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How long have the Turks been around? The first historical reference to the Turks is in Chinese records dating from around 200 B.C.E. These records refer to tribes called the Hsiung-nu, which is an early form of the later European word Hun. These people lived on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert in what is now Mongolia. Specific references in Chinese sources refer to a tribal kingdom called Tu-Kue in the sixth century C.E. They were a nomadic people of Central Asia. They called themselves Uyguyrs (a variation spelling of this word is Oghuz); the Chinese, coming into contact with these people, called them the Turks. They possessed common folk memories and legends, and they used the same calendars, events being placed in the Year of the Panther, the Hare, Horse, and so on. The earliest Turks followed a “shamanistic” religion.  They called their deity Tengri and believed that he had sent the founder of their civilization. The rulers were believed to be appointed by this god, and they were believed to be divine. He was also supposedly the inventor of the Turkish language. Throughout Turkish history the language is of primary importance. The Turkish language developed over a span of thousands of years. The first Turkish alphabet was developed by the eighth century of our era.

            Well, so that’s the origin of the Turkish people. Many people were of “Turkic” origin who ended up with other national names. The Bulgars, who gave us the name Bulgaria, were originally a Turkic people. The Azeri of Azerbaijan, the Kazakhs, the Tatars and needless to say the Turkomen are all Turkic peoples as well. The modern Bulgarians are a Slavic people; the Bulgars were greatly outnumbered by Slavic settlers in their lands and adopted a Slavic language, not a Turkish one. The Huns were also a Turkic people. Another Turkic tribe with an impact on modern place names are the Uzbeks, who inhabit Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan. The first branch of the Turks that concerns us here are the Seljuk Turks.

            The Seljuk Turks abandoned their ancestral faith in the eighth century and accepted the Islamic faith. This was important because it established another Islamic power. There are two groups in the Islamic faith, the Sunnis and the Shias. These groups trace their differences back to political disputes in the early Islamic world and need not concern us here other than the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are Sunni. The Turks became Sunni Muslims. They moved to the west into Iran and Iraq. They occupied Baghdad and made it their capital. The word “sultan” was originally an abstract Arabic noun meaning “sovereign authority” but starting in the tenth century it was used as a personal title. The sultans had two enemies: the Byzantine emperor and the Fatimid caliphs. The Turks, rude “barbarians” from the steppes, poured into Azerbaijan, and fought local peoples like the Armenians, the Kurds, and the Bedouin Arabs. The places conquered by the Turks became Turkish-speaking. The Turks pushed into Asia Minor, Anatolia, the home of the modern Turks. In 1068 the Byzantine Emperor Romanos decided to invade Armenia to expel the Seljuks. He advanced to Cappadocia where he occupied some terrority. However, by 1071 Romanos had completely alienated his troops, they refused to fight for him, and this resulted in a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Turks at the Battle of Manzikert on 26 August of that year. The Emperor himself was captured by the Turkish vanquisher, Alp Arsian. Two years later this Turkish ruler was assassinated. He was succeeded by rivals who used the Greek people of Anatolia for political support. The Byzantines committed political suicide by using Turkish forces to settle Byzantine dynastic disputes. They were having a civil war, and they were having trouble with their Norman French warriors. The Byzantines had a choice of allies: the Norman French, who had come into the area as Crusaders, or the Turks. The Byzantines originally invited the French in as help to help them reconquer lands taken over by the Turks. The Byzantines thought of Constantinople as the holiest place on the planet and couldn’t understand why the French wanted Jerusalem. Almost from the beginning cultural differences between the Norman French and the Byzantines made it difficult for them to work with each other. This tension was to aid the Turkish cause in Anatolia, and severely hinder the Greeks. The word “Byzantine” was not used until the eighteenth century.  Meanwhile the Seljuk Turkish rulers of Anatolia became separated from those who ruled Persia, and were called the “Seljuks of Rum”, a corruption of “Rome”; this empire was called the Roman Empire. It wasn’t called “Byzantine” until the eighteenth century, three centuries after its demise. The Byzantine Empire was drastically weakened by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, which featured a savage sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders. This infamous act occurred on Easter Sunday. The Crusaders, drunk, placed a prostitute on the throne of the Byzantine Church of St. Sophia, the ancient Church of “Hagia Sofia”, “Holy Wisdom”. Hundreds of generations of books were destroyed. Constantinople was ruined as a city.  The Seljuks weakened politically towards the end of the twelfth century as their lands also became the objects of the Crusaders. They suffered a major defeat at the hands of Mongol invaders in 1243. The thirteenth century in Anatolia was a period of political chaos, with a dizzying array of changes that history didn’t record. The Seljuk sultanate disappeared around 1308; no one recorded the exact date of the demise of the last Seljuk. Their realm in central Turkey was divided into two emirates, Kashamuni in the north and Karaman in the south. The western third of Turkey, which had been a Byzantine stronghold, was overrun in the last two decades of the thirteenth century by newly arrived bands of Turks fleeing from the Mongol terror to the east. The Turks kept on moving to the west. As a result, all of ancient Anatolia became Turkish and Moslem in character, despite the fact that Greeks, Jews and Armenians continued to live in its towns. The southwestern corner of Anatolia was divided between six clans, while the northwest was divided between two, the Osmanli (known to Westerners as the Ottomans) and the Karasi. Among these emirates at first Karaman was the stronger since they had the Seljuk strongholds but they lost ground to the Ottomans and never regained it.

