The Seljuqs of Rum

The Seljuqs of Rum, or Anatolian Seljuqs (Turkish: Anadolu Selcuklulari), were the first major Turkish state in what was to become Turkey. An offshoot of the greater Seljuq Empire, the Rum Seljuqs would eventually outlast their kin, and their legacy would be an inspiration for all future Turkish realms in Anatolia.

All branches of the Seljuqs had a common origin. Among historians, it is widely accepted the Seljuqs were a ruling clan of a significant section of a vast Turkish tribal confederacy known as the Ghuzz or Oghuz. In the 11th Century two Seljuq leaders, brothers, Tughrul Beg and Chagri Beg, defeated the Ghaznavids in northern Iran. With the floodgates open the Ghuzz poured into Iran and within less than a decade they had captured Baghdad, the center of Sunni Islamic legitimacy and invested with vast authority by the Abbasid caliph. In 1063, the architect of the newfound Seljuq Empire, Tughrul, died. For a time it seemed war would break out between the successors of Tughrul, endangering all they had gained. Eventually, the conflict boiled down between Qutlumish and Alp Arslan, Tughrul’s cousin and nephew respectively. Alp Arslan won the contest, but he mourned the death of a member of his family and vowed to treat Qutlumish’s heirs well. Alp Arslan would go on to expand Seljuq power, bringing it into conflict with the premier superpower in the Middle East, the Roman Empire (incorrectly known as the Byzantine Empire). In 1071 Alp Arslan won a decisive victory over the Romans at the battle of Manzikert, changing the region forever. The Seljuqs would divide the spoils of victory between the commanders who contributed the most to victory. Among these was the son of Qutlumish, and the founder of the Sultanate of Rum, Suleiman.

Within a year of Manzikert the great Alp Arslan was dead and was succeeded by his son Malik Shah. The new sultan was wary of Suleiman, and with good reason, he was ambitious and had the talent to back it up. To keep his cousin away from Baghdad, Malik Shah made Suleiman and his sons the leaders of all Turkmen in Anatolia. The decision was met with much grumbling from the other leaders, but Suleiman was able to quiet them. Taking advantage of the civil wars in Roman territory Suleiman played the differing candidates to the purple off each other and used the distraction to conquer vast swaths of Anatolia. Asia Minor was now lost to the empire and to drive this point home Suleiman made the city of Nicaea, a scant sixty miles from Constantinople itself, his capital. In 1081, the Roman Empire stabilized with the ascension of Alexios Komnenos to the purple. Suleiman and Alexios reached an agreement to stay clear of the other, allowing the Seljuq leader to turn his attention east. In 1084, he captured Antioch, which had been thought unconquerable (every attempt by Muslims to conquer the city since 969 had failed). Within two years, Suleiman believed his power, which encompassed nearly the entirety of Anatolia, plenty enough to warrant independence from Isfahan, the capital of the greater Seljuq empire. To make this clear to Malik Shah, Suleiman laid siege to the city of Aleppo, an important stepping-stone to Damascus, the key to the Holy Land. As it turned out Tutush, the Sultan of Syria, would march to Aleppo’s relief. During a battle with Tutush Suleiman was slain (in some accounts he took his own life). His family was captured and sent to Malik Shah. With the death of Suleiman the first period of the Sultanate of Rum ended.

Several years would pass before the recreation of the sultanate. In 1092 Malik Shah died and civil war between his brothers and sons broke out, splitting the Greater Seljuqs. Taking advantage of the chaos the son of Suleiman, Kilij Arslan, escaped to Anatolia. Even though he was just thirteen Kilij Arslan regained the city of Nicaea, and from there he rebuilt his father’s sultanate. In just four years, he had recovered nearly all the territory his father once held, and Kilij Arslan would triumphantly declare himself Sultan of Rum. But his triumph was short-lived, the Danishmendids, who had been among those given land by Alp Arslan following Manzikert, posed a threat that Kilij Arslan could not ignore. But this too was short lived. For unknown to the Seljuqs and the Danishmendids alike the Roman Emperor Alexios had called for aid from the West.

