Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Battle of Manazkert (August 26, 1071)

The battle of Manazkert (Մանազկերտ, usually spelled Manzikert in Western literature) was a decisive moment in the history of the Byzantine Empire. The defeat of its army at the hands of the Seljuk Turks undermined Byzantine authority in Armenia and marked the beginning of imperial decadence that would lead to the disappearance of Byzantium in 1453.

The Byzantine policy in the first half of the eleventh century had taken advantage of the division of Armenia into various feudal kingdoms, and exerted political pressure to acquire territories without violence. In 1021 King Hovhannes Senekerim of Vaspurakan exchanged his kingdom for territories in Cappadocia, where he moved with dozens of thousands of his subjects. In 1045 Gagik II Bagratuni was retained in Constantinople and forced to give up the kingdom of Ani to the empire. This misguided policy delivered Armenia in the hands of Byzantium, but at the same time opened the door for the invasions of the Seljuk Turks, who plundered the country and occupied and ravaged Ani in 1064. A year later, King Gaguik I of Kars, unable to confront the Turkish invasions, gave his kingdom to Byzantium in exchange of territories. The military incompetence of emperors Constantine IX (1042-1055) and Constantine X (1059-1067) could not be offset by the brief reign of Isaac I (1057-1059) and the Byzantine army was left in disarray. The occupation of Ani by the Seljuks, led by Alp Arslan, was followed by the rest of Armenia in 1067, and the invaders followed with the conquest of Caesarea.


Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes took power in 1068, and despite his military setback, Alp Arslan sought and signed a peace treaty with Byzantium in 1069 to focus on the Fatimid kingdom in Egypt as its main enemy. In February 1071 the Seljuk leader agreed to renew the treaty. However, this had been a distraction, as Romanos led a large army into Armenia to recover lost territories.

The Byzantine army, totaling from 40,000 to 70,000 men, reached Theodosiopolis (Karin, Erzerum) in June 1071 and continued the march towards Lake Van. The emperor expected to retake Manazkert and the nearby fortress of Khlat. Unknown to him, Alp Arslan had returned from the siege of Aleppo and was following the movements of the Byzantine army with an army of 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers.

Romanos split his forces in half, ordering his general Joseph Tarchaniotes to occupy Khlat, while the emperor marched to Manazkert. Khlat was not taken, and it is unknown what happened to the army sent off. The emperor easily captured Manazkert on August 23, but the Seljuk army was in the surroundings of the city, and the Byzantine cavalry and left wing were defeated or forced to retreat in engagements on August 23-24.

The main battle was held on August 26, 1071. The emperor wanted to settle the eastern question with a decisive military victory. The Byzantine army gathered itself into a proper battle formation and marched on the Turkish positions. The Seljuk archers attacked the Byzantines as they drew closer, but the arrow attacks were held off and Alp Arslan’s camp was captured. However, the Seljuks avoided battle and the emperor was forced to order a withdrawal when night fell. The Seljuks seized the opportunity and attacked. The right and left wings of the army were routed, and the rear, commanded by co-emperor and Romanos IV’s rival Andronikos Doukas, marched back to the camp outside Manazkert instead of covering the emperor’s retreat and later fled. The remnants of the Byzantine center were encircled and taken prisoner by the Seljuks, including the emperor.

Romanos IV agreed upon concessions: the surrender of Antioch, Edessa, Hierapolis, and Manazkert, a ransom of 1.5 million gold pieces plus an annual sum of 360,000 gold pieces, and a marriage alliance between Arslan’s son and Romanos’ daughter. The emperor was released a week later and sent to Constantinople with an escort of two emirs and one hundred Mamluks. His rule was in serious trouble. In 1072 he was deposed, blinded, and exiled to the island of Proti, where he would soon die.

The balance of power between Byzantium and the Seljuks did not change in the short-term, although the ensuing civil war within the empire did, to the advantage of the Seljuks, who reached Asia Minor and established their capital in Nicea (1077). Byzantium never recovered Armenia, and from that time on, its borders moved continuously towards the west. British historian Steven Runciman noted: “The Battle of Manzikert was the most decisive disaster in Byzantine history. The Byzantines themselves had no illusions about it. Again and again their historians refer to that dreadful day.”