            The origin of the Ottoman Turks is shrouded in a veil of legends, all of which came into existence a century after their formative period. These legends claimed that these people, originally called Kayi, had fled a small state in Persia escaping Genghis Khan. When the Kayi, with their leader, entered Anatolia, the legends claimed, they found a battle going on between the Mongols and the Seljuks. They intervened in the struggle to ensure a Seljuk victory, whereupon a grateful Seljuk sultan gave them a village. There’s one problem with this story: the Mongols actually clobbered the Seljuks. The story was invented to make the Ottomans the heirs to the glory of the Seljuk rulers. In truth the Kayi were probably forced into the far northwest of Anatolia by nervous Seljuks. They were “uncouth” nomads who bothered the Seljuks. Their ruler, Ertoghrul, set up an emirate, run by Ghazi warriors. Ghazi warriors were Turkish fighters for Islam against the infidel Greeks. The Seljuk sultans honored a Ghazi who won an important victory for them with the title of “bey”, or “prince”. His symbols of authority were a robe, a flag, a horse and a drum. It is not clear if Ertoghrul ever received this honor. He died around 1280 and his small realm went to his son, Osman. Since it was traditional for Turks to be named after their leaders, the Kayi were heretofore known as Osmanlis, or Ottomans. There were also many legends surrounding Osman, all written long after his death. In 1299 he established his capital at a place he called Yenishehir, which is Turkish for “new city”. He had his first encounter with Byzantine troops in 1301 when Byzantium sent troops to fight the ghazi warriors around Nicomedia. The Turks emerged from this encounter victorious, and ghazi warriors flooded in to help the Ottomans fight the Byzantines. The Byzantine cities were isolated but couldn’t be taken by force since the Turks lacked siege equipment. They resorted to long-term blockades. In 1326 Brusa surrendered. The city was renamed Bursa and became the second capital of the Ottoman realm. A few months later Osman died. He had transformed his people from a nomadic tribe to a stable state apparatus. When a new sultan came to the throne the Ottomans would include this phrase in their prayers: “May he be as good as Osman”.

