The Seljuk Han of Anatolia
Seljuk Decorative Arts
God is beautiful and He loves beauty.
-Hadith of the Prophet
Although the commanders of the Seljuk Empire were busy fighting the Byzantines, the Crusaders and the Mongols, they found time to lead an impressive program of building and artistic creation. Although they are mostly remembered for their building activity, the Seljuks developed a flourishing program of decorative arts, forging their own distinctive style.
Although their were regional differences, it can be said that the Seljuk decorative arts display a remarkable uniformity and show innovation. However, Seljuk decorative arts must be considered as both a result of, as well as a contribution to, the universal decorative lexicon of the Middle Ages in the Near East and the Islamic world. The Seljuks of Anatolia continued the design traditions of their predecessors, the Great Seljuks of Iran, which in turn drew inspiration from Turkish Central Asian art and the existing Islamic art traditions of Iraq and Syria.
Small-scale objects, easily carried, were traded over great distances. This trade encouraged the spread of decorative fashions and styles. It is certain that this trade and the resulting exchange of decorative trends was facilitated by the network of Seljuk hans, which, in essence, linked China to Konya. These objects became a universal exchange medium in the globalized economic and cultural sphere of the Near East.
In addition, the Seljuk realm also experienced an influx of many "foreign" artists, fleeing the upheaval in the east caused by the advancing Mongols. Many artists settled in Anatolian cities, bringing their artistic traditions, talents and flavors to the already complex and culturally-varied decorative vocabulary in place at the time. In addition, foreign artists and objects were often taken as war booty, thus bringing additional design vocabulary to the Seljuk mix.
The Seljuk ruling and upper classes also developed a lifestyle taste for objects made in other surrounding areas: Damascus steel, Iraqi glass, and Byzantine velvets were some of the most sought-after objects. These wares most certainly inspired local artists at Konya and elsewhere in the Seljuk realm to attempt their replication. If we are to believe the often flowery and exaggerated descriptions furnished by the court historian, Ibni Bibi, the luxury goods of the court would stun even today's standards of opulence: Arab horses with golden stirrups, reins and horseshoes, saddles embroidered with silver thread, gold tableware, plates studded with gemstones, thrones inlaid with ivory, swords with golden hilts, bejeweled headgear, goblets of gold and kaftans woven with rare silks. Many of such lavish decorative art objects were often given as tribute gifts by the Seljuks Sultans and viziers to the courts of their adversaries, notably the Mongols.
Thanks to many ongoing excavation programs, new evidence is coming to light and the material culture of this period is now being actively studied. The arts of this period can be seen in the many museums of the world and in Turkey.
The Seljuks used floral, geometric, calligraphic and figural designs in their decorative arts.
Floral: Palmettes, split-leaf designs (called rumi), lotus blossoms and other vegetal motifs were used on their own, as background fillers for other geometric or calligraphic patterns on all the decorative arts.
Geometry: as in all Islamic art, geometry plays a key role. The shapes can be simple or complex, and can be seen in small objets or on large decorative ceramic panels. The most frequent design seen is the so-called "Seljuk star".
Calligraphy: Mostly seen in inscriptions on buildings (kufic and nakshi styles) and on small portable objects. They were used alone or often filled with floral and decorative elements.
Figural: although rare in Islamic art, figural representation is seen as well in Seljuk decorative arts. The majority of the figural elements are animals, and this tendancy is a direct descendant of the Central Asian Eurasian Animal Style of their forbearers. These animal figures have symbolic and apotropaic meanings, such as fertility, power, hegemony and the moon and sun. The faith of the Turks at the origin was Shamanism, and these figural elements are symbols of this faith. They endured even after the Turks adopted Islam around the year 1000, and were used without apparent discrimination on Seljuk caravanserais and civil architecture, such as city walls.
Above all, the Seljuks were masters at stone cutting and carving, which became the principal decorative element of their architecture. However, they also excelled in other decorative arts, notably ceramics and textiles. See below for more information on each decorative art.
©2001-2023, Katharine Branning; All Rights Reserved.