Karatay Madrasa, Konya 1252

by FSTC Published on: 13th April 2005

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Karatay Madrasa can be considered as the apex of Seljuk architectural small space design. Major features of the madarasa are the great dome and the inclusion of elaborate decoration schemes, essentially from mosaics of glazed tiles, with Sufi mysticism and symbolism.

Figure 1. Plan of the Karatay Madrasa showing the dominance of the central hall (covered court)

Built in Konya in 1251, Karatay Madrasa can be considered as the apex of Seljuk small space design, greatly improving the enclosed plan theme which had been experimented with in earlier buildings. In this new configuration the traditional open court was covered with a great dome while keeping the same functionality of the area. The second major feature of this wonderful madrassa is the incorporation of a well advanced decoration scheme, essentially from mosaics of glazed tiles, with Sufi mysticism and symbolism. The transformation of the central dome into the divine dome (sky or universe) supported by pendentives representing the five divine messages (messengers) created a superior imagery while the glaze of the colourful tiles added to the aesthetics of the place.


Karatay Madrasa was built by Celaleddin (Jalaludin) Karatay, a vizier of Sultan Izzeddin Keykavus, who commissioned an architect by the name of Muhammed bin Hawlan Al-Dimiski. The madrassa was completed in 1251 as a response to the growing educational needs of their capital Konya and as part of the Seljuk’s commitment to learning and spreading knowledge. Faced with a site of mediocre size, the architect decided to adopt an enclosed plan with a single iwan. By arranging the whole units of the edifice around the central enclosure, he succeeded in achieving great functionality in this comparatively small space.

The plan was ordered into three sections. The western side at the back of the building consists of a vaulted iwan flanked on both sides by two domed rooms. One of these chambers, the southern one, accommodates the tomb of Celaleddin Karatay, the founder of the building. The iwan is a large room of great height made of huge pointed arches opening directly into the central hall. This is a spacious area of a square shape covered with a splendid dome of immense size perforated in the centre for the penetration of light. At its centre and under the dome opening, a pool for ablution was fitted in similar fashion to the traditional courtyard.

The innovative design of a single iwan plan based on the conversion of the courtyard into a central domed hall has been the key feature emphasised by scholars. The originality of this design and the circumstances surrounding its adoption have been discussed in detail in the article on the Ince Minaret Madrasa. Here we look at another original feature which had a lasting impact on Anatolian and Ottoman architecture. Karatay Madrassa is also renowned for the use of pendentives which serve as a framework for the transition of the dome of the great hall. The origin of the use of these elements goes back to Northern Syria where the invention of an advanced version of the single glacis was made [1]. This was no more than a flat triangle with its base at the top and apex pointing down. In the next phase this glacis evolved into two triangles – at Aleppo, in Maqam Ibrahim built by Emir Nur–Al-Din in 1168, and the Madrasa Shad-Bakht (1193)[2]. It is worth noting that prior to the flat pendentives spherical ones provided an earlier means of achieving the transition of the dome from a square bay to octagonal form. However, the spherical shape caused some aesthetic limitations unlike the glacis which provided more possibilities of elaboration. The skilful Seljuks used this new form of pendentive in achieving better structural and aesthetic construction of the dome.

Figure 2. The interior of the central hall looking into the iwan with the pool at the foreground

They struck upon the idea of faceting the plane into several adjacent triangles each of which added one side to the rim of the transition zone, and resulted, in this case, in producing a twenty-sided figure. In this way when the circular base of the dome settled over it there were no untidy edges left over’.[3]

These pendentives became an essential element of Ottoman and Turkish architecture famously known as the “Turkish triangles”.

The third section of the madrasa plan encompasses a number of small rooms surrounding the central area. These were student cells arranged along three sides of the hall, four on each side. They are simple functional chambers with little decoration and furniture. At the southern corner of the madrasa is the main portal, surprisingly falling out of the axis with the iwan. Instead it was placed in alignment with the domed tomb chamber. Originally, the portal was preceded by a square hallway that led to the central hall through an opening which directly faced the entrance to the domed chamber. This hallway has unfortunately collapsed leaving a free standing gate.