            Osman’s successor was Orban. He created an elite military force called the Janissaries. The name is anglicized from the Turkish “yeni cheri”, “new soldiers”. They were encouraged as a counter power to the challenge of the Ghazi nobility. They looked for glory and delighted in their camaraderie. Orban decided not to use the title “bey” since the Seljuk sultanate was gone. He adopted the title of Sultan for himself. Under Orban’s leadership the Ottoman army became a formidable military machine. He captured Nicaea in 1331 and Nicomedia in 1337. Meanwhile, many people in Anatolia gave up their Greek identity, preferring Turkish rule to the influence of the Norman French Crusaders in Byzantine politics. Tired of Constantinople’s inertia, they had come to consider the Byzantine government a bad joke and thought it was only a matter of time before it fell apart. They accepted the Islamic faith. In other words, the “Greeks” became “Turks”. The Sufis who heavily influenced the Ottoman state were Sunni Moslems. The “dervishes” of the Sufi movement encouraged the ghazi warriors. This is the same branch of Islam that produced the famous “whirling dervishes”. By 1350 Anatolia could accurately be referred to as “Turkey”. Military success took Ottoman power to the Bosporus, the narrow waterway separating Europe and Asia. In 1354 the Turks established themselves at Gallipoli, or, as the Turks call it, Gelibolu. They had a little help from Nature here. There was an earthquake there the night the Turks arrived. The Greek castle in the town was destroyed and immediately occupied by the Turks. The Ottomans were accompanied by impoverished peasants looking for better lives in newly conquered territories.  In 1362 they conquered their first European city, Adrianople, or Edirne. They had isolated Constantinople, and in 1416 Edirne became the third capital of the Ottoman Empire. Thrace had become Turkish.

            These conquests disturbed the Europeans. After all, the Turks were Muslim and the Europeans feared for the safety of Christendom. In 1366 the pope called for a Crusade to save Europe from the Turks. It was too late. The Byzantine Emperor went to Buda in Hungary to enlist help, and on the way back he was kidnapped in Bulgaria. The Catholic, or “Latin” powers, attempted to push the Turks back to Anatolia, and retook Gallipoli. They were determined to rid Europe of Islam.  The Ottomans quickly regained this city and pushed into the Balkans. The dominant political factor in the Balkan peninsula was fear of the papacy as they were of the Eastern Orthodox faith. Local leaders and clergy were unhappy with offers of help from Catholic powers. Some Balkan rulers did accept military help from the West and submitted to Rome. This made their subjects unhappy and caused political tension. The people accepted Turkish rule; their rights to practice their Orthodox faith were respected by the Turks. Thus they accepted rule by the Islamic Turks. Fear of papal authority and local dislike of European feudal lords helped the Ottomans conquer the Balkan Peninsula. In Serbia, serfs owed their lords two days of labor a week. Under the Ottoman Turks, peasants only owed their lords three days of labor a year. Thus they considered the Turks “liberators”. The Turks took Macedonia, and the Serbian ruler began paying the Ottomans tribute in money and young men for their military. However, in 1389 the Serbs suffered a bitter loss to the Turks at Kosovo Polje, which means “Field of the Blackbirds” in Serbian. This battle was of particular significance. After the battle a Serb, immortalized in song and poetry, Milos Obravic, broke into the Sultan’s tent and stabbed him to death. After this Obravic was killed by the Turks.  After the killing, one of the Sultan’s sons killed the other to secure the succession. These early Turkish rulers were illiterate. They signed their state documents by dipping their fingers into ink, transferring it to the page. The Turks received a jolt from the advance of the leader Timur, leader of the Tatar people of Central Asia, in the first years of the fifteenth century. He attacked Anatolia and made a stab at Bursa. The Mongols began to cut deals with ambassadors from Constantinople, Genoa, Venice, and France. They urged him to attack the Ottoman Empire. He grabbed the Ottoman Emperor, Bayezit, and then grabbed the ancient Byzantine town of Smyrna, or Izmir, the base of the Knights of St. John. The Christians breathed a sigh of relief, as the Turks scrambled back after the Mongols. This exposed a fundamental weakness of the Ottoman state. It had grown too large to be effectively controlled by one man. Local loyalties often doomed imperial plans. Nonetheless, after 1430 the Turkish conquest of the Balkans continued. In 1439 Bosnia-Hercegovina became part of their empire. The pope called for another Crusade, but it was no use. Many Balkans had no use for conquerors from the West. Bosnia was peopled by a sect called the Bogomils who had been mercilessly persecuted by the orthodox Christian rulers of Hungary, and these welcomed the Turkish invaders. The Bogomils accepted the Islamic faith of the Turks. That’s why the Bosnians are Muslim to this day. The Byzantine capital of Constantinople was almost isolated. It was hardly even a city; according to the conquering Sultan, “it was only a city in name, an enclosure of vineyards and plants, worthless houses, empty walls in ruins”, surviving on ceremonial. It contained sixty churches, from the magnificent Cathedral to roofless chapels.

