The Turks in Europe

Jo Pires-O’Brien

Review of the book Sultans of Rome. The Turkish World Expansion, by Warwick Ball. London, East & West Publishing, 2012).

To Warwick Ball (WB), an Australian archaeologist with a large field experience in the ancient cultures, there is no pure Western and Eastern cultures. There are plenty of archaeological evidence of the intercultural exchange between Western and Eastern cultures that resulted from their incursions into each other’s territory. WB accepts the fact that ‘every culture looks at history in relation to itself’. However, he thinks that the concept of ‘West versus East’ is wrong, and that it prevents Europe from recognizing the Eastern elements in its culture. Sultans of Rome is about the Turks in Europe. It is the third book in a series of four entitled ‘Asia in Europe and the Making of the West’, by East & West Publishing. Its title is taken from a citation of the Seljuk Turks after their victory against the Byzantine army of Emperor Romanes IV in Manzikert in 1071, when they declared to be the new sultans of ‘Rum’, meaning ‘land of the Romans’. The other three books in the aforementioned series deal with the Phoenicians and Arabs (volume 1), Persians (volume 2) and the peoples from the Eurasian Steppe collectively referred to as the Scythians (volume 4).

Perhaps because they were the latest arrival in Europe, or perhaps because they followed a new religion that threatened Christianity, or both, the Turks attracted a great deal of bad publicity in Europe comparatively to other eastern peoples who settled there. The classical example is the portrayal of the Ottomans who sieged Vienna in 1683 as uncouth and barbaric Asians. However, they had been in Europe for over one thousand years, and therefore their invasion was no different from that of the Romans and the Normans. Another example WB cites is more recent. It is the European Union’s reluctance to admit the Republic of Turkey as a member. WB argues that the main reason why Turkey has not been allowed as an EU member is the ongoing tensions between Europe and the Muslims, which is an invalid justification given that secularism is one of the most ‘sacred’ pillars of the EU.

WB starts his discussion about the Turks in Europe by first asking the questions ‘what is Europe?’ And ‘what is a Turk?’ It may come as a surprise to many readers to learn that the population of modern Turkey do not identify themselves as Turks, at least in the ethnic sense, referring themselves as Anatolians. WB cites similar behavior in other countries. The population of Bulgaria call itself Slav, even though the country itself is named after the Bulgars, a Turk tribe. Another example is the inhabitants of an area in the mid-Volga river which was inhabited by a group of Turks that remained there, and whose current day inhabitants identify themselves as Tatars. WB cites the social anthropologist Fredrik Barth, who stated that ‘group identity is no more than a momentary convenience’, which to him is quite alright as it takes into consideration that people may have more than one identity.

This book is quite academic but its illustrations, consisting of eight maps and 98 color plates, make it accessible to the lay reader. The plates are useful to capture one’s imagination regarding who the Turks were. The maps help to understand the Turks’ migration routes. Map 1 shows where in the world Turkish is spoken – not only in Turkey but also in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. However, WB shows in the book that there are significant minorities of Turks in China, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Ukraine. Map 2 shows the area of the world that in 2011 was served by the Turkish Airlines. Map 3 delineates the First and the Second Turkish empires, as well as the boundaries of the Sassanid Empire, the last Persian Empire before the Turkish-Muslim conquest. Map 4 depicts the boundaries of the Ghaznavid Empire and the Karakhanid Empire. The Ghaznavid Empire was one of the most important of the Middle Ages and the first to bring Islam into India in a substantial scale. The Karakhanid was the original Empire (Kaghnate) and it was later subdivided into Western and Eastern branches. The Karakhanids are especially noted for establishing a written form of Turkish in the eleventh century. Map 5 shows the Seljuk Empire, in Anatolia and Iran, occupying a similar area to the former Persian Achaemenid Empire. Map 6 shows the territories occupied by the Seljuk in Anatolia in 1086 and 1243. Map 7 shows the distribution of the Turkish in the world, including their three great empires: the Ottoman (Anatolia, Northern Africa, Israel, Lebanon Syria and Iraq), the Safavid (Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan) and the Moghul (India). Map 8 shows the Ottoman Empire at its height, occupying the entire Balkans – a region that takes its name from the Balkan Mountains in Southeast Europe, stretching from the east of Serbia to the Black Sea at the east of Bulgaria, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia –, the European part of Turkey as well as Northern Africa, Israel & Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Northern Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.