The Pope, the spiritual leader of Western Christianity, had responded to this plea with an appeal for a crusade, a holy war, to reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslims. In 1096, the first wave of this crusade, the Peasant’s Crusade of Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, arrived in Anatolia. Suddenly a threat bigger than anything he could have imagined was here. The Seljuq army abruptly changed directions, and the young sultan destroyed the Peasant’s Crusade masterfully. With that taken care of Kilij Arslan turned his attention to the Danishmendids. Unbeknownst to the Seljuqs a much larger and well-organized crusade was coming. But when Kilij Arslan was told of the arrival of this new body of Crusaders he dismissed them, after all he had crushed the first Crusaders that arrived, what had he to fear of these new men? But that was perhaps the biggest mistake he would ever make. In 1097, Kilij Arslan received word that a combined force of Crusaders and Romans were besieging his capital at Nicaea. The sultan rushed to his capital but arrived too late to do anything, the Crusaders defeated him handily, and the city fell. Alexios took possession of the city to the chagrin of the Crusaders and custody of Kilij Arslan’s family. In a much-criticized decision the Emperor later returned the sultan’s family unharmed, because of their mutual respect for each other. Realizing by now that these new Crusaders were different than anything he had known before Kilij Arslan formed an alliance with the Danishmendids to stand united against this foe. At the battle of Dorylaeum, the united Turkish army was destroyed. To those that survived it seemed like a reverse Manzikert had been inflicted on the Turks. The Crusaders pressed on, and the Sultanate of Rum was reduced to little more than the plains of eastern Anatolia.

The First Crusade was perhaps the Sultanate of Rum’s darkest hour. To Kilij Arslan, it seemed like the end was near as the Crusaders reduced his territory bit by bit, but once it became apparent the destruction of the Seljuqs was not their goal he rebuilt his power. When the Crusade of 1101 began, the Seljuqs had already adapted to the Western style of warfare. In several months, Kilij Arslan broke the myth of Crusader invincibility that had settled over the Muslim world, by wiping out three crusader armies one after the other. With these victories, Seljuq power spread once more and central Anatolia was regained from the Romans. Even the Danishmendids began to falter, and the Seljuqs made gains against them. In 1107, the great conqueror turned his attention to Baghdad, and he marched towards that city. However at Mosul the Great Seljuqs were able to halt his advance and Kilij Arslan died shortly after that by drowning.

The Seljuqs were on the rise once more. The successor of Kilij Arslan was named, ironically, Malik Shah. But this Malik Shah was weak and none too bright. His reign was dominated by an ill-advised war with the Romans. Taking advantage of his brother’s unpopularity another son, named Mas’ud, dethroned Malik Shah in a coup in 1116. In contrast to Malik Shah, Mas’ud was more interested in rebuilding domestically and making friends with the Romans. But he was also a warrior. In 1134, Mas’ud made significant gains against the Danishmendids (who had backed his rise to power). When the Second Crusade was launched in reaction to the fall of the County of Edessa to Zengi of Mosul, Mas’ud, and his Anatolian Seljuqs played a major role in their defeat. The destruction of the German and French Crusaders was their doing. In the years that followed Mas’ud would oversee a gradual expansion of his domain, with the Sultanate of Rum absorbing both the remnants of the Greater Seljuqs and the Danishmendids. In 1153, the Alaeddin Mosque in Konya was completed and remains Mas’ud’s greatest legacy, as well as the best-preserved example of Seljuq architecture still in existence. The Sultan Mas’ud died in 1156, the first Seljuq sultan to die peacefully.