In the summer of 1452 a Transylvanian cannon-founder offered his services to the Byzantine Emperor. The Emperor could not afford to pay him what he wanted, nor could he give him any materials. He then went to the Sultan. The Sultan offered him four times as much money as the Byzantine Emperor as well as all of the materials he needed. The cannon-founder, Urban, unveiled a “monster” in Edirne that was twice as large, 28 feet long, firing huge balls that required seven hundred men and thirty oxen to draw them. At the unveiling, the citizens of Edirne were warned to expect a loud noise and advised not to panic. The ball traveled a mile and sank six feet to the ground. This new weapon probably gave the Turks the advantage they needed to finally conquer Constantinople.  It fell to the Turks on 29 May 1453. It became the fourth capital of the Ottoman Empire. The campaign had not been a joke; the city’s massive walls had held off previous Turkish threats, and the Byzantines put up a spirited defense of their city. Contrary to popular notion the Turks never officially changed the name of the city; they continued to call it “Konstantiniyye”. “Istanbul” was originally a popular name for the city; its etymology is not clear. The desperate attempt of the last Byzantine Emperor, John Palaeologus, visiting Venice trying to get support against the Turks, was in vain. Venice was too self-absorbed to have time for the hapless Greeks. By 1464 the Turks also controlled Athens. By 1478 they controlled Serbia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Wallachia and much of the rest of the Balkan Peninsula. The Venetians battled the Ottomans for their Black Sea ports, and lost. The Ottomans conquered the Tatars of the Crimea, now part of the Ukraine. Christendom was further split in the early sixteenth century with the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. This distracted the Holy Roman Emperor and was a big help to the Turkish cause.

            Starting in 1356, the new ruler, Muhrad, the Sultan who would meet his end in Kosovo, started a famous military tribute system. Every three years, the Turkish tribute officers went into small villages in the rural areas of the Empire in both the Balkan Peninsula and Anatolia. They chose the finest Christian youths for the sultan’s service. They found them by looking at parish rolls provided by the local parish priest. There were still Greek Christians in Anatolia. They did not take only sons or the sons of widows. This was called the devsirme, or “boy-tribute system”. These were to become the sultan’s slaves, and no born Muslim could be enslaved. So their own children couldn’t take their place, and indeed, the Ottoman Empire had no hereditary aristocracy because of this practice. According to the Koran, Islamic rulers were allowed a fifth of the booty from war, and the first sultans took this in gold. The Turks began to take this in slave captives as well. These Christian youths were taken to the capital, then sent to an Anatolian farm where they learned strength, still a revered item in Turkish society, and, after formal conversion to Islam, they were sent to school where they polished up their Turkish. They went into a two-tiered system of service to the Sultan. Some became members of the Noble Guard or joined the royal order of chivalry, the Spahi of the Porte. The lower tier of these slaves became Janissaries; they became gardeners, gatekeepers, kitchen scullions, the marine troops, and the infantry. They had gone to schools where they learned martial arts and many branches of learning. They learned reverence and humility, as these were believed to be ideal traits of the future powerful. They’d gone from lives of drudgery in small villages to membership in an elite class, and they relished it. The Janissaries swore loyalty to their fellows on a tray containing salt, a Koran, and a sword. Thirty-four consecutive viziers were Greek or Slavic Christians by birth, and Muslim by conversion. There was no social stigma attached to servile status in Ottoman society. They were simply completely and totally dependent on the good will of the Sultan. They gave up little when they became slaves. Priests were rare in their highland villages; churches were scarce. Religion was mostly informal, and their conversion to Islam was probably their introduction to formal religion. They were attached to the Bektashi order, an Islamic group that didn’t veil women or prohibit wine. This was a system of meritocracy, thus it couldn’t last. The devsirme was abolished when the pressure to admit the sons of these men into membership became overwhelming. The exact date for this development is not clear. Because of this development the system was no longer based on merit. The Janissaries eventually became a threat to the Sultanate. Whenever they felt like their privileges were under attack, they staged violent riots, which no one dared to oppose. They finally met an ignoble end with the infamous “Auspicious event” of 1826, which was basically a massacre of the Janissaries. Nonetheless the devsirme system left a sour taste in Balkan mouths; I found an indignant denunciation of the practice in a modern Bulgarian newspaper, published in Sofia. The article was a bitter look back on the country’s occupation by the Ottomans. To them this was “four centuries of darkness”. In this part of the world your neighbors aren’t your friends.

