The Seljuk Face of Anatolia: Aspects of the Social and Intellectual History of Seljuk Architecture

by Semra Ogel Published on: 15th January 2008

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This article deals with the Seljuk Anatolian architecture and art. The art of the Seljuk sultans showed much interest in public buildings such as caravanserais, schools and hospitals. This architecture was based on strong religious and cultural sources of inspiration that nourished the works of architects, artists and artisans.

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Figure 1: Map of the Anatolian Seljuk Sultanate around the end of the 11th century. Extracted from Historical Atlas by William Shepherd (1923-26). (Source).

See the link below to the full article if you need to obtain PDF reading software The following article introduces the summary of Anadolu’nun Selçuklu Çehresi by Emeritus Professor Semra Ögel, which is appended here as a full 15 pages article in PDF file.

The essay deals with the Seljuk Anatolian architecture and art, as it is represented in the surviving Seljuk monuments and buildings in Anatolia, such as caravanserais, schools and hospitals. The article surveys the religious and cultural sources of inspiration that nourished the works of architects, artists and artisans and describes the institutional setting of their achievement.

The Anatolian Seljuk Sultanate or Seljuk Sultanate of Rum was the Seljuk Turkish sultanate that ruled in direct lineage from 1077 to 1307 in Anatolia, with capitals, successively, in Iznik (Nicaea) for a brief period in its beginnings, and then in Konya in Central Anatolia. At its height, the Anatolian Seljuk Sultanate stretched across central Turkey from Antalya-Alanya shoreline on the Mediterranean coast to Sinop and the neighbouring region on the Black Sea coast. To the east, the sultanate reached the region of Lake Van, after having absorbed other Turkish states, and its westernmost limit was near Denizli at the gates of the Aegean basin proper, where their rule was succeeded by smaller Beyliks.

The Anatolian Seljuk Sultanate beard the term “Rum” by virtue of the former Roman ownership of its lands. The terms preferred in Turkish sources are Anatolian Seljuk Sultanate (Anadolu Selçuklulari) or, more recently, Türkiye Selçuklulari – Seljuks of Turkey.

In 1071, The Seljuk Turks won a decisive victory over the Byzantine Empire and from then on, the Turkish presence in Anatolia was permanent. The Seljuks brought with them new artistic elements from Asia. The outstanding characteristics of the Seljuk architecture were tall gateways with ornamental stalactites, ogival archways and ceramic tiling. The exterior of the mosques of the Seljuk period are impressive, although not as decorative as Ottoman mosques. Among the most typical Seljuk monuments there is the Alaeddin Mosque the Ulu Mosque in Konya. The Medrese-s (schools and universities), mosques, inns, bridges and roads and many other artefacts of the daily life of the Seljuks can be observed in any part of Turkey until present time.

The Seljuk period in Turkish history also saw great progress in literature, architecture and religion. Poets and scholars found patronage and flourished under them. Seljuk art and culture are marked by a blend of Central Asian, Islamic Middle East and Anatolian influence.

Arabic was the language of the scholars; Persian was the official state language while the common man in the street spoke Turkish. The great mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam belonged to this period. Another prominent figure of this time was Jalal al-Din al-Rumi – the Muslim mystic, theologian and poet. His spiritual leadership was noteworthy and he had a large following. He was known as the Rumi Mevlana. He graced the court of Alaadin Keykubat I, the Sultan of Rum from 1220-1237, and initiated the Sufi order of “whirling dervishes”.

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Figure 2: The Crown gate of Divrigi Hospital (Dar al-Shifa). Source: Ord. Prof. Dr. A. Süheyl Unver Nakishanesi Yorumuyla Divrigi Ulucami ve Sifahanesi Tas Bezemeleri, VIII. Turk Tip Tarihi Kongresi 16-18 Haziran 2004 Sivas-Divrigi (ed. Nil Sari, G. Mesara, N. Colpan), Istanbul 2004, p. 1.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Seljuks to Turkish history has been towards architecture. Because of a tolerant government and their inclination towards religious and cultural development, huge mosques, theological seminaries, hospitals and caravanserais were built during this period.

