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Malik Shah and Nizam al-Mulk:
the Seljug empire at its zenith (1072 - 1092)


The east. During Malik Shah's reign the internal problems of the Qarakhanid empire in the north-east allowed the Seljuqs to expand beyond the Pamirs through the Ferghana valley as far as Talas and Kashgar on the Chinese frontier - further than any Iran-based power had ever penetrated.

The west. Qutlumush's sons, Suleiman and Mansur, thanks to Manzikert, pushed on into Anatolia, reaching the Aegean Sea: this can be seen as Seljuq expansion westward, although they were enemies of Malik Shah the 'Great Seljuqs'. Soon Suleiman was asserting his independence by calling himself sultan. By the time Alexius Comnenus became emperor in Byzantium in 1081, after the decade of internal fighting following Manzikert, Anatolia was lost to the Greeks for ever. The loss of this recruiting ground for their armies led indirectly to the First Crusade in 1097.

Arab lands. The Fatimids (who had internal problems) and their allies continued to be pushed back as the Seljuqs won Syria and Palestine. Malik Shah led expeditions into Arabia to show his authority in Mecca and reached as far as Yemen, where he captured Aden. The sultan's brother, Tutush, was installed as king of Damascus.

Nizam al-Mulk

Alp-Arslan's great vizier had already put in over 10 years' service to the Seljuq family when he became "father" (atabeg) to the new 18-year-old sultan, Malik Shah in 1072. He acted as a virtual president, administering the empire through the Divan-i Vazir, the executive council of the state, located now in Isfahan. His extensive bureaucracy, staffed by relatives (he had 12 sons) and supporters, dealt with administration, finance, military affairs and intelligence. His power and influence - even over the Abbasid caliph (now al-Muqtadi) - earned him a reputation for arrogance, which was perhaps justified:

Tell the sultan that the stability of his royal cap is bound up with that of the vizier's inkstand. If I ever close up this inkstand, the royal power will topple.spoken to Malik according to Ibn al-Athir

Sunni revival

After the demise of the unpopular Shi'i Buyids, Nizam al-Mulk set about restoring Sunni orthodoxy, and encouraging the Seljuq empire and the Abbasid caliphate to see itself as at least equal to the splendour of Fatimid Egypt or Umayyad Spain. To combat the influence of Fatimid Shi'i "missionaries" he founded a network of Sunni madrasas - named Nizamiyyas in his honour - in every city in Iraq and Iran. In 1087, Malik Shah married the daughter of the caliph al-Muqtadi in Baghdad - an opportunity for an exceptional display of wealth, and confirmation of the newly restored links between caliph (head of Islam) and sultan (head of government).

His fall and death

Nizam al-Mulk survived numerous attempts on his life, but he was never as successful at court as he was in the Divan - and gradually an opposition party emerged, headed by Taj al-Mulk, who was increasingly favoured by the sultan and his family (especially his wife). Nizam al-Mulk is critical of the Seljuq court in his book on leadership. But in the end (1092) he seems to have fallen victim not to court intrigue, but to a new offshoot of the Ismaili Muslims - a secretive sect known as the Nizari. During Malik Shah's reign they had appeared in several remote areas of Iran, especially the former Dailamite stronghold in the Alborz mountains. They were seen at this time as an irritant rather than a threat. They were very probably reacting against the removal of the Shi'i Buyids, and the re-establishment of Sunni orthodoxy. They had no army, but sent trained warriors to murder political and religious enemies. Later the Nizaris became known as the Assassins (Hashishin - hashish users) - an insult used of them by their enemies. "Druggies" is still a good insult, but there is no good evidence of hashish use by the sect.

Malik Shah himself fell ill and died within two months of the death of his vizier - fortunately for the caliphate as he was proposing to depose the Abbasid al-Muqtadi in favour of his own 5-year-old son.

Culture and the Arts

Nizam al-Mulk was responsible for "persianising" the Seljuq court - which therefore became very much a continuation of the Ghaznavid and Abbasid model - with one important difference. Arabic was no longer the language of choice - Persian took over, and did too in the later Sultanate of Rum. He wrote an important work on government: Sisayat-nameh, whose influence reached Europe, becoming the model for such books as Machiavelli's Principe. Among his friends was the mathematician, astronomer and poet Omar Khayyam (1048 - c 1125).

