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Anatolian Seljuks and Their Architecture


Anatolia lies in between two historically stupendous continents, Asia and Europe. This geographically significant land is also a link between two renowned cultural spheres, Orient and Occident. In physics, colors vary from basic spectrum hues to their diverse tones. Similarly, different cultures contrast and complement each other by their local distinctive features. On the painter’s canvas, flanking sharp colors require intermediary tones to reduce bitter effects of uncompromising color plates. These tones are also present in the spectrum of cultures. Geographical, climatic, social and historical factors shape culture-compartments and, at the same time, engender cultural gradations between them. These gradations contribute to our world of multifarious civilizations with zones of transition.

Anatolia as the homeland of one of those cultural zones housed diverse cultures throughout its long and eventful history. Due to its geography, it has been open to influxes of people from Balkans, Transcaucasia, Persia and Mesopotamia up to this day. Demographic and anthropological studies demonstrate that an Anatolian stock always existed in the cities subjugated by the Hittites, the Greeks, the Romans, the Seljuks and the Ottomans who were incomers from east and west. As a typical example, in the antique Pamphylian city Side (near Antalya -Attaleia-) there was an indigenous Anatolian people composing the main body of the population and speaking their own mother tongue even under Hellenistic occupation (334-301 B.C.) (Mansel, 1978, p13). The incorporation of foreign cultural elements with indigenous ones created exclusive and original peaks in the arts and architecture of the Anatolian Civilizations. These remarkable heights indebted to centuries-old gift of the Anatolian ground which united foreign and local cultural elements under the guise of a very original and, at the same time distinctively hybrid Anatolian synthesis that combined distinct cultural spheres of the Old World.

In the beginning of the second millennium A.D., the Seljuks, a family descended from the Qiniq clan of the Oghuz Turks conquered Anatolian cities like their antecedents, the Hittites, the Phrygians, the Greeks and the Romans did before. Originating from Transoxiana ("Beyond the Oxus", around Bukhara) and Khurasan, they reached Anatolia via the capital of the first Seljukid Sultanate, Nishapur, in western Iran. They gradually took control of almost all the cities of the eastern and central Anatolia. The Seljukid power was consolidated at the end of the twelfth century around the capital city of the Sultanate, Konya. The reigns of Giyaseddin Keyhusrev (1204-11), Izzeddin Keykavus (1211-19) and Alaaddin Keykubad (1219-37) brought a period of peace and prosperity to the Middle East after long and weary wars between the Arabs, the Greeks and the Turks. It is in this period that the gates of eastern Anatolia were opened and strong relations with Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries were once more established centuries after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Old Roman highways in Anatolia and the so-called silk road leading to China were restored and furnished with caravanserais (lodges for merchants). Harbors of Trabzon, Sinop and Alanya at the end of these continental arteries became secure shelters for Italian merchants sailing in Mediterranean and Black Seas. In the cities, institutions of learning (madrasa) were established to attract students of diverse sects from the neighboring countries. In addition, hospitals (darussifa) adjacent to them were founded in Kayseri, Sivas, Divrigi, Tokat and Amasya to become centers of highly evolved medical therapy and education.

Kayseri Gevher Nesibe Hatun Hospital (1205);  Courtyard of the Giyaseddin Keyhusrev’s Medical Madrasa. Ó Ali U. Peker
Kayseri Gevher Nesibe Hatun Hospital (1205). Courtyard of the Giyaseddin Keyhusrev’s Medical Madrasa. Ó Ali U. Peker
In conformity with a general trend in the Islamic world, the "Seljuks of Rum (Roman)" (so-called by the Arabs in the Middle Ages) who were Sunnid-Hanefid Muslims, allowed their Christian subjects to live in their own quarters (mahalle) in towns and cities (Gordlevski, 1988, p228). In the years following the Seljukid conquests, the Christian businessmen were still intensely active in Anatolia. Metal workshops, textile industry and construction facilities were still under the control of the Christian masters and the Seljuks for some time had been apprentices of these people (Akdag, 1959, p11). They were learning how to manufacture stuffs and to construct buildings suitable for the local climatic and territorial conditions. In this way, they not only learned how to master various branches of local artistry, but also gained the centuries-old knowledge on the Anatolian provincial arts and material culture. This training did not end with products of imitative nature; for the extrinsic culture of the Seljuks persevered for long in Anatolia creating original works of art. In every field, the culture of the Seljuks had the capacity to synthesize local figures with the ones they brought from their homeland in Western Asia.

In their motherland, before the end of the tenth century, the Seljuks were not illiterate nomads engaged in animal husbandry. This view contrasts with the misconception that the Seljuks pre-eminently inherited the cultural traditions of a nomadic life style adjusted to the topography of the Eurasian steppes. Before their migration to Iran and Anatolia, the Turks in Transoxiana and Khurasan were pursuing a sedentary life. As Richard N. Frye points out "Turks were town and village dwellers, except in regions where natural conditions imposed a nomadic life on them" (Frye, 1979, p309,312). The members of the Seljuk family accepted Islam in the last decades of the tenth century near the city of Jend. This predilection and their succeeding progress towards west attested the will and ambition of the Seljuk family to enter into the scene of history as one of the Middle Eastern nations. On the way to Anatolia, they had already mastered Islamic-Arabic Iranian culture. In Iran, they created renowned works of art and architecture with a synthetic quality, that combine old Persian and Arabic elements with a Turkish propensity. In this context, Isfahan Great Mosque, Ardistan, Qazwin and Zavvare mosques and their decoration can be cited as prominent examples. Seljukid tomb architecture in Iran and later in Anatolia is unequaled in terms of both place and time in the Islamic world.

