The untold story of the Middle-Eastern Turkmens

As many as six to seven million Turkmens living in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine today have been contributing to the region's rich civilization and heritage for over a thousand years.

The untold story of the Middle-Eastern Turkmens

Ertan Karpazli / World Bulletin

As the civil war in Syria enters its third year, the continuous bombing of the northern region of Aleppo by Bashar al-Assad’s regime has brought the issue of the Syrian Turkmen population to light. The Syrian Turkmen population, which is heavily concentrated in the Aleppo region, has been an integral part of Syrian heritage for over a thousand years. Also, escalating tensions in northern Iraq, which too hosts a strong concentration of native Turkmen, has also brought the attention to the struggle of the Turkmen people in the Middle-East.

Not to be confused with the Turks of Turkey or the Turkmens of Turkmenistan, the Turkmen people of the Middle-East have received very little recognition since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the ethnic diversity of the Middle-East and have no idea that such a people exist, even though the millions of Turkmens scattered across the region have not only been living there for over a millennium, but in fact ruled the region for most of that time.

Turkmens are the descendents of the Oghuz clan of the Turkic family, who originated in central Asia. The Turkmens are believed to have first arrived in the Middle-East in the seventh century when the Muslim Umayyad commander Ubaydullah bin Ziyad, who was based in Iraq, recruited around 1,000 Oghuz Turks into his army. The migration of Turkmens to Iraq, who were gradually beginning to adopt Islam on an individual basis, continued after the Abbasids took over the caliphate from the Umayyads. Most of them became assimilated into the Arab population.

In fact, even the Abbasid caliph Al-Mu’tasim (833-842) was born of a Turkmen mother. During his reign, Turkmens were recruited into the army in masses until they became so dominant that they successfully arranged in assassination of the caliph Al-Mutawakkil in 861 and replaced him with Al-Muntasirin. The Seljuks, who were descendents of the Oghuz clan and had set up the Great Seljuk Empire in what is today north-eastern Iran, were also key in helping the Abbasids overcome the Buyids in the tenth and eleventh centuries. After the defeat of the Buyids, the caliphate remained with the Abbasids, who were based in Baghdad, but much of the Middle-East from the east of Iran to the Mediterranean fell under Seljuk control.

Under the leadership of Sultan Tugrul Bey, Turkmens began settling in key cities such as Tel Afar, Erbil, Kirkuk and Mandali. In fact, during the Christian crusades to the Middle-East, Turkmens in the Levant played a key role in repelling the invaders. They were also supported by the Mamluke armies of Egypt, which were also predominantly comprised of Turkish soldiers from the Kipchak clan. The Tutush, Artuqids, Zengids and Ayyubids were a number of Seljuk and Mamluke principalities set up in the twelfth century to defend the holy land. However, the Middle-East experienced a huge blow when the Mongols swept across Asia and ransacked Baghdad, bringing an end to the Abbasid caliphate in the thirteenth century.

Funnily enough, many of the soldiers in the Mongol army were also Turks who had been recruited from Central Asian tribes. At the time, the Turks in the Mongol army had not accepted Islam, unlike their Seljuk and Mamluke counterparts. After leaving a blazing trail of death and destruction behind them, the Mongol armies settled in the Middle-East, and continued on until their defeat at the gates of Egypt at the hands of the Mamlukes. A century or so later, the Mongol armies began adopting Islam and integrating into local communities and culture.

Following the dismantling of the Great Seljuk Empire, a number of new principalities, known as Beyliks, began to emerge across the Levant and Anatolia. Meanwhile in Iraq and Iran, dynasties such as the Safavids were also formed. In the mid-thirteenth century, one principality which was based in north-western Anatolia, known as the sons of Osman, began to expand its territory into the Balkans and central Anatolia until it became the formidable Ottoman Empire.

This empire cemented its legitimacy in the region when Sultan Selim I defeated the Mamlukes of Egypt in the early 16th century at the Battle of Marj Dabiq in northern Syria to take over the caliphate. According to the population records of Ottoman Empire in 1518, the total population of Aleppo province was 54,276, with 36,217 being Turkmen. Similarly, in the same era, Lebanon also came under the control of the Ottomans, who left many of their soldiers there as settlers.

Sultan Selim I’s son, Suleiman the Magnificent, secured northern Iraq from his Safavid rivals in 1534. Following the conquest, Turkmens from Anatolia, who were followers of the Sunni branch of Islam, were brought to the region the balance the presence of Shiite Azeri Turks who had been brought to Iraq by Safavid ruler Shah Ismail in the early part of the century.

Under the protection of the Ottomans, the Turkmen community of the Middle-East flourished, both integrating with their Arab neighbors and maintaining their ethnic and linguistic identity for centuries. More arrivals came in the form of refugees towards the downfall of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century, with thousands of Turks from Crete settling in Lebanon as they fled persecution from Greece in 1897. Sultan Abdulhamid II set up the town of Hamidiye in Lebanon for Cretan Turks fleeing their homeland. Many also settled in Tripoli, which to this day continues to host around 10,000 Cretan Turks.

Furthermore, after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, Cyprus was annexed by Britain, who misused their power by manipulating the economic balance on the island and seized all assets belonging to the Evkaf, the communal treasury of the Turkish Cypriots. While Turkish Cypriots who had the means to flee the island did so, leaving in their thousands to Turkey in the early twentieth century, those who remained behind were left in poverty. Under these difficult circumstances, many were forced to give their daughters away to wealthy Arab businessmen from Palestine who often visited the island. Between 1920 and 1950, it is claimed that as many as 4,000 Turkish Cypriot girls were given away to Palestinian Arabs, with many of them settling in Gaza. For this reason, many Palestinians today have Turkish Cypriot grandmothers.

There are varying estimates of how many Turkmens reside in the Middle-East today. Censuses conducted by Arab Baathist regimes of Iraq and Syria have been criticized by the Turkmens for not representing their true numbers. Some limit the numbers to a mere half a million, whereas other sources state that there are as many as six or seven million Turkmens living in the Middle-East, with their key cities being Kirkuk, Erbil, Aleppo and Latakia. In 1923, the Iraqi Turkmens campaigned for Turkey to annex northern Iraq, which was named after its main city Mosul. In the recent Syrian civil war, the Syrian Turkmens have also been reaching out to Turkey to support them against assaults by the Syrian regime and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups.

Regardless of their exact numbers, the Turkmen people of the Middle-East arguably cannot be said to be a minority in the sense of the usual demographic term, nor can it be said that they have been assimilated into the Arab world. Rather, they are and will continue to be a key piece of the Middle-Eastern puzzle which cannot be complete without them. They have not only lived side-by-side with Arabs, Kurds and other communities for centuries, but they have also intermarried and partaken in the exchange of language, culture and history in the region, contributing to its rich civilization and heritage which is shared by all of its people.

Last Mod: 26 Haziran 2014, 11:11
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