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The Alaeddin Mosque in modern Konya, Turkey. The Rum dynastic mausoleum, Mas’ud was the first of eight sultans buried here. By Christian Mathis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Mas’ud left behind a growing, prosperous, realm. Mas’ud was succeeded to the throne by his son Kilij Arslan II. Like his grandfather, this Kilij was a full-blown warrior and a fighter, and it was in his reign the Third Crusade was faced. At the start of his reign, Kilij Arslan II was threatened by his brother, who was supported by the Danishmendids. There was also the matter of the Romans. Eventually, Kilij Arslan II decided to focus on the Romans first. In 1159, he attacked Manouel I as he was returning home from a conference with Nur ad-Din, the successor of Zengi. The attack resulted in a war that ended in Roman victory in 1161. Or so it seemed. In reality, Kilij Arslan II was setting the stage for what he hoped to be a great victory over the Romans. In 1175, the Sultanate of Rum destroyed the hated Danishmendids, annexing their territory. By the terms of their treaty, Manouel demanded land he believed Roman by right. But Kilij Arslan II refused, and, as a result, the whole Roman army marched against him. In the resulting battle of Myriokephalon even though the Roman army had avoided being wiped out the psychological impact was enormous.

After this battle no more attempts were made to conquer Anatolia, the tide of time had turned in favor of the Seljuqs. Following the battle Kilij Arslan II took a page from his father’s book and focused on the internal affairs. The famous ‘hans’ or trading centers that marked the beginning of the first great Turkish economic flourishing appeared at this time. In 1180 following the death of his old enemy Manouel Kilij Arslan II launched an offensive against Roman territory, capturing the southern Anatolian coastline. During this conquest, the Seljuqs negotiated an alliance with the rising power of Salah ad-Din, whom we know as Saladin. In 1186, Kilij Arslan II made the most controversial decision of his life. He decided to abdicate his throne to his ten sons, he would nominally remain sultan for the rest of his life, but the day-to-day ruling would be their domain. It was in this political climate that Frederick Barbarossa and his soldiers captured Konya, the capital of the Seljuq realm. Kilij Arslan II died two years later, watching as his sons tore the sultanate apart in their petty squabbles.

The first son to claim the Seljuq throne was Kai Khusrau, who took it in 1192. In 1194, the last remnants of the Great Seljuqs collapsed, bringing the Seljuq period of Persia to an end. But Kai Khusrau had not been on the throne for long before he was sentenced to exile with his family to Constantinople in 1196. He was replaced by Suleiman II, who conquered the Artukid and Saltukid begliks in his reign. In 1204, he died and was succeeded by his three-year-old son Kilij Arslan III. But the infant sultan was replaced by his returning uncle and cousins later that year, after the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade.

Kai Khusrau had inherited a real mess. In 1204, with the aid of his Roman father-in-law, Kai Khusrau was at last able to conquer the Seljuq throne for good. Under this new sultan, the Seljuqs began to recover from the civil war and rebuild their shattered realm. Kai Khusrau even called on his sister Nesibi Hatun, to help out by overseeing a building spree on his behalf. In 1207, Kai Khusrau captured Antalya, an important Mediterranean port. With the taking of Antalya the great economic boom that characterized the reigns of Kai Khusrau and his sons Kai Qavus and Kai Qubad began. He then embarked on a campaign against the Roman successor states in Anatolia and died in battle with the Emperor of Nicaea, Theodoros Laskaris, in 1211.

The next sultan improved on his father’s legacy. Kai Qavus was much like his father in how he ruled the Sultanate of Rum, in that he balanced the economy with military conquests. One of the first actions he took was to imprison his younger brother Kai Qubad. Much as Malik Shah had feared Kilij Arslan, Kai Qavus feared for his throne. In 1214, the Black Sea port city of Sinope was captured by Seljuq armies, which opened new trade opportunities with the Far East. When the city of Antalya was captured by a Crusader invasion Kai Qavus was able to recapture it quickly. Holding these two trade cities put the sultanate right on the middle of the trade routes, which strengthened the coffers of Rum. He also forced the Roman successor state of Trebizond to bow to him. However, that would not have been possible if not for Kai Qavus’ army reforms. He enlarged the Seljuq armies and instilled a new sense of discipline. Kai Qavus was also a builder, and his buildings inspired his brother later. In the last years of his reign, Kai Qavus became a poet, and he encouraged the study of the Persian classics. He died of a disease in 1219.

