The Rise of Zengi, 1127-1146


The mass migration of Turks from Central Asia into the Middle East brought to an end the early and intermediate periods of Islam, when its main divisions were about theology or ideology. While individual Turks may have been as philosophical as anyone, as a group, they were after military domination and power. In a sense, they were at war with both Sunni and Shi’ite Islam: they adopted Sunni theology of course, since it was more pragmatic than Shi’ite, but they were not interested in its more esoteric or complicated forms, either. And they were implacable enemies of Shi’ites.

Central Asia’s steppe cultures were supremely oriented to survival. We’ll see this even more in the later rise of Genghis Khan. They had little or no theology of an afterlife, and their morality seems grounded in tribal loyalty, like the early Franks. If Socrates asked them what virtue means, they would reply “keeping your oath of loyalty to a lord.” There was no “brotherhood of man” sentiment; the enemies of the king were consigned to death, unless the king wanted them as slaves or allies. They weren’t looking for spiritual salvation. Islam was important to them as a unifying power base that gave them instant allies across the developed world (like Turkey joining NATO in our time).

The Crusades put pressure on the Muslim world; the First Crusade clearly only succeeded because Baghdad’s power had been so shattered by infighting and Turkish conquest. In order to repel the invaders, the Turks had to unite and re-create Baghdad’s former military might.

Zengi was one of the most successful Turkish lords during this time, and he had a colorful life. Zengi’s rise led directly to the establishment of Saladin as the later Crusaders’ arch adversary, because he became that one strong man who could start ruling more than one city at a time, uniting them into a real kingdom. Baghdad’s Sultan was always still king in name, at this time, so Zengi is known merely as an Atabeg or Governor.

Zengi’s father was beheaded for treason in Aleppo, but oddly, the child Zengi was not stigmatized for it. The governor of Mosul adopted him, and he remained a member of the Turkish aristocracy. In fact, he inherited Mosul from his adoptive father.

Zengi, as Atabeg of Mosul, quickly took over Aleppo as well in 1128. Sultan Mahmud (a Seljuk) recognized his rule and counted on his support against rebels, but after the Sultan’s death, a civil war broke out in which Zengi supported the losing side. Somehow, he held onto his power bases in Mosul and Aleppo as rival Caliphs and Sultans battled all around Baghdad and Damascus for the next five years.

In 1135, the ruler of Damascus offered to give the city to Zengi to save himself from internal plots, but (ironically or predictably) he was actually killed by order of his own mother before he could act. Zengi besieged Homs and Damascus by turns over the next few years, notably getting a Damascus fortress to surrender by promising safe passage—-and then killing them all. Damascus allied with King Fulk of Jerusalem, but Zengi bested him, too. At length, in 1138 Zengi found peace and true love by marrying the mother who had ordered her son killed. With this action, he became the ruler of Homs, but Damascus still escaped him.

1144 was a banner year for Zengi and a disaster for the Crusaders. Zengi besieged Edessa, capturing it on Christmas Eve. The first Crusader state to be established, Edessa was also the first to end. Zengi’s gate-crashing of Edessa was heard in Europe: the fall of a major Crusader city became the formal cause of an official Second Crusade.

Zengi didn’t live much longer. Somewhere along the line, he had enslaved a Frank, probably captured in battle against Fulk, but perhaps from some more roundabout way. He was very fond of his Frankish slave, whose name we know only in Turkish. He didn’t realize the Frank secretly hated him. One night, Zengi was very drunk, and the slave stabbed him to death. He ran to Damascus, thinking he would be welcomed, but instead the governor of Damascus arrested him. The slave was sent to Aleppo, where Zengi’s son Nur ad-Din executed him. And now the mini-empire was Nur ad-Din’s.

Zengi’s strategic significance can’t be lost in the colorful details. The Muslim Empire was always balancing regional and cultural powers against each other, and for a while now, Baghdad’s Middle Eastern-Mesopotamian power base had been too fractured to do any balancing. This left the ideologically radical Ismaili regime in Egypt freedom to range far, setting up Shi’ite communities in Baghdad’s back yard, while also venturing as far north as Jerusalem. The imbalance allowed the Crusaders an opportunity to slip in. If Zengi could unify the Mesopotamian power base, the region might return to its classic power struggles by pushing out the Europeans. After unifying just a few cities, he wiped out one Crusader County. What was next?

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