Crossroads Asia

The Epic Story of How the Turks Migrated From Central Asia to Turkey

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Crossroads Asia

The Epic Story of How the Turks Migrated From Central Asia to Turkey

How did modern Anatolia come to be occupied by the Turks? The historical story may surprise you.

The Epic Story of How the Turks Migrated From Central Asia to Turkey
Credit: Night planet Earth with precise detailed relief and city lights illuminated by moonlight. Turkey and Middle East countries, via

Lovers of antiquity and the classical world know very well that Asia Minor–modern Turkey–was formerly inhabited by a variety of non-Turkic peoples. Most of these people spoke Indo-European languages and included the Hittites, Phrygians, and Luwians (Troy was probably a Luwian city). After the conquests of Alexander the Great, Asia Minor was mostly Hellenized and remained solidly Greek until the 11th century, with Armenians forming the majority in the eastern parts of the region, as they had since antiquity.

In the second half of the first millennium CE, Turkic peoples were gradually streaming into most of Central Asia from their original homeland in the Altai mountains of western Mongolia. They gradually displaced or assimilated both the settled and nomadic Iranian-speaking people. But how did they get all the way to Turkey, which has the largest concentration of Turkic peoples today?

In the 11th century, Turks began appearing at the edges of Asia Minor (Anatolia), which was then controlled by the Greeks. Many of the Turks were mercenaries in the employ of local Arab and Persian rulers to the east of the Byzantine Empire and Armenia, the dominant states in Asia Minor. In 1037, the Seljuk Empire, a Turkic state, was founded northeast of Iran in Central Asia and quickly overran much of Persia, Iraq, and the Levant. By the 1060s, the Seljuk Empire bordered Byzantine Asia Minor. It should be noted that the Turks were a minority, ruling a Persian, Arab, and Kurdish majority.

The main strategic threat to the Turks was the Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt. The Fatimids were Ismaili Shia and ruled over Jerusalem and Mecca at that time while the Turks upheld Sunni Islam. The Sunni Caliph in Baghdad was their puppet. By this time, the Caliph had ceased to exercise any political role while the Seljuk sultans held the reigns of power. As was the case of many empires, many problems arose due to the conflicts between nomadic rulers and a sedentary population. Thus, many of the Turkic tribes under Seljuk rule actually posed a problem for the Seljuks since they were restless and sometimes raided settled populations ruled by the Seljuks. As a result, many of the Turkic tribes and families were placed on the frontiers of the Seljuk Empire, including on the frontier of the Byzantine Empire. Turkish raids into Asia Minor commenced, greatly annoying the Byzantines.

In 1045, the Byzantines conquered Armenia. Their frontier with the Seljuks was not particularly strong or pacified as a result of the intermittent warfare there. Additionally, many Armenians did not like the Byzantines and did not help them resist the Turkish raids. Eventually, by 1071, the Byzantines, exasperated at constant Turkish raiding, decided to move a large army to their borders to eliminate the Turkish threat once and for all. Unfortunately, this was not a particularly good idea, because their strength lay in manning border forts against lightly armed tribal warriors. By attempting to fight a pitched battle, they also risked total defeat.

Furthermore, the Seljuk Turks did not want to antagonize the Byzantines. Their state apparatus was directed against Egypt; it was only tribes that were barely under central Seljuk control that were raiding the Byzantines. Romanus IV Diogenes, the Byzantine Emperor, created a previously non-existent threat for the Seljuks by moving some 40,000 troops to his eastern border, thus alerting the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan to the threat from Asia Minor. Thus, the Byzantines, by diverting the Turks’ attention from Egypt, brought a Turkic army to Asia Minor from Persia and Central Asia.

The Seljuk and Byzantine armies met at Manzikert in eastern Turkey, where the Byzantines were crushed. This is arguably one of the most decisive battles in history, as it resulted in the eventual establishment of Turkish power in Asia Minor. It was likely that the battle was lost by the Byzantines due to treachery, because units commanded by generals belonging to alternative court factions in Constantinople simply never showed up for the battle, despite being in the vicinity, and returned home afterwards.

Sultan Alp Arslan captured Emperor Diogenes and and offered him generous terms before sending him home. However shortly afterwards, the Byzantine empire suffered a civil war between Diogenes and other contenders for the throne and several generals broke his treaty with the Turks. This left Asia Minor devoid of soldiers and gave the Turks good reason to occupy it. By 1081, they were across the Bosphorus Straits from Constantinople. Although the Byzantines and Crusaders later recovered some territory in Asia Minor, from then on, the majority of the region remained under Turkish control.

But groups of Turks ruled over many states in the Middle East and South Asia at this point in time. Why did they become the majority in Turkey? After the Seljuk victory, many Turks poured into Asia Minor, establishing little statelets, and ruling over the native population. Following the subsequent Mongol invasions, even more poured in, fleeing from their former lands in Persia and Central Asia. Unlike in many other cases, where a dominant minority eventually became assimilated into the majority population, because of the unstable, chaotic frontier situation, the Turks did not assimilate into the population. Indeed, many locals (ethnic Greeks and Armenians) attached themselves to Turkish warlords for protection as clients. This client-patron relationship spread out over many bands and tribes across Asia Minor and ensured that the majority of the population assimilated into the Turkish religion (Islam), language, and culture instead of vice versa.

This is a cultural process known as elite dominance, wherein a minority imposes its culture on the majority. The Turkification of Asia Minor is evident in the fact that genetically, the majority of today’s Turks are most closely related to Greeks and Armenians rather than Central Asian Turkic peoples, like the Uzbeks and Kazakhs. Thus, while the Turkic culture dominated in Asia Minor, the Turks themselves quickly merged genetically into the native population. This is not to say that there is no actual Central Asian genetic component among today’s Anatolian Turkish population. Genetic studies show that some 9 to 15 percent of the Turkish genetic mixture derives from Central Asia.

Asia Minor was the most populous part of the Byzantine Empire, its heartland. Without it, the empire simply didn’t have enough resources to compete in the long run. Turkification was also helped by the fact that the Greeks were of a different religion than the Turks. Greeks converting to Islam would often do so by “going Turk,” a phenomenon not possible in already Muslim Arab and Persian regions. Furthermore, in the later Ottoman Empire, the Turkish language prevailed at the official level, and not local languages. As a result of all these factors, densely populated Asia Minor became the region of the world with the largest concentration of Turkic-speaking peoples, far away from their original homeland in Central Asia. This event had a major impact on global geopolitics for centuries to come.