26 August 1071

The Battle of Manzikert (Malazgirt in modern Turkey) was a battle full of surprises. When it was over the emperor of Byzantium, Romanos IV Diogenes, was brought before the victorious Saljuq (Seljuk) Turk leader, Muhammad Ibn Da’ud Alp Arslan, covered in dirt and dried blood, and it was some time before the Turkish sultan would believe that this could possibly be the ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire. Romanos was not deliberately in disguise and the ragged emperor was soon identified. His hapless state was the product of a long and exhausting battle in which the Turks used their traditional skill at deception to confuse and frustrate the larger imperial force they were confronting.

A Turkish painting of the Battle of Manzikert in August 1071 shows the Byzantine emperor, Romanos IV Diogenes, brought as a prisoner before the Seljuk Turkish leader, Muhammad Ibn Da’ud Alp Arslan, at the end of the battle.

Romanos assumed the imperial title as regent in 1067 after a century in which the Byzantine lands in the Balkans, Anatolia and Armenia – the heart of the empire – had been subject to raids and losses to different Turkic peoples from the central Asian steppes. The most successful were the Saljuq Turks, who established their rule across an area from the Sea of Azov to modern Iran and Iraq, and raided Armenia and what is now present-day Turkey. Under Alp Arslan (‘Heroic Lion’), sultan from 1063, the Saljuqs began to encroach ever further into Syria and Armenia. Romanos saw his appointment as regent as an opportunity to stabilize the eastern frontier of the empire and if possible to inflict a damaging longer-term defeat on the Saljuqs. In March 1071, he mustered a large army of foot soldiers and cavalry from all over the empire, an ethnic melting pot that included the famed Varangian Guard composed of Normans and Germans, as well as some Turkish mercenaries. Estimates from medieval texts vary widely, but it is thought that he led at least 30–40,000 men, supported, according to one account, by a huge train of baggage and siege equipment mounted on 3,000 carts.Neither side knew what the other was intending. Alp Arslan collected an army to capture cities in Syria and then to threaten the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt, but he failed to capture the besieged city of Aleppo. Romanos’s army tramped across Anatolia in the direction of Lake Van and the cluster of fortified towns around it, including Manzikert, recently seized by the Saljuqs. When news arrived that the Sultan was stuck in Syria, Romanos assumed he would have an easier time securing his goal.

When Alp Arslan abandoned the siege and moved east, Romanos thought he had been defeated and was no longer a threat. This was to be the first of many surprises. The sultan was much better informed about the Byzantine progress and abandoned Aleppo in order to gather a fresh army in northern Iran (then Azerbaijan) to meet the Roman threat. Taking with him only 4,000 of his best ghulam (professional cavalry), he called to arms the Kurdish and Turkic tribes to the north and arrived in eastern Anatolia, quite unknown to Romanos, with an estimated 20–30,000 (the exact figures will never be known) and a hard core of 15,000 skilled horsemen.Both armies arrived north of Lake Van at almost the same time. On a flat plain, broken by ridges and shallow gorges, dominated by the snow-covered peak of Süphan Dag, more than 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) high, the two armies set up camp. Alp Arslan was careful to make sure his camp was concealed to increase the degree of surprise when he faced an enemy he knew to be much stronger.Still ignorant of the threat, Romanos sent part of his army south, under the command of Joseph Tarchaniotes, to capture the city of Ahlat. The news reached Alp Arslan, who despatched 10,000 of his cavalry to intercept the force. They drove it back westwards, away from contact with the main Byzantine army.

Manzikert fell to Romanos’s impressive show of force the same day, 23 August. No news came of the disaster at Ahlat, and Romanos was so confident that there was no immediate threat that no reconnaissance was undertaken. Only when foragers sent out from his camp were attacked in force by Turkish soldiers did it suddenly become clear that he might have miscalculated. On 25 August, Saljuq emissaries arrived to see whether an agreement could be reached, perhaps because the sultan could see just how imposing the Byzantine force looked in its large fortified camp. They were humiliated by the emperor and sent back to the sultan. Romanos was confident that in a pitched battle, even one so unexpected, his army was a match for an army of Turks.

After a parade of icons and crosses, the Byzantine army marched out in three broad sections with a fourth reserve section behind it. Romanos commanded the best troops and the heavy cavalry in the centre, armed with lances. After commending his soldiers to the will of Allah, Alp Arslan drew up his army in a crescent shape, a centre and two wings, dominated by horsemen with bows and spears.Appearances were deceptive, however, because many of the Saljuq army were in hiding waiting to ambush the approaching Byzantines. Romanos was lured on as the Turkish crescent bent and the centre retreated. A cloud of choking dust arose from the marching feet and hooves, driven across the Turkish lines by a strong wind.

As the Turks moved back under the cloud, the formation of the Byzantine army began to lose coherence while Turkish horsemen suddenly appeared from nowhere to harass the enemy units, disappearing again behind ridges and rocks, only to spring another ambush further ahead. The elusive enemy tactics wore down the patience and morale of Romanos’s forces, and he decided to withdraw from a fruitless pursuit. His signal was mistakenly read as an indication that the centre had been defeated and a panic set in as the structure of the Roman force broke up. The rearguard failed to come to the assistance of the front line as it gave way. Sensing the crisis, Alp Arslan ordered his whole force forwards with cries of ‘Alluhu Akbar’ (‘God is Most Powerful’). The Byzantine centre, the Varangian guard and Romanos himself were surrounded and cut down, the emperor falling from his horse. It was here, dusty and wounded, that an unknown ghulam is supposed to have found and captured him, leading him the following day to the humiliating meeting with the incredulous sultan.The battle was not the massacre it was once thought to be, since it is now evident that many soldiers escaped as fast as they could back to Constantinople and safety. Romanos was generously freed, perhaps because Alp Arslan guessed what was in store for a defeated emperor. His enemies conspired to take his throne and after a brief civil war, he was captured, hideously blinded and died of his wound in July 1072. Alp Arslan was killed in November the same year, stabbed by a rebel prisoner he had just condemned to execution. The battle nevertheless opened the way to Turkish encroachment and conquest of Anatolia and the slow extinction of the Eastern Roman Empire.