            The greatest of the Turkish rulers was Suleiman, who was named after the Biblical ruler Solomon. He became Sultan in 1520 at the age of twenty-six. His Empire stretched from what is now Iraq to thirty miles from Vienna, and included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Arabia. During his reign the Ottoman Turks conquered Belgrade, Budapest, and Baghdad. They expanded their Empire across northern Africa. The first Ottoman siege of Vienna took place in 1529.  The Christian armies were victorious here; this was Suleiman’s only defeat. Suleiman signed a treaty of alliance with the King of France, Francis I, against their common enemy the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This shocked Francis’ fellow Christian monarchs. Suleiman was a generous patron of the arts. His chief architect was the brilliant Sinan (1490—1588), who is particularly renowned for his impact on mosque architecture. Sinan was a product of the devsirme system; he was of Greek Christian origin, from Anatolia. Suleiman died while on a campaign in Hungary. During his reign there was a population explosion; the population of the empire was about 12 million when he became Sultan; by the time he died in 1566 it was 22 million. This created problems.

            The sultans who succeeded Suleiman were weak rulers. Bribery, purchase of offices, favoritism, and nepotism all reared their ugly heads. Because Suleiman’s two designated successors betrayed him and were executed, his successor, Selim, had not been trained for the responsibilities of the sultanate. Selim was overly fond of sexual and alcoholic pleasures and is known to history with the unflattering nickname of Selim the Drunk. He left the government in the hands of his Vizier, and this became a pattern for the sultans.  The Empire weakened militarily, and the economy was shot by the inflation that also hit Europe as a result of the influx of precious metals from the New World. The coinage was debased. Europeans stopped using the Empire’s trade routes due to new travel routes to the Far East. The Sunni Muslim scholars of the Empire were not challenged and became conservative and intolerant, resisting new ideas. And now we come to end of our era, 1600.

            And now we’ll talk about an interesting social and cultural institution of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, the caravanserai. The word itself is from the Persian word “karwansarai”. “Karwan” became our word “caravan”, and means a company of travelers.  “Sarai” means “palace”.

            Caravanserais are a network of inns across the Islamic world arranged to provide services for travelers. Muslim society was very mobile as the economy was mostly operated by traveling merchants.  In Turkey, there are natural roads between settlements of people. There are three main roads that connect residential areas with each other. These roads are known as the Silk Roads, used by merchants to sell their silks, many of which were made in China. People in the silk business traveled on these roads carrying great sums of gold and silver to pay for expensive silks. They wanted secure travel conditions. They needed a place to stay for the nights that they were on these long journeys. During the Middle Ages this meant that they needed these places at the intervals in the trip between their outset at dawn or shortly thereafter and dusk. They had to get to the next inn before dusk. These needs were met by the caravanserais. The first caravanserais in Turkey were built by the Seljuk Turkish rulers. They encouraged mercantile activities, signing trade agreements with foreigners and making policies to facilitate trade. They provided insurance, one of the earliest known uses of insurance in history. They did this by penalizing thieves. If a theft occurred on the road the people in the area where the theft occurred would be taxed. Areas free from theft were not taxed. So the inhabitants of areas along the trade route insured the safety of the travelers in return for exemption from taxation.  They built and maintained roads, bridges, opened passes through Turkey’s many mountain ranges, and encouraged the development of the caravanserais. There was a saying in those days that “Nothing will happen to you, even if you travel from Izmir to Van with a pot of gold on your head”.

            Caravanserais were open to everyone, regardless of language, religion or nationality. The distances between caravanserais were calculated at intervals that a caravan could be expected to cover in a single day. This distance was called a “menzil” in Turkish, a word that means “journey” in the old sense of the word “a days’ travel”. A menzil was about thirty kilometers. A caravan could travel this distance in six hours, or eight hours in difficult desert terrain. Caravanserais were all over the Islamic world; there was a noted one at Damascus.

