If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:
When the Mongols expanded west in the 13th century, they were certainly not the first steppe people to make that journey. In fact, it was a group of ex-slaves who’d already come from the Eurasian steppe (albeit involuntarily), the Mamluks, who eventually ended the Mongols’ westward expansion at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260. And several years earlier than that, the Mongols bumped into another people, the Seljuks, who had migrated out of Central Asia and at one time established a vast Middle Eastern empire of their own. That empire was already gone by 1243, but the Seljuks still ruled Anatolia, or as they called it the Sultanate of Rum, which they’d conquered from the Byzantine Empire starting with their victory in the 1071 Battle of Manzikert.
That post on Manzikert covers the Seljuks’ Central Asian origins. It also covers the political crisis that gripped the Byzantine Empire in the aftermath of the battle, involving rival claimants to the throne, 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 separate revolts in 1078.
I mention this because, in 1074, Michael was forced to seek Seljuk support to keep himself in power, and to get it he not only officially acknowledged 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. But with Michael’s invitation, he claimed all the Seljuk territory in Anatolia as his own. The Sultanate of Rum (or “Rome,” which was how people referred to Anatolia back then) was born, a Seljuk kingdom that was independent from the Great Seljuk Empire. You can see it in this map, in yellow:
The Great Seljuk Empire collapsed in the 1190s, replaced by (among other things) the Khwarazm Empire in Iran and by a reassertive Abbasid caliphate in Iraq (both of which would of course wind up being destroyed by the Mongols). But the Sultanate of Rum lived on and even expanded into other parts of 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 there:
The Seljuks of Rum were one of the initial opponents of the Crusades, indeed the initial opponent if you go by the original Crusader mission statement, and its talk about protecting the Byzantine Empire. The Seljuks 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 general Chormaqan, the Mongolian commander in the Caucasus 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, going to the Great Khan’s court in person to pay him homage, and 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 ceased to exist 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 decimated 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. Most of them never amounted to much but there’s at least one with which you’re probably familiar. The Sultanate of Rum, eventually reduced to little more than the city of Konya in central Anatolia, ceased to exist in the early 1300s.