The Central Asian tradition of mummifying the dead and keeping them in a tent for six months gave rise to the construction of domed tombs and turbe, the remains of which are still to be found scattered in Anatolia. Seljuk architecture is characterized by its use of brickwork. The buildings were decorated with relief work, which created a beautiful interplay of light and shade in the sunlight. So beautiful was the effect that Seljuk architecture is often described as ‘poetry in stone’. The famous Seljuk tiles were the most significant product of the times. When the Seljuks inter-married they made small Christian states their vassals and small Muslim states thrived all over east and central Anatolia. That is why we still find plenty of Seljuk architecture in Turkey even today – especially in Erzurum, Divrigi, Sivas and Konya.

The exceptional period that flourished in Anatolia in the 12th and the 13th centuries, between the Crusades and the Mongol invasion, is marked by outstanding works of architecture and decorative arts.

Among these, the caravanserais (or hans), used as stops, trading posts and defence for caravans, and of which about a hundred structures were built during the Anatolian Seljuks period, are particularly remarkable. Their unequalled concentration in time and in Anatolian geography represent some of the most distinctive and impressive constructions in the entire history of Islamic architecture, and their preservation and restoration continue to modilise the efforts of modern Turkey.

The largest caravanserai is the 1229-built Sultan Han on the road between the cities of Konya and Aksaray, in the township of Sultanhani, enclosing 4,900 square meters. Furthermore, five other towns across Turkey owe their names to caravanserais built there: Alacahan in Kangal, Duragan, Hekimhan and Kadinhani, as well as the township of Akkale/Akhan within Denizli metropolitan area. The caravanserai of Hekimhan is unique in having, underneath the usual inscription in Arabic with information relating to the edifice, two further inscriptions in Armenian and Syriac, since it was constructed by the physician of sultan Alâeddin Keykubad I, who is thought to have been a Christian by his origins, and to have converted to Islam. There are other particular cases like the settlement in Kalehisar site near Alaca, founded by the Seljuk commander Hüsameddin Temurlu who had taken refuge in the region after the defeat in the Battle of Kose Dag, and had founded a township comprising a castle, a medrese, a habitation zone and a caravanserai. All but the caravanserai, which remains undiscovered, was explored in the 1960s by the art historian Oktay Aslanapa, and the finds as well as a number of documents attest to the existence of a vivid settlement in the site, such as a 1463-dated Ottoman firman which instructs the headmaster of the medrese to lodge not in the school but in the caravanserai.

Once the foundations of a settled way of life had been finally consolidated during the reign of Kiliç Arslan II at the end of the 12th century, the sultan embarked on a building activity that was to create a characteristically Seljuk environment throughout Anatolia. This development was much accelerated because of the economic prosperity of the 13th century, in the course of which the Seljuk sultans and viziers began to occupy a place among the greatest patrons in the Islamic world. The stability attained during the reign of Ala’ al-Din Kaykubad I (1220-1237), generally regarded as the golden age of the Anatolian Seljuks, was reflected in the art of the period. The Mongolian invasion that immediately followed this, together with the subsequent collapse of the Seljuk state, though they obviously had an effect on art, did not succeed in extinguishing the passion for artistic creation that had gripped the whole of Anatolia. This was due as much to the powerful artistic environment that had been created in Anatolia as to the continued activity of the Anatolian viziers as patrons of art.

Several sources of inspiration shaped the style of the Anatolian Seljuk art. First, a strong influence came from Islamic Sufism. The art of Islam was powerfully influenced by Sufism, which regarded the material world of appearance, with its thousand and one varying aspects, as a reflection of the divine will, recreated at every breath. Inspired by this trend of thought and spirituality, the Anatolian Seljuk art contributed its own interpretation. The conception of the universal order was most clearly represented in architectural stone decorations.

During this period in Anatolia, mysticism was represented by Sufis such as Muhyiddin ibn al-Arabi, Mevlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, Yunus Emre and Haci Bektas Veli.

Shamanism, on the other hand, the oldest and most widespread of the religions adopted by the Asian Turks, endowed natural forces with human or animal form, and various Shamanist symbols appear in Anatolian stone carving and handicrafts bearing the full weight of their inherent significance. It was as if, in the Anatolian Seljuk period, the universe was carved in stone.


Further materials on Seljuk architecture in Anatolia

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