Kai Qubad was perhaps the greatest of the Sultans of Rum. When Kai Qavus died in 1219, his brother Kai Qubad was released from prison in Ankara, and as his brother had no sons, he was allowed to succeed. Kai Qubad soon proved himself full of such unbridled energy, self-confidence, and ambition that he was unlike any Seljuq ruler since the early days of the sultanate. He was also obsessed with military matters. Even if the Sultanate of Rum was wealthy it was still small, not yet to the size it had been under his grandfather. Starting in 1221 he embarked on a series of campaigns that would when they ended brought all Anatolia save for Diyarbakir and the Christian kingdoms, as well as the Crimea under Seljuq dominion. For fifteen years, the Sultanate of Rum was never defeated on the field of battle.


Statue of Kai Qubad in modern Alanya, Turkey. By user:ozgurmulazimoglu (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

But it was in the domestic arena that Kai Qubad received his greatest glory. No other man in the entire Seljuq dynasty was as great a builder as he. No other man was as great a trader then he also. It is said that Kai Qubad transformed all Anatolia into a market garden during his reign, backed by vast sugar refineries and farms. Nearly all the cities under his command received a makeover: Konya was rebuilt, surpassing all of her old glory. Sivas was transformed into one of the greatest trading centers in the Middle East. The walls of Kayseri were rebuilt. Kai Qubad built more hans in his reign than any other sultan. And every major crossing had a bridge. More palaces were built; two examples (Keykubadiyye and Kubadabad) remain today. It was in this era of unsurpassed glory the first envoys of the Mongols arrived, but what they felt on seeing this splendor we do not know. This glorious reign was ended in blood when Kai Qubad was assassinated in 1237 with all of his sons save one.

The reign of the surviving son would mark the beginning of the end. Following the assassination of his father and brothers Kai Khusrau II ascended to the Seljuq throne. In 1237 when he began his reign he was master of nearly all of Anatolia when he died it was divided. Kai Khusrau II was not suited to rule, he was interested only in wine and poetry. Nevertheless he started his reign off with conquest, bringing Diyarbakir to the fold. With this conquest, all that stood between the Seljuqs and domination was the Christian kingdoms of Lesser Armenia and the Roman successor state of Trebizond. But just as he was about to go to war a massive revolt broke out. In 1239 the Turkmen (that is those people that did not want to settle down into a sedentary lifestyle) rose in revolt under a Sufi mystic (Dervish) named Baba Ishaq. This uprising was massive, and grew and changed purpose. Soon what had started as just the revolt of the discontented turned into a religious revolution, and people from all walks of life joined in. It took three years to put down the uprising, and the damage would be irreparable. All levels of Turkish society had been affected by the rebellion, throwing it into an uproar. Also the army Kai Qavus and Kai Qubad had built up so proudly no longer existed. And finally the Crimea, the sultanate’s first possession outside the Middle East, had been lost in the chaos.

Still Kai Khusrau II was optimistic, but not for long. In 1242, the Mongol general and the representative of the Great Khan in the Middle East, Baiju, attacked the Sultanate of Rum. The Sultanate was well aware of the Mongols; Kai Qubad had even invited them to parley with him at Konya. But no one had taken their threat seriously, even as they continued their conquests undefeated from Mongolia all the way to Persia. Now the great scourge from the east descended on Anatolia like a plague. When Erzurum suddenly fell to Baiju, the Seljuqs finally realized what they faced. A panicking Kai Khusrau II hastily put together an army; later to be joined by Georgian refugees fleeing westwards from the Mongols, and a Roman force from Trebizond. This army met the Mongol army of Baiju at a place known as Kose Dag, in the mountains of eastern Anatolia. In this battle, the Seljuq-Allied army was destroyed by the Mongols, and the broken sultan fled to Antalya and never left. With the destruction of their army, there was nothing to protect the Seljuqs as the Mongols surged forth. Sivas and Kayseri were captured, large swaths of land were burned, and all Anatolia was thrown into chaos. But Baiju did not conquer the whole sultanate. Instead, he merely forced Kai Khusrau II to bend his knee to the Great Khan and pay a hefty tribute. Kai Khusrau II died a broken man, with a broken sultanate, in 1246, possibly strangled by his nobles.

