or less froze after the Ottoman Empire established itself in Constantinople after 1453. The Ottomans were not a bunch of disorganised nomads, but a highly organised settled empire, which in little time had conquered most of south-eastern Europe. They had an empire to run, and while they were as pious Muslims as any one else, they didn't want to harm their taxpaying peasants. So they invented this millet system. While grabbing all the nicest Churches for themselves (like the poor Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles), they didn't destroy the Orthodox Church. On the contrary, they established it as the head of all the Christian subjects of the empire, and gave it appropriate resources. In fact the Republic of Turkey still names a Patriarch of the Orthodox Church to this day. While some conversion did happen, the Christian character of Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia didn't change in 400 of Ottoman rule.

The Turkey of today, particularly in Istanbul, might seem too white for a Muslim country, but those aren't the old Greeks. Anatolian Greeks weren't probably that white anyway, themselves descended from the original tribes of the land. Deep in Ottoman times, Asia Minor saw massive immigration from Circassians, Albanians (Egypt's Ali Pasha was Albanian), Bosniaks, etc. Ottoman armies depended much on Janissaries, special forces made of kidnapped Christian boys who were raised as Muslim soldiers. They tended to climb high in the Ottoman hierarchy, and those were also white.

That's the story of the transformation of Anatolia from a Christian, Greek land, to a Muslim, Turkish one. If any, the moral of the story seems to me to be that carrot and stick works, especially if have a big, heavy stick with many spikes on it, and use it profusely. The Turks destroyed the Christian society by murder, slavery and rape. The Byzantine counter attack didn't help, it's half-assed nature simply prolonging the phase of murdering and enslaving. Once Muslim rule was established by sheer brutality, the carrot came in the shape of state sponsored proselytising and medicant missionaries. People don't like to switch religions, but in the end personal faith is nothing without the backing of institutions, and the Orthodox Church was dead. Islamic institutions took its place, and the population followed. Islam only survives in Eastern Europe because the Ottoman court didn't destroy the Christian institutions.

Historically the association of religious institutions with carrots is very strong. Christianity got big in the Roman Empire because it was one of the few groups who actually helped random people. Rodney Stark argued that Christianity grew most during the plague times, as the mortality rate was much reduced just by giving basic care and water to the sick. Pagans would flee each man to himself, while Christians were the only ones helping people. Over time, Christians grew by the mortality differential. Being nice pays.

Islam understands this too, that's why Islamist parties have names like Justice and Development, or Freedom and Justice. They also tend to operate charities, a fact that Western leftist journalists also use to conceal their terrorist associations (they're just a charity!). Christian churches in the West also have charity operations, but most people in Europe don't really need assistance anymore, and with the withdrawal of preaching to children in schools, Church attendance has all but collapsed. There's no more stick, and people have more to eat than carrots.


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  • A couple of years ago, I bicycled from the NW of the Ottoman empire at its largest extent to Israel. One thing that immediately struck me as I went from Greece to Turkey is that the Greeks were giant douches compared to the Turks, who were as hardworking, honest and friendly (by and large) as their cousins in Central Asia. I have a feeling that this difference has something to do with the comparative advantage the Turks had when they faced off against the Byzantines.

    A couple of other points: I suspect that the Seljuk conquest was overall not as bloody as you depict, and that these cities were ones which resisted and were made into examples. As far as nomads are concerned-the Turks knew even back when they were in Central Asia that farmers and artisans attached to the land are a lucrative source of income and luxury goods. Every place I've seen which had a long-standing nomadic presence also had cities and farmland, and a dynamic balance between the two-terrain ideally suited for transhumance is not ideal for farming, and vice versa. I doubt they showed up to Anatolia, forgot everything they knew and killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. The fact that they coexisted with the settled Kurdish population of Western Persia/Eastern Turkey/Northwest Iraq/Eastern Syria supports this idea.

    Huge indigenous Christian populations remained in modern-day Eastern and Western Turkey long past the Seljuk conquest. Izmir was a Greek city until 1919, for instance (and had the Greeks not fucked up, it still would be.)

    • Of course nomadism only makes sense if trade is possible with settled farmers. They need to get their flour from somewhere. But war is war.