Omar Khayyam

In mathematics, he followed up and improved on the work of Greeks like Euclid in geometry, and developed algebra. His calendar, based on accurate observation of the sun, anticipated the Gregorian calendar adopted in Europe in the 16th century. In astronomy, he realised that the stars didn't move round the earth: this was an illusion caused by the earth rotating on its own axis. His poetry was made popular in the west in the 19th century, thanks to an English translation by Edward Fitzgerald. In Fitzgerald's version, Omar Khayyam comes across as a hedonistic bon viveur - an Epicurean in the Classical mould of Horace - and maybe something of a lightweight. The Persian tradition takes him much more seriously as a poet - and it's in fact likely that many of the more cynical verses were attributed to him unfairly. Over 1000 rubaiyat (plural of ruba'i meaning a quatrain or 4-line stanza) survive. The poet emerges as a tough humanist facing up to the cruelties of life with humour and resignation.

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies. Fitzgerald, Rubaiyat of Omer Khayyam 26

The vast complex of the Friday Mosque (Masjid-i Jami) in Isfahan contains two gems from the Seljuq period (when the mosque, which has elements ranging from the 8th to the 20th centuries incorporated, was laid out in its present plan). One is a brick dome associated with Nizam al-Mulk, built between 1072 and 1075, and the other a smaller but even finer dome built by his great competitor Taj al-Mulk in 1088 (the Gunbad-i Khaki - or Brown Dome). "This is perhaps the most perfect dome known" (A U Pope, Persian Architecture).

Isfahan Friday Mosque North Dome

The succession (1092 - 1105)

Violent chaos for over a decade followed the sudden death of Malik Shah. Turkish traditions did not reinforce unity. Sovereignty was seen as a collective family responsibility not necessarily the prerogative of a single unchallenged sultan. After the death of Malik Shah, normal service was resumed, and stability came to an end. There were several major contenders to succeed him as sultan - Mahmud, his 4-year old son was vigorously promoted by his mother and Taj al-Mulk: his death from smallpox soon ruled him out. An older son, Berk-Yaruq had the support of Nizam al-Mulk's party, and after much struggle overcame other rivals, especially Tutush, his uncle, Malik Shah's brother. Though now technically the sultan, Berk-Yaruq's power-base was confined mainly to Iraq, and fierce fighting continued. Eventually he was forced to recognise the local rule of two of his half-brothers: Muhammad (known as Tapar, "the getter") in northern Iran and western Syria, and Sanjar in Khorasan. [Anatolia was already controlled by the rival Seljuqs of Rum.] Eventually the two combined against Berk-Yaruq and forced him to divide the sultanate into three - an arrangement that did not have long to run, as Berk-Yaruq died a year later (1105) - worn out at 25. Muhammad became overall sultan, allowing Sanjar to act as his viceroy in the east from his capital at Merv.

Two problems - the Franks and the Ismailis.

During the reign of Berk-Yaruq, in 1097, European fighters ("Franj" or "Franks") invaded Syria and Palestine - the First Crusade. Strangely this invasion had little immediate impact on the Great Seljuq empire - it was seen as a local problem for Tutush's sons (following their father's elimination as a contender for the sultanate), the Seljuqs of Syria, to sort out, and Berk-Yaruq did no more than write to the amirs in Syria suggesting they go and fight the unbelievers. None of the contenders who fought so enthusiastically for power within the Seljuq domains took the Frankish threat at all seriously.

A much more pressing problem seemed to be the proliferation of centres of Ismaili power and influence, encouraged by Nizari connections with Fatimid Egypt. Most important was the seizure of the fortress Alamut in the Alborz mountains by Hassan-i Sabbah. Ismaili success was helped by the prevailing atmosphere of chaotic anarchy, as local amirs traded support for the various major contenders - and the devastation caused by the constant criss-crossing of their armies, and their scorched earth policies.

Alamut Castle

Alamut ("Eagle's Nest") Castle near Qasvin, seized by Hassan-i Sabbah from the Zaidis in Tabaristan, NW Iran. One of several in the Alborz mountains where the Nizari Ismaili "Assassins" held out for 200 years. Today a popular day-trip from Tehran!