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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Art of the Seljuq Period in Anatolia (1081–1307)

Following their conquest of Baghdad in 1055, the Seljuq 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 Seljuq victory opened Anatolia to Turkic settlement. A branch of the Seljuqs assumed rule from Nicaea (Iznik) in northwestern Anatolia (1078–81) and became known as the Seljuqs of Rum (“Rome”), referring to the Roman Byzantine past of the Seljuq territories. Notwithstanding the advance of Crusader armies, battles against the Byzantines, and conflicts with neighboring rival Turkic principalities, the Seljuqs 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 Seljuq power in Anatolia until they were defeated by the Ilkhanids, the Mongol dynasty ruling in Iran, at the Battle of Köse Dagh (1243), after which the Seljuqs became Mongol vassals. Especially during the reign of ‘Ala’ al-Din Kai Qubad I (r. 1219–37), the Seljuq realm witnessed tremendous commercial, artistic, and cultural activity, the heart of which was the new Seljuq capital, Konya.

Apart from an earlier brief period of Arab rule in the east, Anatolia was new to Islam, and the Seljuqs were thus among the first to cultivate Islamic art and architecture in these lands. As heirs to the Great Seljuqs 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. 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 Divriği (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 Seljuq 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 Seljuq architecture and art. For instance, Gök Madrasa features carved stone, typical of Armenian architecture, alongside brick, a common material in Iran and Central Asia.