      On old Smyrna: "in Ephesus it consisted largely of Christian prisoners who had been taken as slaves by the Turks and Jews. These prisoners seem to have been great in number and probably were for the most part not originally inhabitants of Ephesus. For when the Turkish emir Sasan took Ephesus (on condition of sparing the inhabitants), he transplanted the majority to Thyraeum, while large numbers were massacred. He also states that the Christians of Smyrna had been largely deported and replaced with Muslim colonists and that the city was in ruins"

      On Modern Smyrna: "There was a group of Greek-speakers who came to Asia Minor after the Ottoman conquest. These latter were heavily settled on the western coastal and riverine regions, their main center being Izmir (Smyrna)."

      And the Christian population there was by no means huge.

      As you see I'm just quoting others. Do you want the book? I have it in a nice pdf.

      • Sure, shoot it my way.

        Nomadism makes sense even without trade with settled populations-you can raise some crops with a transhumance lifestyle since the places you migrate between remain constant. Further, even without grain you can do fine-check out the Mongols. But luxury goods come from settled populations.

        I don't remember where I read it (maybe Levi-Strauss?) but somebody asserted that the great conquering nomadic populations came from the border between agriculturalists and nomadic pastoralists, since the latter had the opportunity to trade with the former and know their wealth and strength quite well. In the farmers' states' moments of weakness and/or drought and famine for the nomads, the nomads would go and conquer their neighbors.

        War is war (and the Byzantines were hardly blushing virgins in terms of mass slaughter and deportation,) but once you've conquered, you're an idiot if you kill off your new subjects instead of exploiting them.

  • The Seljuqs didn't kill all the farmers, but they razed almost all the cities they found. Of course in that time the urban population wasn't that big, so they could always find labor to exploit. But they still managed to kill a whole lot of people. The existence of the Kurds in former Armenian lands tells me that they went there after the Turkish takeover, to replace what the Turks had killed. There's the WW1 genocide but Kurds were plenty before that.

    Anyway you can check the source yourself.

  • My understanding is that Islamic law allowed Muslims to freely graze on non-muslim's land. Once Islamic rulers gained hegemony over territory, it was subject to Islamic law. Probably, Anatolia was known to have better/wetter climate than Turkestan. As nomadic farmers, they simply drifted on to lands newly taken from Christians.- the Muslim turks knew they could migrate there and graze freely and their herds would thrive better than in Central Asia. Of course that ruins the labor of the farmer, which may have lead to them leaving it, or surrendering it altogether. What I'm interested in is how such an invasion changes the natural vegitation, climate and the productivity of the land. Under the Byzantines Anatolia was dominated by Farmers until 1025 who also had a duty to fill the army roles in the Theme..

    A similar phenomina may explain the "Arabization" of North West Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, and Morrocco. The Arab Islamic Armies conquered those lands from non-Muslims. The Arab Muslims nomadic herders appear to have followed those armies to take advantage of the cheap, easy and productive grazing lands made available by conquest. The property didn't have to change lands, its just Christians couldn't evict a muslim from grazing on his land. So Arabs flowed in but the process of exactly how Tunisia lost its language and religion is a bit uncertain. What happened to the Christians? How long did they last? And what happened to the climate, vegetation and the productivity of the land? Under the Romans North Africa had been a bread basket and exported more wheat than any other part of the Empire but Egypt. It was so prosperous that the Vandals abandoned Spain for it.

    The problem is, I can't find cite worthy sources that talk about this.

    • Certainly the myriad Turkic bands did destroy the Byzantine civilization in Anatolia, and it does appear that it was the nomads that did the most damage; Greek language and religion disappeared the fastest wherever Turkic nomads were active, in contrast to settled Persianized Turkic states (the Seljuks, and the later Ottomans).

      So it does appear that herders did displace plenty of farmers. Yet Anatolia today is hugely populated and nomads are almost extinct; so farmers did eventually regain the upper hand. The question is if they were the same people.

      Also North Africa has a huge population right now so I don't know if they've actually decreased their cereal production compared to Roman times. Back then Africa was also a big exporter of horses and cavalrymen; so they must have had plenty of pasture too in addition to their farmland. It's all indeed an interesting question. I wonder if there's more literature in French, at least about North African history.

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