What did Europe think of the Sultanate of Rum?

Ed O'Meara
5 min readMar 31, 2020

These days, we universally love Turkey. Delicious food, lovely climate, beautiful countryside and (yes) world beating toilets.

But back in the 11th century, the praise wasn’t quite so universal. European views of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum were coloured by The Crusades. And when we say coloured, we mean dog turd in your chardonnay.

Pope Urban the Trashtalker

At the 1095 Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II stuck it to “the Turks” in no uncertain terms. It’s true that the Seljuks has burned churches and persecuted Christians after the takeover post Battle of Manzikert. Their tourist board hadn’t been great about protecting Christian pilgrims entering the Holy Land. But these were violent times. You couldn’t even pop to the shops for a Kit Kat without someone trebucheting your bungalow. But it’s also pretty clear that the Pope was laying it on a bit thick when he painted the Turks as devilish.

Although we don’t have Pope Urban’s exact words, we do have the writing of a chronicler who was probably there — a monk called Robert, called Robert the Monk. According to Robert:

“From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion.”

According to Robert, the Turks weren’t just a decent group of lads with a few bad apples. The prevailing feeling at the time was that they were natural born killers who loved a spot of cruelty:

“They [Turks] destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent.”

You know when The Sun newspaper does that fake outrage stuff when they’re actually reveling in the detail of it all? You know what I mean. “Disgusting, selfish Chardonnay spends her kiddie’s lunch money on MASSIVE FAKE BOOBS. We reveal the whole sorry tale, with pictures — p.2–22.”

Well, it’s the same deal here. The point of such lurid detail was simple wartime propaganda. The Pope wanted to get the the Crusaders amped up. All ready to go aslaughterin’ bloodthirsty animal-like savages.

And Pope Urban II didn’t have to dream up these details himself — although he probably spent a few Evensongs mulling it all over. A lot of this stuff was swiped from Alexius I Comnenus, the Byzantine emperor. Generally miffed about losing such large tracts of land in Anatolia to the Turks, he wrote to Pope Urban:

“The enemy has the habit of circumcising young Christians and Christian babies above baptismal font. In derision of the Christ they let the blood flow into the font. Then they are forced to urinate in the font. . . . Those who refuse to do so are tortured and put to death. They carry off noble matrons and their daughters and abuse them like animals. . . . Then, too, the Turks shamelessly commit the sin of sodomy on our men of all ages and all ranks . . . and, O misery, something that has never been seen or heard before, on bishops.”

None of this detail seems particularly likely. Why go to the trouble of coming up with brilliantly profane torture when you could pretty much stick to standard rape and pillage and get on with your day?

Painting the Sultanate of Rum types as lustful and depraved sexaholics compared to the virtuous Christians was a useful contrast. For no matter how much of a sinner you were, there was always someone worse to point at. Perhaps explaining why pedophiles are such an obsession of the tabloid media in the late 20th and early 21st century. Not that contemporary bishops would know anything about that, right?

One of the reasons that Pope Urban II was so keen to call a Crusade was:

  1. He had a rival in Avignon. Calling this Crusade was literally Holier than thou oneupmanship.
  2. Europe was full of rampaging, psychopath knights who were so full of every form of sin that the Church decided that the best thing for them was to go and commit these sins somewhere else for a while.

So let’s not take pious outrage at face value. Sultanate of Rum? Probably no paradise, but let’s not fire trebuchets in glass houses.

For more on the Crusades , check out historical entertainment podcast Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore’s episode on the Sultanate of Rum.




Ed O'Meara

Copywriter and historical comedian. Looking for the gravy train.