            Some certificates of foundation for some caravanserais still exist. They were established as Foundations, and functioned as such. One such certificate is the Karatay Caravanserai Certificate of Foundation. This Caravanserai was founded by Celaleddin Karatay. Karatay was known as a devout Muslim, a kind, generous man of strong morals and a powerful statesman. He served the Seljuk sultanate from 1214 to 1254. His brother also worked for the government and he also built a caravanserai. In the document, the administrators and staff, their duties and their salaries are all described. The document even took into account adjustments in salaries due to any possible fall in the value of coinage. The document lists the services provided by the foundation. They were food and drink for the travelers and their animals, a place to sleep, a place to wash, with soap provided, storage facilities for their belongings, medical attention and medicines in case they became ill, repair of worn shoes, replacement of shoes too worn for repair with new ones, the shoeing of animals, oil and candles to provide light and firewood in case heat was needed. These were all provided free of charge.

            The buildings were designed with these services in mind. There were accommodations for the officials who managed the institution’s income and expenditures. There were also dormitories, an infirmary for the care of the ill, a refectory, larders, stabling for the animals, a small mosque, pharmacy, cobblers’ and shoemakers’ shops and a smithy where shoes for the animals could be made. The staff included a blacksmith, a money-changer, a wainman, a tailor, a cobbler, a physician and a vetenary. Sheep for feeding the travelers were grazed in the pasture next to the buildings. Each traveler was entitled to receive I kg. of bread, 250 g of cooked meat and one bowl of cooked food a day, by they Muslim or non-Muslim. On Friday evenings a mixture of honey and snow was served. A poor traveler and a sultan received the same things. Everything was paid for with income derived from foundations dedicated to the Caravanserai, such as rent from houses, land, field and shops.

            An exhausted traveler coming upon the gates of the Caravanserai would always find them open in the evening. He would be shown to his place in the dormitory. In the morning people rose and packed their bags. A manager would come and ask the guests about their stay. After making sure everyone had all of their belongings and was ready to leave, the manager opened the gates with the word “Bismallah”, an Arabic address from the Koran. It means “In the name of God the Compassionate the Most Merciful”. In Turkey today there is a saying that if you are a guest in Turkey you are God’s guest.

            At one point there were a total of 250 caravanserais in what is now Turkey. Eight of these were built by the sultans, the rest by wealthy statesmen. The eight which were built by the Sultans were called “sultankhans”, “khan” being another word for “inn”. Suleiman was known for his generosity in founding caravanserais. In the eastern part of Turkey caravanserais were built like small, square castles heavily fortified by thick walls of stone. To the west, they tended to be U-shaped and be built of masonry, or even, in some cases of mud brick. Architecturally, they were very impressive buildings, complete with domes, towers, and gates.

            Do any of the caravanserais still exist? Yes, they do. About a third of them are in good enough condition for modern use. But to the Turks there is no need to maintain them if they do not serve the community in some way. They no longer serve the same function that they did when people traveled on foot, camel and horseback. Turkish historian Cengiz Bektas has some ideas about how to make them functional and not have them stand empty with no use. He suggests using them for educational purposes. Anatolia is home to twenty past civilizations lasting over six thousand years. All of these old buildings are not only part of Turkey’s heritage; they are part of our collective human history. They are useful to the tourist industry. They have been the study of studied by UNESCO, the cultural wing of the United Nations. They can also be used by hotels and restaurants as venues for receptions, shopping, catering, meetings, exhibitions and cultural activities. Personally, I’d love to go to Turkey and check out the caravanserais.










Book: Lord of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire, Jason Goodwin, 1998.


Web sites:

Official Tour Guide of Turkey, Burak Sansal, tour guide from Turkey.

Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Culture web site.

“Caravanserais”, Cengiz Bektas, web site.

“Kervanserays of Cappadocia”, Murat Gulyaz, web site.

 UNESCO web site on Caravanserais.


Documentary: “The Silk Road”, a documentary Japanese archeology program funded by the Japanese company NHK, available on CD cassette.