Seljuk candlestick holder

The Seljuk empire was not a centralized state but rather a group of semi-independent kingdoms ruled by members of the same extended family. The Seljuk empire had few formal political institutions. Seljuk leaders maintained order on the local level through amirs, nomadic military regimes that were mostly independent and took in revenues mostly for themselves, and ulumas, Muslim clerics who used their influence to gain political power in a way not unlike modern Ayatollahs.

The ulumas established the madrassahs (Islamic theological schools). They helped standardize Islamic learning and in doing so they raised the status of the clergy and created a bureaucracy that gave them power. The Seljuks built madrassahs throughout the Muslim world and acted as links between local rulers and the Seljuk-Persian rulers in Baghdad and acted as local judges for the amirs.

The power of the amirs was short-lived but the power of the ulumas was more long-lasting. Under the uluma system, local communities felt less like subjects of a remote caliphate and more like a part of greater Muslim community. This in turn made Islam stronger and unified the Muslim world on deeper more individual level.

Turks who moved into Anatolia and the Middle East came under the strong influence of Islamic culture. They were Sunnis with a strong tendency towards Sufism.

Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “Nominally Sunni, the Seljuqs cultivated a remarkably tolerant, progressive and pluralistic culture. Sufism — the liberal, mystical version of Islam regarded as blasphemous by fundamentalists — became widely popular. In his indispensable catalog essay, the historian A. C. S. Peacock observes, “The Seljuqs appear to have been the first rulers actively to court the support of the Sufis in exchange for both popular legitimacy and spiritual rewards in the form of the blessings (baraka) of a holy man.” The Sufi poet Rumi (1207–73) lived and prospered under the Anatolian Seljuqs in Konya, and the great Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi (1165–1240) spent time at the Seljuq court there.” [Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, January 9, 2016]

Seljuk Rule in Iran and Iraq

Seljuk empire in 1071

In 1055 the caliph in Baghdad gave Tughril Beg robes, gifts, and the title King of the East. Under Tughril Beg's successor, Malik Shah (1072-92), Iran enjoyed a cultural and scientific renaissance, largely attributed to his brilliant Iranian vizier, Nizam al Mulk. These leaders established the observatory where Umar (Omar) Khayyam did much of his experimentation for a new calendar, and they built religious schools in all the major towns. They brought Abu Hamid Ghazali, one of the greatest Islamic theologians, and other eminent scholars to the Seljuk capital at Baghdad and encouraged and supported their work. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

While they engaged in state building, the Seljuks also emerged as the champions of Sunni Islam against the religion's Shiite sect. Tugrul's successor, Mehmet ibn Daud (r. 1063-72)--better known as Alp Arslan, the "Lion Hero"--prepared for a campaign against the Shiite Fatimid caliphate in Egypt but was forced to divert his attention to Anatolia by the gazis , on whose endurance and mobility the Seljuks depended. The Seljuk elite could not persuade these gazis to live within the framework of a bureaucratic Persian state, content with collecting taxes and patrolling trade routes. *

Each year the gazis cut deeper into Byzantine territory, raiding and taking booty according to their tradition. Some served as mercenaries in the private wars of Byzantine nobles and occasionally settled on land they had taken. The Seljuks followed the gazis into Anatolia in order to retain control over them. In 1071 Alp Arslan routed the Byzantine army at Manzikert near Lake Van, opening all of Anatolia to conquest by the Turks.*

Seljuk Turks in Central Asia

The Seljuk Turkish from Central Asia converted to Islam in the 990s. In the early 11th century they entered the area around Uzbekistan with a cavalry of nomadic troops and began claiming more and more territory.

The Seljuk Turks gained power in Central Asia by out maneuvering, both diplomatically and militarily, the feuding Karakhanids and Ghaznavids. In the 11th century, Sultan Sanjar made Merv in present-day Turkmenistan the capital of the Seljuk Empire and used it as a base for its conquests of Afghanistan and Persia. By 1040 the Seljuks had taken western Iran from the Ghazanids.

