The Seljuqs were not the first Turks to settle in Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Anatolia. Turkish slave soldiers in the Abbasid caliph's army and nomadic herders preceded them with minimal or short-lived artistic impact. Following their rise to power, Seljuq rulers gradually broadcast their dominion and identities through the patronage of art and architecture.
In Iran, rulers' names and titles appear only on coins and building inscriptions and are the sole direct expressions of Seljuq imperial identity. Beyond this, sculpture from palaces in Iran implies the presence of the Great Seljuqs. In Anatolia, or Rum, the Seljuqs vanquished a mostly Christian population and made their mark by building mosques, madrasas (schools of religious law), and palaces, and by commissioning luxury metalwork, textiles, and manuscripts inscribed with their names. The Seljuq successor dynasties in Syria and the Jazira compensated for their occasionally precarious political positions by ordering magnificent metalwork bearing their names and overblown titles.
By the 12th century, imagery of the sultan's court adorned Iranian ceramics and metal objects. Scenes of enthronement and garden parties as well as depictions of hunters and musicians reflect the serious and the lighthearted pursuits of the Seljuq kings and their courtiers. The production of items such as silk robes, perfume bottles, and decorative bath scrapers reveals the attention devoted to grooming and dress. Even if the owners of these objects were wealthy merchants, not courtiers, they sought to emulate chivalric taste and etiquette.
The Seljuq successor dynasties in Anatolia, the Jazira, and Syria adopted, with some regional variation, much of the same courtly iconography for their ceramics, metalwork, and textiles. On metal objects commissioned by the sultans and atabegs (tutors), vignettes appear that may refer to specific events or high-ranking individuals. The courtly cycle represented the divine order of the world with the ruler at the top, confirming the social hierarchy in good times and in bad.
Some Great Seljuq rulers and leaders of their successor dynasties patronized famous scientists. 'Umar Khayyam (1048–1131), best known today as a poet, was a leading astronomer and mathematician of his time. At the court of Malik Shah, he helped devise an accurate calendar and established the vernal equinox, or Nawruz, as the Persian New Year. Other prominent astronomers designed astrolabes to determine the time of day, the direction of Mecca, and the distance of specific stars from earth.
The medical world intrigued the Seljuqs, and manuscripts detailing cures for snakebites and drug-making techniques indicate a strong interest in medicine derived from Greek sources. Prophetic medicine based on practices mentioned in the Qur'an and traditional remedies were also prevalent in Seljuq times.
Important technological advances are also evident in the arts. These include the emergence of stonepaste, a ceramic fabric with a high quartz content, and the adoption of paper, which led to a marked growth in book production.
A defining characteristic of Seljuq art is the widespread application of animal imagery on ceramics, metalwork, textiles, and buildings. Real, fantastic, and hybrid creatures appear in the art of every region controlled by the Seljuqs and their successors. In general, these beasts project power and protection.
The increase in animal imagery in the 12th century may have stemmed from specific, uncontrollable natural events and disasters that befell the period: solar and lunar eclipses, although they could be predicted, nevertheless instilled fear in people, while comets were considered to be bad omens. Additionally, 25 destructive and terrifying earthquakes occurred in Syria alone in this century. To cope with these phenomena, people turned to the prophesies of astrologers. While magic bowls and talismans were considered effective treatments for animal and insect bites as well as epidemics, fantastic beasts provided symbolic security and strength in the face of calamity.
The Seljuqs adopted Sunni Islam in the 10th century. Each ruler's religious observance was closely related to his political ambitions. Thus, a sultan's adherence to a school of religious law did not automatically determine the path of his successor.
During the 11th century, the vizier (minister) Nizam al-Mulk (1018–1092) commissioned a number of madrasas in Iran and Iraq. These seminaries of religious law attracted famous theologians and countered the teachings of Shiites, some of whom defied the Seljuq state. The madrasas fostered literacy, which was further facilitated by the rise in the use of paper and book production.
In Anatolia, Syria, and the Jazira, the Seljuqs and their successor dynasties built mosques and mausoleums with ornate portals, announcing the presence of Islam in predominantly Christian areas. Across the Seljuq world, lodges for Sufis, or Islamic mystics, were constructed, serving as shrines for the devotees of their spiritual guides and their teachings.
According to Islamic tradition, the dead are to be washed and shrouded in three pieces of white cotton before being buried in a simple grave level with the ground. Although the early Seljuqs adopted Iranian burial customs, they did not strictly follow Islamic practices, as evidenced by the silk caftans excavated in graves in Rayy, Iran. Tombs in Seljuq Iran range from simple crypts in the ground to funerary towers with subterranean burial chambers.
In the 13th century, Seljuq Anatolia followed the Iranian example by constructing mausoleums with round or polygonal tomb towers, more often made of stone than brick. Jaziran and Syrian mausoleums, in contrast, were often incorporated into madrasas or conceived as dynastic tombs. Most people could not afford to build tomb towers and instead ordered tombstones carved with Qur'anic verses, their name, and their death date. Some of these were designed to be set into a wall while others were freestanding, placed at the heads of graves.