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Casus Belli: A Historical Lesson

By Dr. Begench Karayev, Fulbright Scholar, Indiana University

It could be possible to attribute the contemporary global upheaval to clashing civilizations and cultures but a very clear and present danger actually emanates from the lofty ambitions and raging arrogance of some power players and decision makers. Their declaration to engage in a long war with the 'enemies of civilization' falls very short of any real justification. Sometimes it appears that the 'enemy' is a product of their paranoid imagination. In any case, it is difficult to accept their identified foes as 'enemies of civilization'.

An impartial assessment would suggest that the authors of the Causus Belli are probably themselves the enemies of civilization, the civilization that they claim to defend.

History shows that justice may be a murky concept, arrogance never goes unpunished, and sometimes the efforts to bring peace to hostile communities may result in tragedy for peacemakers at the hands of their own subjects or companions. Even some prudent emperors and fearless warriors have fallen victim to this phenomenon.

Some war planners with their incomplete knowledge or incorrect understanding of history may be expecting a peaceful Muslim Europe and democratic Greater Middle Eastern region as a result of their grandiose plans but they need to remember that war has a way of getting out of hand and end result can usually be unexpected and surprising.

We find an important lesson in the Christian-Muslim wars near the end of eleventh century. The heroes of the epoch are well known to historians although the politicians may not be quite familiar with them. They were Alp Arslan and Romanus IV Diogenes, the first one a Turkmen Seljuk emperor and the latter the Emperor of Byzantine.

In 1070, Alp Arslan invaded Armenia and captured the town of Malazkirt, north of Lake Van. In the spring of 1071, he besieged and took Aleppo, which was held by the independent Arab prince, Mahmood ibn Mirdas, but the Sultan allowed him to remain in the city as his vassal. At the same time the Emperor Romanus Diogenes crossed the Euphrates and marched to Malazkirt where he divided his army, sending Norman contingent under Crusader Roussel de Bailleul to hold the fortress of Khilat.

According to historians, Alp Arslan first invited the emperor for negotiations but Romanus replied haughtily that he would dictate terms of peace in Rei. On Friday, 19th August, 1071, Alp Arslan prepared for battle. As soon as he came in sight of the enemy, he dismounted and implored God for victory. The Turkmens then fell upon the Byzantines with all their fury. Romanus had drawn up his army in line. The Turkmens, however, according to their usual tactics, refused to close and remained at a short distance from the heavy Byzantine formation, into which they poured continuous streams of arrows.

Romanus, with the main body of the front line was surrounded. The Turkmens closed in, still shooting. Eventually the Byzantines were overrun and Romanus Diogenes was taken prisoner. Alp Arslan behaved towards his defeated enemy with chivalrous courtesy. After a brief period of detention, the emperor was released, weighed down by the conqueror with valuable gifts.

While the ruthless Turkmens treated the unhappy Romanus with courtesy, the action of his compatriots was less chivalrous. The politicians of Constantinople were quick to seek their personal interests from the national disaster. No sooner did the news of the disaster reach Constantinople than the courtiers seized power by raising to the purple the young son of the previous Emperor Constantine Ducas. The new emperor assumed the title of Michael VII Ducas.

When Romanus Diogenes returned to Byzantine territory, he found that he had been deposed already. Endeavoring to raise an army, he was defeated and carried as a prisoner to Constandnople, where his eyes were torn out with such brutality that he died as a result of the surgery.

But the young Emperor Michael Ducas in the face of threat from Norman Crusader Roussel de Bailleul made a fateful decision. Afraid that Roussel would attack Constantinople, the emperor appealed for help to the Seljuks. While the chivalrous Alp Arslan had marched away to Trans-Oxania after releasing Romanus, his nephew Sulaiman ibn Qutlumish now concluded an agreement with Michael Ducas to come to his assistance against Roussel. The Normans were overwhelmed by the combined armies of the Byzantines and the Seljuks.

The indomitable Roussel, however, continued the struggle, repulsing his pursuers. A new Byzantine commander, Alexius Comnenus, was sent against him, working in close co-operation with the Turkmens. At length Roussel was handed over to Alexius Comnenus. This incident, in which Alexius Comnenus, who was later to be Byzantine emperor, co-operated with Turkmens against Normans, should be borne in mind.

After some time sultan Alp Arslan marched to Trans-Oxiana. In the fall of 1072 the sultan's army crossed the Oxus on a bridge of boats. A prisoner was brought before Alp Arslan for questioning, but suddenly broke away from the guards and plunged a dagger into the sultan's breast before the escorts could intervene. In the context of the historical situation of those times it seems that Alp Arslan fell victim to a treacherous plot hatched by the participants who were discontented with the results of his strategy regarding Byzantine.

Some reflections about it appear to coincide with another version of the death of Alp Arslan. It is said that before he could cross the Oxus with safety it was necessary to subdue certain fortresses, one of which was for several days vigorously defended by the governor, Yussuf Kothual, a Khorezmian. He was, however, obliged to surrender and was brought as a prisoner before the Sultan, who condemned him to cruel death. Yussuf, in desperation, drew his dagger and rushed upon the sultan. Alp Arslan, the most skilful archer of his day, motioned his guards not to interfere and drew his bow, but his foot slipped, the arrow missed the target and he received the assassin's dagger in his breast. The wound proved mortal, and Alp Arslan expired a few hours later, on the 1st of December 1072.

As he lay dying, Alp Arslan is alleged to have said to his intimates, "I have never engaged an enemy without first begging God for victory - but yesterday I rode to the top of a small hill, while the earth shook beneath the boots of my troops. I felt myself swell with pride and said to myself, 'I am the king of the whole earth. No one can stand up to. So God overthrew me by the weakest of his creatures, a prisoner-of-war under escort. I beg God to forgive me for my sin of arrogance'.

History continuously hammers home the lesson that arrogance does not go a long way.

He died at the age of forty and was buried in Merv. The following epitaph was inscribed on his tombstone:

"Thou hast seen Alp Arslan's head
In pride exalted to the sky,
Come to Merv and see how lowly
In the dust that head doth lie"

In Turkmenistan calendar the month of August has been renamed as Alp Arslan. It is a gesture of gratitude from the people of independent Turkmen state of 21 century - Motherland of Great Seljuks to the glorious Turkmen hero of the Middle Ages.

About the author: Dr. Begench Karayev is currently on Fulbright Scholarship at Indiana University, Bloomington, USA. He holds a Ph.D. from Moscow in political theory and is the author of monographs: 'Traditional and modern in political life of the contemporary Central Asian society. Experience of political analysis' (in Russian, 218p., Moscow, 1996) and 'Policy analysis: problems of theory and methodology. Experience of researches of contemporary Central Asian society' (in Russian, 176 p., Moscow, 1994). Before joining the Fulbright Scholar Program Dr. Karayev served for more than seven years as a senior diplomat in the Foreign Service of Turkmenistan.

Published at www.newscentralasia.com on August 2, 2004