The Seljuk Empire was a medieval Turko-Persian Sunni Muslim empire, originating from the Qynyq branch of Oghuz Turks. At its height, the Seljuk Empire controlled a vast area stretching from eastern Anatolia to western Afghanistan, and from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The Seljuk Empire was centered in Persia, and at its peak stretched across parts of what are now Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
In this approximately 3000 word article, we will take an in-depth look at the geographic extent of the Seljuk Empire, examining when and where it held territory over the course of its history from the 11th to 14th centuries.
We will break down the growth and decline of Seljuk lands by major periods and rulers. Maps and images will illustrate the empire’s changing borders and core regions. Key cities and towns under Seljuk control will also be discussed.
Origins and Early Expansion Under Tughril and Alp Arslan
The Seljuk Clan and Early Domains in Central Asia
The Seljuk Empire originated from the Seljuk clan, a group of Oghuz Turks in the 9th and 10th centuries who lived in the steppes of Central Asia. Under the leadership of Seljuk Bey and his brother Mikail, the Seljuk clan increasingly gained power and territory in Turkestan starting in the mid-1000s.
After Mikail’s death, his son Tughril Beg emerged as the leader of the Seljuk Turks and set his sights on conquering lands to the west in Persia.
Conquests in Persia and Baghdad Under Tughril Beg
As early as 1037, Tughril Beg led Seljuk warrior forces on raids into eastern Persia, seizing lands from local rulers. This launched the westward expansion that would form the early Seljuk Empire. In 1055, Tughril captured Baghdad from the Shi’ite Buyid dynasty.
This victory won over the Abbasid Sunni caliph, who officially sanctioned Tughril’s rule and granted him titles. The caliph essentially made Tughril the protector of Sunni orthodoxy against Shi’ism, setting the stage for Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in the region still seen today.
Further Expansion Under Alp Arslan
After Tughril died in 1063, he was succeeded by Alp Arslan (“Heroic Lion”), one of the finest Seljuk rulers. Building on earlier conquests, Alp Arslan continued expanding west and north from Persia into Anatolia and the Armenian lands.
Key victories included the Battle of Manzikert against the Byzantine Empire in 1071. This opened the gateway into Anatolia for Turkic tribespeople to migrate and settle lands that make up much of modern Turkey.
By Alp Arslan’s death in 1072, the Seljuk realm stretched over most of Central Asia and Persia, and deeply into the Near East towards the Mediterranean Sea. The empire was the largest, most powerful force in the Middle East and laid claim to an Islamic caliphate.
The Height of the Seljuk Empire Under Malik-Shah I
Consolidation of Rule in Persia and Mesopotamia
After ascending to the throne in 1072, Malik-Shah I and his grand vizier Nizam al-Mulk worked to consolidate Seljuk control over Persia and Mesopotamia. They brought local Persian dynasties further under their influence through a combination of military force and diplomacy.
By 1079, Malik-Shah had firmly established his rule from the River Indus to the Bosporus Strait.
Gains in Anatolia and the Caucasus
The Seljuks continued their westward expansion under Malik-Shah I, conquesting increasing amounts of territory in Anatolia and the Caucasus. Key victories included the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, which allowed them to occupy most of Anatolia, and the capture of Tbilisi, Georgia in 1068 after a 2-year siege.
According to historians, Seljuk horsemen dominated an area stretching over 500,000 square miles at the empire’s peak.
Control Over Central Asia
In Central Asia, Malik-Shah I reasserted Seljuk authority after a period of instability. He led military campaigns against rebellious Qarakhanid and Ghaznavid territories, bringing them back firmly under Seljuk suzerainty.
By the early 1080s, Seljuk rule extended across the majority of Transoxiana, an area corresponding to much of modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southwest Kazakhstan.
Fragmentation and Decline Under Later Sultans
The Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia
After the death of Sultan Malik Shah in 1092, the Great Seljuk Empire began to decline. His successor rulers struggled to maintain control over the various regions of the sprawling empire. One area that emerged as an independent state was the Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia, centered around Konya.
This state was founded by the Seljuk Turkish warlord Suleiman ibn Qutulmish in 1077, and later came under the control of the Seljuk prince Kilij Arslan I after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Sultanate of Rum was able to thrive in Anatolia while the main Seljuk Empire weakened, and it preserved many aspects of Persian culture and the Persian language that it inherited from the empire.
