Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Köse Dağ (1243)

As the Mongols pushed west, into the area we now call the Middle East, they began to run into previous Central Asia peoples who had already made that migration and established their own kingdoms in the region. One of those peoples was of course the ex-slave soldiers who created the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt and Syria, and we know that their encounter in 1260 didn’t go so hot for the Mongols. But several years earlier they bumped into another people, the Seljuks, who had migrated out of Central Asia and at one time established a vast Middle Eastern empire. That empire was already gone by 1243 but the Seljuks still ruled Anatolia, or the Sultanate of Rum, which they’d conquered from the Byzantine Empire starting with the 1071 Battle of Manzikert.

We’ve already covered the Seljuks’ Central Asian origins, up to Manzikert. We know that after that battle, the intrigue that had been swirling around the Byzantine throne exploded into a full on crisis–rival claimants, prominent families feuding with one another, the whole works. Michael VII Doukas was supposed to be emperor, but he was challenged over and over by men who had other ideas. This went on for his entire reign, which finally ended in the face of two simultaneous revolts in 1078.

I mention this because, in 1074, Michael was forced to seek Seljuk support to keep him in power, and so he not only recognized their conquests in Anatolia to that point, he invited a renegade Seljuk prince named Suleiman ibn Qutulmish and his followers to settle in western Anatolia, close to Constantinople. Suleiman ibn Qutulmish was on the outs with the Great Seljuk Empire because as a royal cousin with simmering pretensions to the throne, he was seen by Seljuk authorities as a threat. And when Michael offered Suleiman the chance to settle in western Anatolia, he claimed all the Seljuk territory in Anatolia as his own. The Sultanate of Rum (Rum or “room” meaning Rome, which was how people referred to Anatolia back then) was born, a Seljuk kingdom that was nevertheless independent from the Great Seljuk Empire. You can see it in this map, in yellow:

Map - Saljuq Empire

The Great Seljuk collapsed in the 1190s, replaced by among other things the Khwarazm Empire in Iran and by a newly assertive Abbasid caliphate in Iraq. But the Sultanate of Rum lived on and even expanded, into southern and northern Anatolia and east into formerly Great Seljuk domains. You can see that in the map below, and if you look closely you’ll even find Köse Dağ marked:

Map - Rum Saljuq Empire - Growth.jpg

The Seljuks of Rum were one of the primary opponents of the Crusades, indeed the primary opponent if you go by the original Crusading mission, which was to secure the Byzantine Empire. They weathered that relatively minor storm, but the Mongols were another matter entirely.

To their credit, the Anatolian Seljuks seemed to realize the kind of threat the Mongols posed, and tried to head it off by offering some moderate tribute and good wishes to the Mongolian general Chormaqan, the Mongolian commander in the Caucasus/Anatolia region. But the Mongols pressed for more. They demanded that the Seljuk Sultan Kaykhusraw II (d. 1246) submit completely to Mongolian suzerainty, by sending hostages back to the court of the Great Khan Ögedei, by going to the Great Khan’s court in person to pay him homage, and by allowing the Mongols to install administrators at the Seljuk court. Kaykhusraw resisted this, and consequently in the winter of 1243 a Mongol army under Baiju, who had succeeded Chormaqan on the latter’s death in 1241, invaded the sultanate and seized the city of Erzurum, in northeastern Anatolia. Kaykhusraw II decided he had to fight.

The Seljuks were able to put together a substantial army, somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 strong, by appealing to their Christian neighbors for aid. Georgia sent men as did the Empire of Trebizond, a Byzantine-ish state that had formed after the Byzantine Empire itself briefly went under due to the Fourth Crusade. Combined they probably doubled or nearly doubled the size of the Mongolian army. The two forces met at Köse Dağ, just a bit east of the north-central Anatolian city of Sivas, on June 26, 1243.

Little about Kaykhusraw’s approach to the battle makes sense. His commanders suggested he assume a defensive position and wait for the Mongols to attack. He rejected this, which may have been wise because the Mongols could have outmaneuvered the Seljuk force. But instead of using his numerical superiority, Kaykhusraw instead apparently broke off a force of about 20,000 men and sent them against the Mongols as an advance guard. The Mongols did what they usually did–they feigned a retreat, suckered their attackers into chasing them, and then surrounded and crushed them. Some 3000 of the attackers are believed to have been killed. The rest of the Seljuk army, having basically stood by and watched this happen, panicked and ran.

In the end Kaykhusraw had to do all the homage that the Mongols wanted him to do in the first place. The Sultanate of Rum survived but only as a Mongolian vassal (Trebizond and the Armenian kingdom in Cilicia also had to bend the knee), and as the Mongolian Ilkhanate began to weaken in the later 13th century so did the Seljuks. Small principalities called beyliks began to break from the sultanate and from Mongolian control. One of these was the early Ottoman state, in fact. The Sultanate of Rum, eventually reduced to little more than the city of Konya in central Anatolia, ceased to exist in the early 1300s.

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