My favourite author of all time is Robert E Howard. He’s best known for his Conan saga but he also holds the distinction of inventing the Sword & Sorcery genre with his Solomon Kane character. Not limiting himself to any one genre, he’d write anything that was manly and would earn a writer’s check from the 1920s-30s pulp magazines. Thus he wrote Lovecraft-style horror, wild west tall tales, and my favourite of all, crusader stories.
A great collection of crusader stories can be found in Gates Of Empire (Wildside Press)  featuring stories written from 1931 to 1934. These are lusty, epic yarns of Frankish knights battling marauding Arabs and Turks. Consider this opening to Lord Of Samarcand:
“The roar of battle had died away; the sun hung like a ball of crimson gold on the western hills. Across the trampled field of battle no squadrons thundered, no war-cry reverberated. Only the shrieks of the wounded and the moans of the dying rose to the circling vultures whose black wings swept closer and closer until they brushed the palled faces in their flight.”
Wait a minute, you say. Aren’t you reviewing the wrong book here?
Well, Gates of Empire is all about the Crusades which were a Frankish counter-attack to the Turkish invasion of Constantinople. Howard never left his home town of Cross Plains, Texas but he was a voracious reader of history. It was the spirit and events of these times, around 1000AD to 1200AD that he fictionalised in his best stories. Take, for example, The Lion Of Tiberius:
“The battle in the meadowlands of the Euphrates was over, but not the slaughter. On that bloody field where the Caliph of Bagdad and his Turkish allies had broken the onrushing power of Doubeys ibn Sadaka of Hilla and the desert, the steel-clad bodies lay strewn like the drift of a storm. The great canal men called the Nile, which connected the Euphrates with the distant Tigris, was choked with the bodies of the tribesmen, and survivors were panting in flight toward the white walls of Hilla which shimmered in the distance above the placid waters of the nearest river. Behind them the mailed hawks, the Seljuks, rode down the fleeing, cutting the fugitives from their saddles. The glittering dream of the Arab emir had ended in a storm of blood and steel, and his spurs struck blood as he rode for the distant river.”
None of this made much sense to be, historically, as I first read it ten years ago. I’m aware Howard wasn’t going for strict historical accuracy but these eddies and flows of empire had no meaning to me. I lacked the greater perspective of world history within which to anchor these battles, and to colour them with knowledge of the customs and culture of that era. It is reading these Time Life books that has deepened my enjoyment of Howard’s work.
Right now I’m reading about the Seljuks, who became what we know as Turks. They were a nomadic border tribe of sheep herders related to the Mongols and they too fought on horseback, were expert mounted archers, and fought primarily harrying battles based on mobility. They emerged from around Turkmenistan  and swept through Persia, defeating the Byzantine Empire in a decisive battle at Manzikert in 1071.
Reading the Time Life description of the build-up, battle, and aftermath felt ripped straight out of a Howard story. The Seljuk leader Alp Arslan (“Heroic Lion”) pushed out of Persia where he led his Sunni Muslim army under the name of Bagdad’s Sunni caliphate. His goal was an internecine battle with the Shiia anti-caliphate in Egypt and to clear the way he reached a non-aggression treaty with Byzantine emperor Romanus. As Arslan pushed through Syria, Romanus took advantage of his absence to reconquer Christian Armenia from Muslim influence, so Arlsan turned back around and eventually the battle of Manzikert ensued.
His army routed, Romanus was captured but treated well and agreed a new treaty because Arslan was not interested in taking Byzantium. However upon his return to Constantinople, palace plotting by his top general Adronicus had placed a rival on the throne and Romanus was blinded and exiled:
“Carried forth on a cheap beast of burden like a decaying corpse, his eyes gouged out and his face and head swollen and full of worms and stench, he lived on a few days in pain and smelling foully, and finally died” [contemporary historian]
Arlsan himself was killed after returning east to put down a rebellion. Capturing a fort, the commander was presented to him bound up. The commander so infuriated Arslan with his insults that the Seljuk leader had him released so that he could shoot him dead himself, but his arrow flew wide. In the ensuing confusion, the prisoner drew a concealed dagger and sprang at the Sultan, stabbing him before he himself was hacked to pieces. Arslan died four days later, in 1072.
Howard’s stories brim with such events. Lion of Tiberius seems directly inspired by the Seljuk advance on Egypt, and Turkic-Arab fighting. It tells the story of a son of the defeated Arab who is convinced to lay down his arms in defeat upon promise of quarter, and promptly blinded in spite by the victorious general, dying soon afterwards. His man-at-arms, an Englishman John Norwald, is captured and condemned to life as a galley slave. Twenty years later he hunts down the general, infiltrates his camp at night, and stabs him to death with a dagger. I’m sure Howard knew the story of Romanus and Arslan.
I’m quite regretful that it took until my fifth decade in life to make a genuine study of world history. It’s one thing to slot more pieces into my overall Grand Scheme Of Everything mental map – that’s an obvious benefit of this study project. What I didn’t expect is to enjoy my fiction reading a lot more.
If you’d like to learn the Grand Scheme Of Banging Chicks, you can’t do any better than Daygame Infinite. It’s the best book out there and not a word of fiction.
 There are far cheaper versions available. I just linked the one I own.
 I’d always wondered why that country was named so, despite being rather far from Turkey. Now I know.