Under the Seljuk Turks in 11th and 12th centuries Merv was the greatest city in the Islamic world and was known as “Merv, Queen of the World.” It also believed to have been the inspiration for a number of tales in Thousand and One Nights. Under the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan, the Seljuk empire stretched from Afghanistan to Egypt and Merv became a city full of palaces, libraries, observatories, and canals that nourished parks and lush gardens.

The Seljuk army stayed close to its nomadic roots. They were a Mongol-like cavalry horde that “were a law unto themselves” and traveled with their animals wherever they wished

Seljuk Turks in Anatolia

Konya was the capital of the Seljuk civilization. According to UNESCO: “Konya a cradle of many civilizations, became a center of culture and politics during the period of Seljuks. During the 12 th and 13 th centuries the city acted as the capital of Seljuks and many public buildings, examples of Seljukian stone carving were built at that time. Seljuks created a unique artistic world with cultural links reaching out from the Anatolian heartland to central Asia, the Middle East and the shores of the Mediterrannean and Konya is the significant example of this world. The outer fortress of Konya and the Alaaddin Mosque, the Sirçali Madrasa, many small mosques and tombs are examples of Seljukian architectural elements of Konya.” [Source: UNESCO *=*]

The Seljuks established a small sultanate on Anatolia call Rum (Rome). From here they attacked the Byzantines in Asia Minor, and Arabs in Syria and Palestine. In 1070 the Seljuks took Syria from the Fatimids and entered Byzantine territory. In 1071, they defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert near Lake Van, and took the Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogense prisoner. This effectively ended Byzantine rule in Anatolia.

Mausoleum of Mevlana in Konya

At first only a few Seljuks entered Asia Minor, but when they defeated the Byzantines at Malazgirt the floodgates opened and waves of Turkish immigrants poured in. Anatolia was seen as the new frontier . Seljuk military hordes roamed freely through Anatolia with their animals and set up small states.

Seljuks were led by fierce and competent rulers that expanded their empire across Anatolia, establishing a provincial capital in Nicaea (Iznik), not far from the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, and engaged in commercial relations with Italian republics such as Venice.

Suzan Yalman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: Following their conquest of Baghdad in 1055, the Seljuk dynasty, descendants of the Central Asian Turkic Oghuz tribe, soon established hegemony over most of West Asia, including present-day Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Raids on the Byzantine frontier eventually led to the Battle of Manzikert (modern Malazgirt in eastern Turkey) in 1071 and the resulting Seljuk victory opened Anatolia to Turkic settlement. A branch of the Seljuks assumed rule from Nicaea (Iznik) in northwestern Anatolia (1078–81) and became known as the Seljuks of Rum ("Rome"), referring to the Roman Byzantine past of the Seljuk territories. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of \^/]

“Notwithstanding the advance of Crusader armies, battles against the Byzantines, and conflicts with neighboring rival Turkic principalities, the Seljuks were able to establish uncontested authority following the Latin conquest of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1204).The first half of the thirteenth century corresponds to the zenith of Seljuk power in Anatolia until they were defeated by the Ilkhanids, the Mongol dynasty ruling in Iran, at the Battle of Köse Dagh (1243).” \^/

Seljuk Art and Culture

In 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted a magnificent exhibition of Islamic art from the Seljuk (Seljuq, Seljuqid) period called “Court & Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs.” Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “The exhibition presents about 250 objects, mostly of portable size. They include intricately incised and silver-inlaid brass ewers, basins and dishes; animal-shaped incense burners; ornate candlesticks and lamp stands; gold rings and coins; illuminated copies of the Quran; architectural fragments and grave markers carved in geometric patterns; and garments of finely woven cloth. Scientific devices include an astrolabe and a brass cantaloupe-size globe that shines like gold. [Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, January 9, 2016 /*/]