Although it is common to hear references to a Turkish language, in reality there are several Turkish languages. They are classified as one of the three branches of the Altaic language group, alongside Mongolian and Manchu-Tungus. Although they first gained a written form in the eighth century in Mongolia, based on the Arabic script, written Turkish was only established later in the eleventh century. Eventually, nearly all Turkish-speaking countries switched to the Latin alphabet. One exception is the Uighurs, one of China’s Turkish minorities, who still use the Arabic script.

Before their islamization, the Turks in China, Mongolia and in the Eurasian steppe toyed with several ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and even Nestorian Christianism. At some point they embraced Buddhism and made it their official religion, although Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion in the normal sense. Europe encountered the Turks after their islamization, under duress, which took place after the internationalization of Islam, right after the Abbasid Revolution of 750, when the caliphate was moved from Damascus to Baghdad. In the year 824 the Arabs penetrated into the Oghuz steppe country (Kazakhstan) and captured some two thousand Turks, which they offered as slaves to the Caliph al-Mutawakkil. These slaves were the first Turks to enter Iraq. A Turkish slave trade was established through which Turkish children were systematically taken into slavery. One interesting parallel that WB makes is with the European metaphor of the ‘noble savage’. When the Turks were first shown to the Arabs they were seen as both beautiful and barbaric, just as the New World Indians were perceived in Western Europe some one thousand years later.

The Turk slaves in the Middle East and Northern Africa were known as Ghulams or Mamluks. They distinguished themselves as warriors, and were put to serve in Muslim armies in special mercenary slave units. Due to their fighting superiority and their detachment from local tribes, they rose in the Middle Eastern society to become the main power in the Muslim caliphate system. The Islamic world gradually became Turkish. After they assassinated the Caliph Al-Mutawarrkil in 861 the Turks themselves became caliphs.

About the ethnic ancestry of the Turks, WB explains that what is known was compiled by the Chinese, and that as it is also the case of other early histories, there is much speculation in the history of the early Turks. They entered China and Inner Mongolia in the late third century CE as part of an alliance of steppe tribes. Its leaders founded the Northern Wei Dynasty in China in 386, centred in Pingcheng, modern Tatung. From China and Inner Mongolia the Turks moved into the Mongolia’s borderlands and southern Siberia, and eventually reached the Eurasian steppe where they became one of the dominant groups. In 552 the Confederacy of Turks in China was defeated, and the Turks forced to move to the Mongolian steppes, where they formed their first Empire, known as ‘Kaganate’, with Bumin as their first Emperor or ‘Kagan’. Bumin, was succeeded by his two sons Muhan (553-72), who ruled the eastern half in Mongolia, and Ishtemi (553-?) who ruled the western half, in present Khazakstan. Their elite cavalry, known as ‘wolves’, had metal armour, and that was one of the reasons for their success. Ishtemi became known as the ruler who overthrew the Hephthalite Empire (a steppe people related to the Huns) of Central Asia and Indian Borderlands. He was also the first Turk to make diplomatic contact with the Constantinople, sending an envoy in 563 to propose an alliance aimed at combating their mutual enemy, the Sasanian Empire of Iran, as well as the Avars (descendants of a dissent Turk group, the Juan-Juan).

In early seventh century a conflict emerged between the Western and the Eastern Turkish Empires. The latter eventually collapsed and its people got absorbed by Chinese groups. By 616/617 the Western Turk Empire penetrated deep into the Persian Sassanian Empire, which occupied roughly the same territory as the Persian Achaemenid Empire that preceded it. In 619 the Western Turkish Empire made further conquests, incorporating the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang Province of China), Ferghana (eastern Uzbekistan), Bactria (a province of the Persian empire located in modern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), as well as parts of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, reaching the Indus in 625. Following the death of the ruler T’ung Yabgu in 630, the Western Turkish Empire began to disintegrate. A second Turkish Empire was formed and eventually collapsed.