While the culture of the Seljuks was spreading in central and eastern Anatolia in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, local cultures confronted it in almost every region. This confrontation found its reflections in architectural works. A concise inspection will demonstrate the essential local elements of the Anatolian Seljukid architecture:

First of all, stone is the primary material of construction in place of the brick employed in the Great Seljukid Architecture in Iran. Stone is used with local technics of construction in load-bearing systems and vaults. Even though much altered in terms of facade articulations and roof-covering systems, the basilical plan of the Christian churches was integrated in the sacred and the secular architecture of the Anatolian Seljuks. Citadel mosques in Divrigi and Erzurum, Alaaddin Mosque in Nigde, Gokmedrese Mosque in Amasya and the enclosed sections of the caravanserai buildings with their vaulted aisles perpendicular to their shorter walls resemble aisled and vaulted churches of the Near East (Kuban, 1982, pp69-72).

Besides, foreign elements coexist with native ones in Anatolian Seljukid architecture. For example, the columned halls (zulla) of many mosques (known as Kufa type) were borrowed from Iranian or north Mesopotamian Arabic architecture; inner courtyards with lantern domes and pools were probably transferred from a type known as "eleventh-century Central Asian house". Iwan, or the type called "courtyard with four iwans", is a well-known Persian architectural element applied initially in Parthian Assur Palace (2nd century A.D.) and is also utilized by the Seljuks in Iran as part of the mosques with or without courtyards. The enclosed type of madrasas with central iwans were most probably modeled after Central Asian houses too. On the other hand, their open type variation with four or three iwans and riwaqs (arcades) around the courtyard was probably a successor of the Buddhist monasteries founded in Central Asia (Kuran, 1969, pp5-10).

Erzurum Cifte Minareli Madrasa (1271). Courtyard. Ó Ali U. Peker
Erzurum Cifte Minareli Madrasa (1271). Courtyard. Ó Ali U. Peker

The real genius of the Seljukid architects in Anatolia is distinctively displayed through the architecture of mausolea. Though its tradition was borrowed from Great Seljukid architecture, the tombs of Anatolian Seljuks embody a great variety of forms which are more diversified than their precursors. They generally have a conical cap on top of an inner hemispherical dome and polygonal or circular double-storied lowerstructure. Yet, it is not possible to match two identical examples from among the bulk of Seljukid tombs. Each tomb is an original masterpiece which was created through a judicious juxtaposition of various forms utilized in other building types of the Anatolian Seljukid architecture. The use of inscription panels, glazed tiles and stucco in the decoration of the buildings point to a foreign source, possibly Iran or Central Asia.

Nigde Melik Gazi Tomb. Entrance section.  Ali U Peker
Nigde Melik Gazi Tomb. Entrance section.  Ali U Peker

The realm of zoomorphic, anthropomorphic, plant and geometrical representations composed of lions, eagles, sphinxes, harpies (sirens), dragons, human heads, stars, sacred trees, lotus and palmate flowers in the decoration of the buildings represents a unique way of illustrating cosmological and philosophical notions. The depiction of these motifs coincide with the refinem ent of tasavvuf philosophy in the thirteenth century Anatolia. The concepts substantiated by the decorative motifs are the main constituents of the antique or contemporary philosophical, eschatological and cosmological themes which were adopted by the mystics of the time in their works to explain the nature and the order of the universe. When compiled these concepts can present an overall idea about the world view of the man in the Islamic Middle Ages. The notions which shaped the architectural decoration and the architecture of the Anatolian Seljuks are analogous to the ones that created the architecture and art of the Gothic Cathedrals (Peker, 1996, p9210-21). This theme awaits a detailed comparative study.

As exemplified above, the architecture of the Seljuks in Anatolia comprises a variety of foreign and local elements. The fusion of the alien elements with the indigenous ones brought the "Anatolization" of the Seljukid architecture. One of the best examples to illustrate this process is the Great Mosque and Hospital (darussifa) Complex in Divrigi. In analyzing its structure, we may also comprehend one of the significant artistic synthesizes realized in the cultural history of Anatolia:

The Great Mosque of Divrigi was founded by Ahmad Sah, a man of the Mengujid lineage at the end of the third decade of the thirteenth century. An oblong rectangle defines the limits of the mosque which is adjacent to the hospital on the south. This rectangle is articulated on the interior by four rows of columns carrying twenty-three vaults and two domes perpendicular to the qibla wall. One of the domes is a lantern dome covering the central unit of the mosque. Sun rays radiate through this dome to the inner space, so the concept of the "inner courtyard" of the Central Asiatic houses is substantiated at the center of the building. The maqsura dome covering the unit before the mihrab is a successor of the kiosk mosques modeled probably after the Sassanian fire temples (cehar-taq) in Iran. Similar to the domed maqsura units of Iranian and North African Islamic architecture, three of the encircling walls of the square unit are omitted.The interior of the mosque with its many columns and maqsura dome resembles the interior space of the hypostyle (many columned) Arabic mosques. On the other hand, the oblong rendering of the plan through the aisles and the nave reflects the effects of the basilical churches of the north-eastern Anatolia. Stone is used in the entire construction of the building and the construction technics are entirely Caucasian. But, the height of the columns create a more spacious interior. In addition, the differing types of the vaults which would normally obstruct the total evolvement of the structure towards the apse in a church building, create an unparalleled interior. The main portal of the building is extraordinary with its unique decorative program and enigmatic motifs. This portal testifies the liberating cultural environment of Anatolia which supplied artists with plentiful forms and motifs as well as with competence to variegate them.

Divrigi Great Mosque and Hospital (1228-29). Plan. Ó Albert Gabriel
Divrigi Great Mosque and Hospital (1228-29). Plan. Ó Albert Gabriel

The hospital (darussifa) part of the complex was founded simultaneously by Turan Melik Hanim, daughter of Fahreddin Behram Sah, commander (emir) of Erzincan. The northern wall of the hospital, which forms one of the longer sides of its rectangular substructure, is at the same time the qibla wall of the mosque. A perfunctory inspection of the plan may result with the impression of a Christian cross-in-square church with free columns. This resemblance is further stressed through the existence of a nave and two aisle-like corridors behind the columns. On the other hand, three iwans facing this basilical hall, the domical vault with an oculus covering the central unit and the pool below are unaccustomed elements in a church building. The courtyard with four iwans borrowed from the Iranian Great Seljukid friday mosques or from the Anatolian open type madrasas, the inner atrium from the Central Asiatic houses or from the Anatolian enclosed madrasas, Caucasian technics of stone construction, the basilical and cross-in-square form of the Christian churches are all fused here in the Divrigi Darussifa. This building is peerless among the group of Anatolian Seljukid hospitals. Its ingeniously placed mezzanine floor above the southern corridor and iwan, the unique decoration and dimensions of its portal, the quality of stone construction and workmanship in the entire structure testify to a level of distinction.

Divrigi Great Mosque (1228-29). Portal.
Divrigi Great Mosque (1228-29). Portal.  Omur Bakirer (METU Faculty of Architecture Archive)
Divrigi Hospital (1228-29). Portal; Ó Omur Bakirer (METU Faculty of Architecture Archive)
Divrigi Hospital (1228-29). Portal. Ó Omur Bakirer (METU Faculty of Architecture Archive)

With all these peculiar qualities, this complex is worthy of designation as one of the links in the chain of the architectural synthesises accomplished in the cultural history of Anatolia. Some of the other links might be Hagia Sophia Church and Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. This kind of a masterpiece and an original piece of art work, which combines various elements from so much discrete spheres of artistic traditions, could only be assembled in a cultural zone of transition like that of Anatolia.

Prof. Ali Uzay Peker
Middle East Technical University,
Faculty of Architecture, Ankara, Turkey.

The author thanks Lale Ozgenel for proof-reading the text.
-Akdag, Mustafa, (1959) Turkiye’nin Iktisadi ve Ictimai Tarihi, I: 1243-1453. Istanbul: Cem.
-Frye, R.N., (1979) "The Turks in Khurasan and Transoxiana at the Time of the Arab Conquest". Islamic Iran and Central Asia (7th 12th centuries). London: Variorum Reprints, pp. XIII: 308-15.
-Gordlevski, V., (1988) Anadolu Selcuklu Devleti. Translated by A. Yaran. Ankara: Onur.
-Kuban, Dogan, (1982) "Anadolu-Turk Mimarisinde Bolgesel Etkenlerin Niteligi". Turk ve Islam Sanati Uzerine Denemeler. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat, pp 65-79
-Kuran, Aptullah (1969)
Anadolu Medreseleri, I. Ankara: T.T.K.
-Mansel, A.M., (1978) Side: 1947-1966 Yillari Kazilari ve Arastirmalarinin Sonuclari. Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu.
-Peker, A.U., (1996) Anadolu Selcuklulari’nin Anitsal Mimarisi Uzerine Kozmoloji Temelli Bir Anlam Arastirmasi. Istanbul Technical University unpublished Ph D. dissertation.

Books for further reading
-Ertug, Ahmet (ed.), The Seljuks: A Journey Through Anatolian Architecture. Istanbul, 1991.
-Ettinghausen, Richard-Grabar, Oleg, The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250. New Haven-London: Yale University, 1994.
-Kuran, Aptullah, "Anatolian-Seljuk Architecture". The Art and Architecture of Turkey. Edited by E. Akurgal. Oxford: Oxford University, 1980.
-Ogel, Semra, Anadolu’nun Selcuklu Cehresi. Istanbul: Akbank, 1994.
-Rice, T.T., The Seljuks in Asia Minor. London: Thames and Hudson, 1966.

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