Seljuk double bulge bottle at the Louvre

“While all of this testifies to an aesthetically and technologically sophisticated culture, a nonspecialist might wonder what is distinctively Seljuqian about it — what distinguishes it from, say, medieval Islamic arts and crafts in general. Nomadic invaders from Central Asia, the Seljuqs did not impose on their subjects a traditional aesthetic or religion of their own. Rather, they commissioned artistic and decorative works from artisans of various subject peoples. They built palaces, mosques, madrasas and hospitals in Islamic architectural styles. But what the Seljuqs created most consequentially was a relatively peaceful, prosperous and unified world wherein indigenous literature, arts and sciences were able to flourish in urban centers throughout the region...This is perhaps surprising, given that the Seljuqs initially were known as fearsome warriors. /*/

“Consider, for example, a lovely hemispherical wine cup just three inches in diameter made of hammered gold in Iran in the 11th century. It has a fanciful duck engraved into its inner bottom and a verse engraved around its outer rim that, translated into English, reads:
Wine is a sun in a garment of red Chinese silk
It flows; its source is the flask
Drink, then, in the pleasance of time, since our day
Is a day of delight which has brought dew. /*/

“The words were written by a 10th century poet named Ibn al-Tammar al-Wasiti, and they speak to a world of hedonistic sophisticates who blithely shrugged off Qur’anic dictums against alcohol consumption and drunkenness in the interests of worldly recreation and spiritual transport.” /*/

Seljuk Art and Architecture in of Iran (ca. 1040–1157)

The Seljuks were ambitious builders who constructed great madrassahs, mosques, hospitals, inns, bridges and roads from stone. Features of Seljuk architecture include gateways with monumental “stalactites” known as muqarnas. ogival archways and ceramic tiling. Seljuks developed the classic mosque plan with four iwans, barrel-vaulted chambers, arranged around a court. They used brick with great sophistication to create arches and domes as well as complex surface patterns. Alladddin Mosque and Ulu Mosque in Konya are fine examples of Seljuk architecture.

Cuma Camii in Isfahan, Iran

Suzan Yalman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Under the Seljuk sultanate, Iran enjoyed a period of material and cultural prosperity, and the ingenuity in architecture and the arts during this period had a notable impact on later artistic developments. The Seljuk cultural and artistic efflorescence continued well beyond the sultanate's political influence. In fact, as there are few surviving dated examples of Iranian art from the Seljuk period proper, works of art dating to the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries are frequently labeled "Seljuk" even though they might have been produced under the patronage of one of several local dynasties. Turkic Seljuk rulers adopted and supported local Perso-Islamic traditions, and Seljuk art is recognized for weaving together Persian, Islamic, and Central Asian–Turkic elements. During this period, the arts of Iran gained distinction in the Islamic world. [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, Based on original work by Linda Komaroff Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Important developments and innovations contributed to the renown of Seljuk art. Beginning in the second half of the twelfth century, the art of inlaying bronze or brass objects with precious metals such as copper, silver, and gold became prominent in the eastern Iranian province of Khorasan. Such objects were often decorated with Arabic inscriptions written in the "animated" script, developed during this period, in which the letters were transformed into human and animal figures. The same shapes known in metalwork were also produced in contemporary pottery. These ceramic wares demonstrate the advancement of new techniques or the further refinement of existing ones. Especially notable were the works produced in Kashan, in the luster and mina’i techniques. Also significant, though little known today due to few surviving examples, were the arts of the book.\^/

The Seljuks were also great patrons of architecture. An unprecedented number of madrasas (institutions of higher learning) were erected throughout the Seljuk realm. Most notable, however, was the Madrasa Nizamiya, founded in Baghdad by the great Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk (r. 1063–92) to support Orthodox Sunni education (1067). In mosque architecture, the courtyard with four vaulted halls (iwans) on each side became prevalent. The transformed congregational mosque in Isfahan whose additions were commissioned by Nizam al-Mulk and Taj al-Mulk, two Seljuk administrators, for Sultan Malikshah (r. 1073–92) and his wife Terkan Khatun, was the most celebrated and influential Seljuk monument. Also important during this period were funerary monuments, the most prominent being the immense Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar in Merv (r. ca. 1096–1157), in modern Turkmenistan. \^/

Books: Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. The Art of the Saljuqs in Iran and Anatolia: Proceedings of a Symposium Held in Edinburgh in 1982. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 1994. Pancaroglu, Oya. "The Seljuks of Iran and Their Successors." In Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600–1600, edited by David J. Roxburgh, pp. 70–101. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2005.

