A Turcopole was a lightly-armed solider – often an archer – who was recruited from the local population in the east. They served as loyal auxiliaries to the military orders like the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers.
The Turcopole was a much needed fighter
From the Roman empire onwards, armies have always vexed over how to get hold of the necessary manpower. This is particularly an acute problem when an empire is expanding far from home. Supply lines have always needed to be maintained and recruits found to replace the dead and wounded.
It’s also been a trick of every conqueror to absorb the fighting tactics of their enemies and the closest available manpower. The Romans never let a good enemy tactic go unnoticed and adopted – and they would cheerfully enlist the sons of the conquered.
Equally with the crusader states that sprang up in the Middle East after the taking of Jerusalem in 1099, there was a need to soak up some of the local fighting talent. The Christian invaders were never going to hold on to the kingdoms and principalities they had created without some of the locals coming on side.
There were, of course, plenty of Christians living all around them. The religion had, after all, begun in the Middle East. Every shade of Christianity could be found in the crusader states and to the north was the ancient and still very active eastern orthodox Christian empire of Byzantium.
It couldn’t be automatically assumed that any of these Christians would wield a sword for their new masters – who often regarded them as heretical. In appearance, they looked a little too much like their Jewish and Muslim neighbours and their church services were distinctly lacking in any Latin. But some were prepared to take up arms with the crusaders – and especially the Knights Templar. These obliging eastern warriors were known as ‘Turcopoles’.
FIND OUT MORE: The Templars and Islam – friends or enemies?
Derivation of the word Turcopole
I’m told this word derives from old Greek meaning ‘sons of Turks’ – but as my Greek is non-existent, one of you can put me right. It’s certain that these lightly armed auxiliaries weren’t necessary Turkish by ethnicity, though many may have been. They were easterners for sure and in the Templar order, they formed a useful fighting force.
However, any hope they might have had of rising to be a full blown knight – let alone a brother serjeant – they could forget. Not that racism as we understand it was prevalent – but they were never to be admitted to the Frankish noble inner circles of the crusader states.
Quest for the True Cross – a fictional Turcopole
In my book Quest For The True Cross (click on title to go to Amazon) – I have a turcopole main character called Pathros. He’s an intelligent and cultivated man from Aleppo whose family had fallen on hard times due to political changes in Syrian society – not least the arrival of the Seljuk Turks.
The removal of Christians from the bureaucracy of the Islamic caliphate reduces his father to poverty and Pathros goes to find his fortune in the nearby enemy kingdom of Jerusalem. He meets my main Templar hero, Sir William de Mandeville, and becomes his trusty servant.
What I show is that Pathros is an educated, literate easterner who, nevertheless, cannot rise up in the Templar order – a fact that frustrates and embitters him. He is lost between two cultures – the Frankish Christian world of the crusaders and the Muslim caliphate. Pathros belongs to neither.
Turcopole as a slur used by extremists today
I know many Muslim activists here in London who are trying to build unity between faiths and push back against extremism and terrorism. They get a lot of flak from “Islamists” who take a supremacist view of Islam. They’re not interested in being reconciled to mainstream society. And they call these moderate Muslims – neo-Turcopoles! You couldn’t make it up.