The death of Kai Khusrau II was a great blow. Following the death of Kai Khusrau II there was a crisis in Seljuq territory. The old sultan had never named a successor, and he had three sons: Kai Qavus II, Kilij Arslan IV, and Kai Qubad II. Under the wise guidance of the brilliant Vizier Celaddin Karatay, the remaining lands of the Sultanate of Rum were divided between the three heirs in 1249. When Hulagu Khan, brother of Mongke, the Great Khan, arrived in the area a few years later he reaffirmed the arrangement between the brothers and appointed Baiju to watch Anatolia carefully. But despite this the three co-rulers conspired and schemed between one another for control of the entire sultanate, as well as a solution to the Mongol problem. In 1257, Kai Qubad II was ready to surrender his third of the sultanate to Mongke, preferring to live under Mongol rule. The nobility was shocked by this news and prevented his surrender by assassinating him. With the death of Kai Qubad II, the balance of power between the brothers was broken. The remaining brothers did not have much time to think though as Hulagu demanded their aid in his campaign against Baghdad, which resulted in the destruction of that city a year later (1258). Following this Hulagu intervened in Anatolia and divided the sultanate in two between Kai Qavus II and Kilij Arslan IV.

The division marks the entrance of one of the most prominent figures of later Seljuq history, the Pervane. Technically Pervane is a title (Turkish: Butterfly), but it is one the man is best known. The Pervane was an arch schemer and manipulator, as we will see. In 1261, the Romans regained Constantinople from the Latin usurpers, and Kai Qavus II soon visited the city to seek the aid of Michael Palaiologos against the Mongols. His mother was a Roman princess, so Kai Qavus II felt kinship with the new Emperor. But the Pervane leaked the plan to the Mongols, leading to exile in Crimea where Kai Qavus II died in 1279. Kilij Arslan IV died soon afterward in 1264 (because of the intrigues of the Pervane), leaving behind a six-year-old boy to inherit. This child was set up by the Mongols as the new sole ruler of Anatolia for them, but in reality the Pervane called the shots.

The Sultanate of Rum was unified but would never grow strong. When the six-year-old Kai Khusrau III came to the throne following the death of his father he was the sultan of all that was left of the Seljuq lands. But even then his control spread little outside Konya. The nobility no longer owed their loyalty to the Rum Sultans any longer, ruling on their own. All actual power was held by the Pervane, who after marrying Kai Khusrau’s III mother became his stepfather. The Pervane, through his political power, was able to hold the Sultanate of Rum together and kept the peace in Anatolia, but he was also by nature an ambitious man. As a result, he was unable to pass up any opportunity for more power. In 1276, he entered into a secret deal with Baibars, the mighty Mamluk Sultan of Egypt (the Mamluks displaced the Ayyubids in 1250). When Baibars entered Anatolia, the Pervane saw to it the Seljuqs aided him in defeating the Mongol presence. But for reasons unknown to this day Baibars did not complete his conquest, instead he turned back and died in Syria soon after (1277). Baibars’ death left the Pervane high and dry, and he was executed later that same year for treason by the Mongols, freeing the Seljuqs from his intrigues. The power vacuum set off a civil war that did not end until the final fall of the Seljuqs. When Kai Khusrau III matured, he chose to focus on a building program, rather than concentrate on the problems plaguing the Sultanate of Rum. Nevertheless, the young sultan was given the epithet Fahreddin, the Pride of Islam, by his people following his execution in 1283.

The end of the Rum Seljuqs was near. When Kai Khusrau III died the Sultanate of Rum no longer existed as a practical entity. All of what is now Turkey had been divided among many squabbling begs, provincial lords, who were loyal only to themselves. Few of these lords owed their support to the Seljuq Sultan, whose existence depended on the begs’ good will. Not long after the death of Kai Khusrau III he was succeeded by his nephew Mas’ud II. He tried to in vain to preserve the sultanate. Mas’ud II was removed from office in 1297 and was succeeded by his brother and rival Kai Qubad III, who was assassinated in 1302. Mas’ud returned to the throne the following year and established himself at Kayseri, lasting until 1308 when he was assassinated. With Mas’ud’s death the Sultanate of Rum ended, bringing to close one of the most momentous periods in Turkey’s history.