Seljuk Art and Architecture in Anatolia (1081–1307)

Seljik candlestick with three lions

Suzan Yalman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Especially during the reign of Ala’ al-Din Kay-Qubadh (r. 1220–37), the Seljuk realm witnessed tremendous commercial, artistic, and cultural activity, the heart of which was the new Seljuk capital, Konya. The exchange and synthesis of different traditions is vividly reflected in Seljuk architecture and art. Apart from an earlier brief period of Arab rule in the east, Anatolia was new to Islam, and the Seljuks were thus among the first to cultivate Islamic art and architecture in these lands. As heirs to the Great Seljuks of Iran, the sultans of Rum adopted Perso-Islamic traditions and, for the most part, maintained established designs, materials, and techniques in their congregational mosques, madrasas (theological schools), mausolea, caravanserais, and palaces. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of \^/]

The Ala’ al-Din Mosque (1156–1220), the Karatay (1252) and Ince Minareli (1258) madrasas in Konya, the Sifahiye (1217–18) and Gök madrasas (1271) in Sivas, the Great Mosque and Hospital in Divrigi (1228–29), the Khuand Khatun complex in Kayseri (1237–38), and the Cifte Minareli Madrasa in Erzurum (1253) are among the important surviving examples of monumental Anatolian Seljuk architecture. In the arts, continued use of luster- and overglaze-painted tiles, as well as creations in wood and metal, are especially noteworthy. \^/

Along with Perso-Islamic traditions, however, Anatolia had a strong Byzantine and Armenian Christian heritage, which now intermingled with Central Asian Turkic nomadic, northern Mesopotamian, and Crusader cultures. The exchange and synthesis of these different traditions is vividly reflected in Seljuk architecture and art. For instance, Gök Madrasa features carved stone, typical of Armenian architecture, alongside brick, a common material in Iran and Central Asia.

Books: Ölçer, Nazan "The Seljuks and Artuqids of Medieval Anatolia." In Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600–1600, edited by David J. Roxburgh, pp. 102–45.. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2005. Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. The Art of the Saljuqs in Iran and Anatolia: Proceedings of a Symposium Held in Edinburgh in 1982. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 1994. Suggested Online Resources: Middle East Technical University: Monuments of Kayseri Middle East Technical University: Monuments of Konya; Middle East Technical University: Monuments of Sivas.

Seljuk Astrology and Science

Seljuk three-beaked lamp at the Louvre

Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “Islamic authority also was unable to stanch superstitious beliefs, as objects in a section called “Astrology, Magic and the World of Beasts” reveal. A gorgeous brass ewer with a tall spout rising from a fluted, round-bottomed gallon-size container made in Khurasan circa 1180–1210 is wonderfully decorated with signs of the zodiac and mythic creatures entangled with an elaborate tracery of incised and silver-inlaid bands. A museum label explains that the popularity of such magical imagery may have had to do with anxiety over an unusual number of earthquakes and solar eclipses during the 12th century. [Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, January 9, 2016 /*/]

“The sciences were not abandoned, however. One of the most intriguing figures of the time was the engineer and inventor Ismail al-Jazari (1136–1206), who was renowned for designing automatons and water-powered clocks around the turn of the 13th century. In the section “Science, Medicine and Technology” are two pages from his treatise “Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Devices.” “Design for the Water Clock of the Peacocks” offers an elegantly drawn and painted diagram for a timepiece whose workings are far too complicated to describe here./*/

““Design for the Slave Girl Serving a Glass of Wine” illustrates a similarly complex machine that would have a sculpture of a young servant emerging from a cupboard eight times per hour to deliver an actual glass of wine. Al-Jazari’s inventions may sound whimsical, but they were based on cutting-edge science of the day. Not for nothing has he been called the father of robotics.” /*/