The sultanate lasted until the early 14th century when it fell to the rising Ottoman Empire.
The Breakaway Kermanid Dynasty
Another region that splintered off from the Seljuk Empire was Kerman in southeastern Persia. This area came under the control of the Seljuk governor Qutb al-Din Muhammad in 1041. In 1096, while the Great Seljuk Empire was embroiled in civil war, Qutb al-Din asserted Kerman’s independence and founded the Kermanid dynasty.
For over a century, the Kermanid rulers were able to maintain autonomy from the Seljuks and expand their territory at times into Oman and western India. However, the dynasty began to decline in the late 12th century and eventually fell to the Mongols under Hulegu Khan in 1187.
Loss of Iraq and Western Persia
The Great Seljuk Empire also steadily lost control over Iraq and western Persia starting in the late 11th century. The Seljuk governor in Baghdad, Nizam al-Mulk, was able to briefly restore order and unity, but after his assassination in 1092, centripetal forces took hold.
The western Persian city of Isfahan broke away under emirs who formed the Kakuyid dynasty. In Iraq, various local leaders carved out autonomous fiefdoms amidst the weakening Seljuk power. Sultan Ahmad Sanjar tried to restore the empire’s authority but faced massive rebellions in western Persia.
Sanjar’s defeat at the Battle of Qatwan in 1141 ended Seljuk hopes of retaining Iraq. The Abbasid caliph in Baghdad then regained independence, fracturing the Seljuk realm irrevocably. Despite some limited military successes later, the Great Seljuk Empire ceased to exist in any meaningful sense by the mid-12th century.
Final Years and Legacy
Smaller Successor States
After Sultan Ahmad Sanjar’s death in 1157, the Seljuk Empire began to decline and lose power over its vast territories. Over the next few decades, the empire progressively fragmented into smaller, semi-independent successor states ruled by Seljuk princes (Atabegs).
Some of the key Seljuk successor states that emerged during the late 12th and early 13th centuries included the following:
- The Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia, ruled by the descendants of Sultan Kilij Arslan I.
- The Kermanid Dynasty that controlled the region surrounding Kerman in southeastern Persia.
- The Eldiguzids in Azerbaijan and Arran.
- The Artuqid Dynasty based in Diyarbakır in upper Mesopotamia.
Despite the fragmentation, these successor states helped propagate Seljuk culture, administration, and Persianate identity in their respective territories for some decades before being gradually conquered by external powers like the Khwarazmian dynasty and Mongols.
Lasting Influence Over the Region
Although the Seljuk Empire collapsed by the mid-13th century, the dynasty left an enduring political and cultural legacy in the Middle East and Central Asia. Some key long-term influences include:
- The Persianization of Anatolia and upper Mesopotamia, influencing language, literature, architecture in the region for centuries.
- The promotion of Sunni Islam and establishment of religious institutions like madrasas and khanqahs across their realms.
- Advancement in fields like medicine, astronomy, philosophy due to extensive patronage under Seljuk sultans.
- Development of impressive architectural styles seen in Seljuk buildings like the Gök Medrese in Sivas and İsa Bey Mosque in Ankara.
The vibrant Persianate culture that emerged under the Seljuks continued to thrive in the successor states before profoundly shaping later dynasties like the Timurids and Ottomans that rose to prominence in western Asia.
|Seljuk Innovations and Influences
|Persian language and literature
|Adopted by Mamluks, Timurids, and Ottomans
|Sunni orthodoxy and institutions
|Influenced religion in wider region
|Advancements in sciences and arts
|Built upon by successor states
In summary, the Seljuk Empire originated in central Asia in the 11th century and gradually expanded to encompass Persia, Iraq, eastern Anatolia, Azerbaijan, and parts of surrounding regions at its peak in the late 11th to early 12th centuries under Alp Arslan and Malik-Shah I.
Over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries, it steadily declined and fragmented into smaller successor states before completely dissolving by the early 14th century.
The Seljuk heartland remained focused in Persia, particularly cities like Isfahan and Rayy, but the empire also established control over major centers such as Baghdad, Aleppo, Ani, and Konya at various points.
Its geographic legacy endured, as Persianate language and culture disseminated widely under Seljuk rule. The empire’s extent and might make it one of the most significant Muslim powers in the medieval Middle East.