The portal itself is a prominent structure framed by a pishtaq of great workmanship. First there are alternating stones of white and grey colours set in a geometrical pattern of rectangular shapes and intersecting lines closely resembling the Kufic script. The same scheme is applied to the decoration of the voussoirs of the pointed arch of the door. The artists of this madrasa must have worked on or studied the portal of Ala Al-Din Mosque (1156-1220) built nearby in Konya. The resemblance between the two cannot be missed not only in the use of polychromy but also in the side columns supporting the arch, the square frame of the door outlined by grey and white stones and the muqarnas which cover the coving of the semi-dome . However, the origin of much of these decorative themes has been traced to Syria. The type of polychromy described above was widely used in Damascus and Aleppo. The marble veneering of the ashlar portal also originates in Aleppo, where it is encountered in a number of buildings, e.g. Jami al-Firdaus (1235)[4]. As Figure 3 shows, the theme used in this madrasa consists of a band of intersecting multi-foil arches which follow the curve of the archivolt. At the key stone above the centre of the arch, these arches are looped to form circles or knots. The combination of the archivolt decoration with the geometrical setting applied elsewhere on the rectangular façade of the portal make a uniform but attractive decorative system that was repeated in numerous buildings of the Muslim world. As for the knot theme it is an ancient motif going back to the Assyrians who used it as part of their black magic which was supposed to harm the enemy [5]. It is difficult to suggest such superstition was intended here, although there is a good example where a similar theme was applied with the above intention. The archivolt decoration of Aleppo citadel where a dragon is rolling around itself forming knots perhaps supports the superstition theory. There can also be no doubt that the Seljuks used on their portals other forms of emblems, especially in animal forms such as dragons, lions, harpies and double-headed eagles, all of which are more prophylactic in intention than heraldic. The pair of hounds on leashes carved on the excavated gate of the citadel of Harran (1059) [6] is a good example.

Figure 3. The dome transformed by the mosaics into an image of the divine dome. Note the five triangles (pendentives) which invoke the names of the five famous messengers of Allah

Decorative merits and symbolism

In addition to the spatial and structural achievements described above, Karatay Madrasa, as well as Ince Minare Madrasa to a certain extent, represents the culmination of the Seljuk art of Anatolia which was developed throughout a period of over 300 years. Such art began in the grotesque work of the 11th and 12th centuries as seen on the facades of Sivas and Divrigi, but reached its peak in the tile work of the Karatay Madrasa and the refined sculpture of the portal of Ince Minare[7]. Karatay Madrassa, in particular, is a veritable museum of excellent Seljuk tile work, a fact which encouraged the Turkish government to convert it into a national museum of tile work in 1956.

Figure 4. An external view showing the portal and the central hall with its large dome. The domed chamber at the background holds the tomb of the founder of the madrasa.

The interior wall surfaces of the madrasa are covered with mosaic tiles mostly turquoise and dark blue. The climax of this surface embellishment is found in the dome of the central hall where the decorative scheme appears to be developed in three main stages. The dome itself was internally transformed into a giant mosaic made from blue, black and white glazed tiles. The mosaic pieces were arranged with great care in geometrical star designs of white centre followed by a blue inner ring and a black outer one giving the impression of bursting stars. To complete the picture, the area between these stars was filled with millions of small black dots set in a blue background. The image of the heavens with its stars and planets which the artist sought to create was undeniably achieved.

The second stage of the decorative scheme consists of a circular band of Kufic calligraphy carved in golden colour at the vertical foot of the dome, invoking the famous Qur’anic verse of the Throne (Ayat Al-Kursi):

Allah. There is no god but He,-the Living, the Self-subsisting, Eternal. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede in His presence except as He permits? He knows what (appears to His creatures as) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He wills. His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory)”(2:255)

The above text provides another indicator of the whole symbolic image the artist of Karatay wanted to transmit. A further clue is provided by the pendentives which are huge fan-like triangular structures fitted at the corners of the hall to provide the transition of the dome. A total of five triangles, of green centre and turquoise and white edges were fixed in each corner. The most revealing part of these pendentives is the pseudo-kufic script which evoke the name of Prophets Muhammed, Isa (Jesus), Musa (Moses) and possibly Ibrahim (Abraham) and Nuh (Noah); the five main messengers of Allah (God).

It is clear from this that the dome was given the symbolic significance of the universal tent or the divine dome extending to the four corners of the universe and supported on these five pillars. These meanings were also expressed in the decoration of other parts and walls of the building as well as on the external façade of the portal, reflecting the Sufi tradition dominating this particular period. For example, the lattice work which was set into rectangular panels flanking both sides of the portal was executed through lines which intersect laterally in a puzzling fashion. This is another Syrian influence where such a motif is known as swastika [8] – ancient Mesopotamian symbols of the sun. The aim was to create a decorative illusion that corresponds to the mystical experience provided by the dome and its surrounding. Indeed the portal became a sun gate leading to the heavens as seen by Sufi mysticism. The madrasa, one must emphasise, was frequented by the so called Darwish, Sufi groups.

[1] Jairazbhoy, R. A. (1972), ‘An Outline of Islamic Architecture’, Asia Publishing House; Bombay and London, p.3, p.190.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, p. 196.

[4] Herzfeld, E. (1945), ‘Damascus: Studies in Architecture’, Ars Islamica, Vol. X, pp. 13-70, Fig. 83.

[5] Meier, G. (1937), ‘Die assyrische Beschworungssamlung Maqlu’, p. 60, cited in Jairazbhoy, p.196.

[6] Rice, D. S. (1952), ‘Medieval Harran‘, Anatolian Studies, II, pp. 36-83.

[7] Michell, George (ed.). (1980), ‘Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning. London: Thames and Hudson, p.38.

[8] The Swastika was later adopted by the Nazi, Adolf Hitler.

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