Seljuk Caravanserais on the Route from Denizli to Dogubeyazit

According to UNESCO: Caravanserais were a new architectural type with social function developed in central Asia by the Karakhanids and Ghaznavids passed into Anatolian Turkish architecture. The institution of caravanserais has its most variations in Seljuk Anatolia, using the forms of Anatolian stone architecture. These buildings offering travellers in mountain and desert all the possibilities and comforts of civilization of the period each effectively a social fondation subject to an organized and continuous state programme, appear to present a typical characteristic of Turkish society, Denizli-Dogubeyazlt Route consists of about 40 Hans about which 10 are very well preserved. Some of these are Akhan, Ertokus Han, Saadettin Han, Obruk Han, Agzikarahan, Sultan Han (2), Oresin Han, Sikre Han, Mamahatun Caravenseria and Hacibekir Han. [Source: UNESCO *=*]

“Caravanserais were havens in which caravans could take shelter. They have their origins in the nomadic lifestyles of the Turkish tribes of Central Asia. At a very early period there existed a social institution called muyanl~k, a word that means "charity", "pious deed", and "kindsess." These were generally simple dormitories that offered travelers food and a place to sleep. By the 7 th centruy, these simple dormitories had developed into more complex establishments called ribat, a word that may be translated as "inn." There is evidence that hundreds of these ribats were built. The culmination of this line of development is the massive caravanserais that the Seljuks built in Anatolia. Caravanserais were huge accommodations, facilities that provided shelter, food and drink for a caravan's full complement of people, animals, and cargo and could also handle its needs for maintenance, treatment, and care. *=*

“They were arranged along trade routes at intervals that were calculated in view of the amount of distance that a caravan could be expected to cover in a single day. This distance was called menzil in Turkish, a word that means, among other things, "journey" in its archaic sense of "a day's travel". On the basis of the examples remaining and other evidence, this menzil seems to have averaged about 30 kilometre the equivalent, under normal conditions, of a six-hour journey to which another two hours had to be added for arduous travel in regions like deserts. Caravanserais or their simpler cousins, khans, were always located to that a caravan could be sure of reaching one by the day's end. *=*

“Architecture and function Architecture is always determined by climatic and environmental conditions but never more so than in the case of caravanserais, to which the problem of security had to be added. Caravanserais in the eastern part of Anatolia for example were built like small, square castles heavily fortified with thick walls of stone. as we move westward on the other hand, they tend to be U-shaped and built of masonry and even, on occasion, of mud brick, Other differences are also apparent in such details s the sizes of individual rooms, the width of doors and windows, and the units and functional divisions they contained. Nevertheless there were certain things that every caravanserai had to have. There were certain to be baths, a masjid, a cistern o fountain, an infirmary, a cookshop, a place for the storage of provisions, and shops. Among the personnel there would certainly be a wainman, a blacksmith, a money-changer, a tailor, a cobbler, a physician, a veterinary, and so on. *=*

Ferdows congregation mosque

“About 250 Anatolian caravanserais are known. Of these, eight are called sultanhan (literally "sultanis khan") and were all built in the 13 th century. Those constructed in the early part of the century generally conford to a standard plan of a courtyard and enclosed arens covering the same amount of ground. Seven of these building bean identifying inscriptions and one does not. Some of them are still referred to by the name sultanhan who others acquired local names to distinguish them. Agzikara Han is probably one of the most important "ordinary" khans and the degree of its workmanship approches that of the royal khans. It is another of those caravanserais whose massive portal and rowers give it the appearance of a fortified castle. The double portal, free-standing masjid and domed hall, as well as the quality of its architecture, are all worthy of a true royal khan. The main portal is decorated with geometric patterns. Between the surmounting muqarnas and framing arches is a band of swastikas. The building was completed in 1237. Sultan Han On the Kayseri-Sivas road is another caravanserai with the name Sultan Han. Covering 3,900 square meters, it is the second-largest of the buildings of the group. All the distinguishing features of the Konya-Aksaray caravanserai are repeated here. The massive walls and supporting turret-towers give the building the appearance of a fortress.” *=*

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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