Rome asunder, Byzantium arises

Rome asunder, Byzantium arises
Even with a new capital at Constantinople, the Roman Empire proved no less unwieldy. Once the steadying hand of Theodosius (r 379–95) was gone the impact of the reforms that Diocletian had instituted earlier became apparent: the empire split. The western – Roman – half of the empire eventually succumbed to decadence, sloth and sundry ‘barbarians’; the eastern half – Byzantium – prospered, gradually adopting the Greek language and allowing Christianity to become its defining feature. By the time of Justinian (527–65), Byzantium had taken up the mantle of imperialism that had once been Rome’s. History books note Justinian as responsible for the Aya Sofya and codifying Roman law, but he also pushed the boundaries of the empire to envelope southern Spain, North Africa and Italy. It was at this stage that Byzantium came to be an entity distinct from Rome, although sentimental attachment to the idea of Rome remained: the Greek-speaking Byzantines still referred to themselves as Romans, and in subsequent centuries the Turks would refer to them as ‘Rum’. However, Justinian’s exuberance and ambition overstretched the empire. Plague and the untimely encroachment of Avars and Slavic tribes north of the Danube curtailed any further expansion. Later a drawn-out struggle with their age-old rivals the Persians further weakened the Byzantines, leaving the eastern provinces of Anatolia easy prey for the Arab armies exploding out of Arabia. The Arabs took Ankara in 654 and by 669 had besieged Constantinople. Here were a new people, bringing a new language, civilisation and, most crucially, new religion: Islam. On the western front, Goths and Lombards impinged as well, ensuring that by the 8th century Byzantium was pushed back into the Balkans and Anatolia. The empire remained hunkered down until the emergence of the Macedonian emperors. Basil assumed the throne in 867 and the empire’s fortunes started heading on the up once more, as Basil chalked up victories against Muslim Egypt, the Slavic Bulgars and Russia. Basil II (976–1025) earned the moniker the ‘Bulgar Slayer’ after putting out the eyes of 14, 000 Bulgarian prisoners of war. When Basil died the empire lacked anyone of his leadership skills – or ferocity, perhaps – and the era of Byzantine expansion was comprehensively over. The First Turkic Empire: The Seljuks During the centuries of Byzantine waxing and waning, a nomadic people, the Turks, had been moving ever westward out of Central Asia. En route the Turks encountered the Arabs and in so doing converted to Islam. Vigorous and martial by nature, the Turks assumed control of parts of the moribund Abbasid empire, and built an empire of their own centred on Persia. Tuğrul, of the Turkish Seljuk clan, took the title of sultan in Baghdad, and from there the Seljuks began raiding Byzantine territory. In 1071 Tuğrul’s son Alp Arslan faced down the might of the Byzantine army at Manzikert (modern Malazgırt, north of Lake Van). Although vastly outnumbered, the nimble Turkish cavalry won the day, laying all of Anatolia open to wandering Turcoman bands and beginning the drawn-out, final demise of the Byzantine Empire. Not everything went the Seljuks’ way, however. The 12th and 13th centuries saw incursions by Crusaders, who established short-lived statelets at Antioch (Antakya; p433) and Edessa (modern Şanlıurfa). In a sideshow to the ongoing Seljuk saga, an unruly army of Crusaders, in 1204, sacked Constantinople, the capital of the Christian Byzantines, ostensibly the allies of the Crusaders. Meanwhile the Seljuks were riven by internal power struggles of their own and their vast empire fragmented. The Seljuk legacy lived on in Anatolia in the Sultanate of Rum, centred on the capital at Konya. Although ethnically Turkish, the Seljuks were purveyors of Persian culture, art and literature. It was the Seljuks who introduced knotted woollen rugs to Anatolia, and they endowed the countryside with remarkable architecture – still visible at Erzurum, Divriği, Amasya and Sivas. These Seljuk creations were the first truly Islamic art forms in Anatolia, and they were to become the prototypes on which Ottoman art forms would later be modelled. Celaleddin Rumi, the Sufi mystic who founded the Mevlevi, or Whirling Dervish, order, was an exemplar of the cultural and artistic heights reached in Konya. In the meantime, the Mongol descendants of Genghis Khan rumbled through Anatolia. They took Erzurum in 1242, then defeated a Seljuk army at Köse Dağ in 1243. At the Mongol onslaught, Anatolia fractured into a mosaic of Turkish beyliks (principalities) and Mongol fiefdoms; the shell-shocked Byzantines did not regain Constantinople until 1261. But by 1300 a single Turkish bey, Osman, established the Ottoman dynasty that would end the Byzantine line once and for all.