The main Turkish power that emerged among the others was the Seljuks. They began to move westwards into the lands they referred to by the Arabic word ‘Rum’, meaning ‘land of the Romans’: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Anatolia. In 1071 the Seljuks defeated the army of the Byzantine emperor Romanes IV in Manzikert, when they proclaimed themselves to be the ‘Sultans of Rome’. However, the Seljuks at that time were not interested in extending their conquest to Anatolia. With the passing of time the Seljuks intermarried with the families of native Anatolians, of both Roman and Greek extraction. As WB pointed out, ‘the Byzantine defeat was more symbolic than actual: more destruction to the Byzantine property and lives resulted from the civil war after the Manzikiert defeat than from Manzikert itself’.

The Seljuks were already in decline when another Turk group emerged: the Ottomans, whose name comes from Osman or Otman (Uthman, in Arabic), its first leader. In 1453 the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and their victory marked the end of the Eastern Roman Empire. According to WB the European history books have disseminated many incorrect notions about the Ottomans which he hopes to put right. Some examples he cites are: (i) stating that the Turkish capture of Constantinople was an Asiatic conquest, (ii) the description of the Ottomans as hordes from the Asian steppes, and (iii) the portrayal of the Ottomans as enemies of Christianity. As WB pointed out, the Ottomans were Muslims and their expansion was aggressive and even brutal, but they had a highly developed culture and were tolerant of Christianity.

Under the Sultan Selim the first, the new Ottoman Empire settled in Anatolia, from where they incorporated Syria and Egypt. After defeating Persia, Sultan Selim I added to his Empire all of Arab Near East (the Arabic culture). After entering Cairo in 1517, Sultan Selim I added to his title that of Caliph. He was succeeded by his son, Suleiman the Magnificent, who reigned from 1520 until 1566. Suleiman’s reign is considered to be the zenith of the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople carried on as a world capital of culture and even had a Renaissance of its own.

As pointed out by WB, the Ottomans left a huge cultural footprint in the areas they occupied. Their system of devsirme, which involved taking young boys from their families in order to educate them for the service of the Sultan, is considered the first meritocracy of Europe. Another Ottoman institution, the kulliye, combined the religious and the secular, serving as places of learning, libraries, asylums and kitchens for feeding the poor.

WB proceeds to put right another misconception about the Ottomans regarding the role of women in their society, namely their lack of liberty and rights. He points out that although polygamy is condoned by Muslim law, only some five percent of all their marriages were polygamous in the eighteen century, while the segregation of women was no different than that of the rest of Europe in the same period. Another misconception about the Ottomans that WB dispels is the belief that their defeat in the Battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571, against a coalition formed by Spain, Venice, Genoa and the Knights of Malta, marked the start of their decline. This misconception is attributed to Miguel de Cervantes, the Hispanic author of Don Quixote, who fought in Lepanto. However, Lepanto changed very little for the Ottomans and did not stop their expansion.

The Ottoman Empire was the peak of Turkish achievement and lasted for over six centuries until it was dissolved in 1923. It began to decline after it was defeated in the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78. As a result of this conflict the Ottoman Empire lost one third of its territory and Christians became the largest segment of its population. WB tries to clear the Ottomans from the accusation of perpetrating the massacre of the Armenian population in their lands just before their empire collapsed. He suggested that the responsibility for the massacre may lie elsewhere since both Greeks and Armenians survived in Anatolia under the Ottoman rule.

In this book WB dispels some significant misunderstandings regarding the Turks. He shows that the Turks who settled in Turkey started their march westwards one thousand years before 1453, the year they conquered Constantinople for the second time. Therefore, the Turks who sieged Vienna in 1683, were not barbarians but a people already established in Europe. WB also shows that present day Turkey was the stage of a great number of civilizations including not only the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans but some of the world’s oldest civilizations. Turkey has the world’s greatest concentration of archaeological sites and its wealth of Classical Greek and Roman architectural remains is unmatched by any neighbouring country. One final thread in this book is in a question left unanswered. If Europe got wrong so many facts about the ancient Turks couldn’t it also be wrong about the Republic of Turkey?


Jo Pires-O’Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, an electronic cultural magazine for Luso-Hispanophones.



Revision: Carl O’Brien


WARWICK BALL. Sultans of Rome. The Turkish World Expansion. London, East & West Publishing, 2012. Review by: PIRES-O’BRIEN, J. The Turks in Europe. PortVitoria, UK, v.12, Jan-Jun, 2016. ISSN 2044-8236,



A Portuguese version of this review is available in the PortVitoria magazine:



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