The stately court of Seljuk and his grandsons

The Pentagon may be bravely just calling it “a setback,” but the news that Ramadi had fallen to the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) this week is nothing short of a calamity for a free and independent Iraq.
Every loss of a city is a tragedy for its citizens who face mortal terror, bereavement, displacement and possibly years of an uncertain future as refugees. But this city is especially significant due to its strategic location and its proximity to the capital Baghdad.
Ramadi was founded on the banks of the mighty Euphrates by Midhat Paia, the Ottoman governor of Baghdad. It is on a fertile plain. But what has really made the city thrive and grow is its strategic location, not just having traffic along the river, but it is also on the main road west into Syria and Jordan, making it a hub for trade.
It also is a mere 110 kilometers from the capital, Baghdad, which has helped it grow in importance and influence.
This strategic position is not lost on the fighters of the so-called Islamic State, just as it was not lost on military commanders during each of the World Wars. In 1917 it was the scene of battles between the Ottoman Empire and the British. In 1941 it was once more the British, but this time against the fledgling Iraqi independence movement.
In the Saddam years, many high-ranking officials in his Ba’ath party came from Ramadi, including many military personnel. So after the Gulf War when the US administration purged Iraq’s government and army of Saddam’s supporters, many in Ramadi found themselves without a position. It didn’t take long for them to organize themselves into a center of insurgency and opposition to the foreign forces.
As ISIL fighters have rounded up senior officials in Ramadi, the blame game has started in earnest. A quick google of “fall of Ramadi” yields a range of articles from “fall of Ramadi reflects failure of Iraq’s strategy against ISIS [ISIL]” to “fall of Ramadi raises new questions about US strategy in Iraq.”
What they all agree on, though, is that with Ramadi being a Sunni stronghold, its fall to ISIL makes both its recapture by a Shiite government that has for several years marginalized the Sunnis more difficult, and puts Baghdad under threat.
The question on everyone’s minds now is when and how they will turn their sights on Baghdad.
A new and groundbreaking piece of academic literature — andquotThe Great Seljuk Empire,andquot by A.C.S. Peacock — describes an equally seismic conquest in Iraq. This very tactic of allowing the report of nearby conquest to frighten the rulers in Baghdad was used back in 1055 by Tuirul, the grandson of the founder of the Seljuk dynasty. He conquered much of Iran and Iraq, and in the event he never had to fight for Baghdad.
“Rumors of an impending Seljuk invasion racked Baghdad. In the event, al-Basasiri fled, and Tuirul entered the city peacefully welcomed by a splendid procession of local notables. Even before his arrival, the caliph had proclaimed the khutba in Tuirul’s name, a traditional sign of recognition of a new ruler.”
Tuirul was crowned sultan over the area in 1058. The glittering account of his coronation by Caliph al-Qa’im is given in detail in this fascinating book, which combines accounts of war and conquest with an exploration of social and stately life inside the Great Seljuk Empire. We read of Tuirul’s golden-embroidered robe, a horseback procession, a reception line comprising dignitaries representing all of the powerful stakeholders, from descendants of the Prophet to nobles and the chief vizier.
Tuirul may have conquered Iran and Iraq for the Seljuks, but he was one of the first rulers to experience first-hand the struggle for supremacy between the different branches of Islam, and to face sectarian violence. Shiite revolts soon led to him withdrawing to make Isfahan his capital.
In this elegant volume, A.C.S. Peacock presents us with a groundbreaking piece of academic literature. He is known to readers of Turkish history for his previous work on the Seljuks of Anatolia — the dynasty founded by Tuirul’s cousins. But, amazingly, there has been no work in the English language about the Great Seljuk Empire, which stretched at its height, under Malikshah, from Palestine to Kashgar.
This is the first in a series on Islamic empires to be published by the University of Edinburgh. A later volume promises to focus on the Seljuks who left their mark on Anatolia. Just like the Roman Empire, split into eastern and western branches, the Seljuks were split into the west — Seljuks of Anatolia — and east: the Great Seljuk Empire.
Seljuk himself, the founder of the tribe named after him, had lived and died in lands now part of Kazakhstan. His descendants spread west and founded these two great empires. Tuirul’s nephew Alparslan opened the way for his cousins to sweep into Anatolia when he seized Ani from the Byzantines and then won a great victory at Manzikert in 1071. His son Malikshah besieged Diyarbakir in 1090. But apart from this, the two branches of the empire seem to have gone their separate ways.
The western empire has been well-researched and much studied. Not so the east. Dr. Peacock is aware that as a groundbreaking historian he is coming up against many unresolved questions. He makes extensive use of contemporary and later narratives from local historians, but much is written by the conquered rather than the conquerors.
He is also fairly critical of the body of research that does exist, mainly by Turkish academics. He does not doubt the contribution these scholars have made to uncovering documents, and in detailing facts about rulers and battles. But he faults them saying that “they are dated by their nationalistic assumption of the Turk’s unique genius for State foundation.”
Instead, the account we are given here explores social organization, state ceremonies, the interaction between religion and politics. Much is made of the king-maker, Vizier Nizam al-Mulk, and his famous administrative handbook the “Siyasetnama.” He also explores the bureaucratic literature from the Isfahan court, the culture of the nobles (amirs) and the law schools and factionalism.
This approach breathes life into the characters of the Great Seljuk Empire. They become real people, with beliefs and dreams. They organized themselves socially, religiously and administratively in line with these basic tenets and Peacock leads us to understand the one through understanding the other.
As the only comprehensive overview in any European language of this era in the history of Iran and Iraq, this book is likely to become the basis for much more research. It may be that future researchers disprove some of Dr. Peacock’s theories — such is this risk of being the first to publish! But he must surely hope that he will have inspired future generations of scholars to answer the questions he can only leave unanswered — the biggest of which is why this branch of the Seljuks died out in 1194, when those in Anatolia ruled on to 1308.
It is a pity we don’t have a conclusive answer to that one it could be a key piece of information to those making decisions about strategy in Iraq today.
andquotThe Great Seljuk Empireandquot by A.C.S. Peacock is published by Edinburgh University Press (2015). 30 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-074863826-0 Rating: four stars out of five

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman