The Seljuk Han of Anatolia
Malatya Ulu Cami, 1247
Karatay Medrese, Konya, 1251
Sıırt Ulu Camı Mınaret, 1129
Malatya Ulu Cami, 1247
Mihrab of the Sahip Ata Mosque, Konya, 1258
Mihrab of the Güllük Medrese, Kayseri
Sircali Medrese Konya; main iwan, 1243
Sircali Medrese Konya; main iwan, 1243
Sircali Medrese Konya; main iwan, 1243
Ceramic decoration is an important complement to the program of Seljuk architecture, especially for mosques, medreses and tombs. Seljuk monuments are memorable for their extensive use of blue ceramic decoration on mihrabs, portals, facades and domes.
Seljuk ceramic art includes 3 types of production:
Monochrome glazed bricks or tiles (used individually or cut up to form mosaic panels)
Figurative underglaze painted tiles
Ceramic vessels and wares
The Seljuks excelled at the complex technique of firing glazed tiles and bricks, and used them with great skill and effect on their monuments, both internally and externally. The addition of the colorful glazed tiles as a decorative complement to the austere tan walls of Seljuk buildings is a successful aesthetic marriage, creating monuments of striking visual beauty.
The colors of the tiles followed a palette of turquoise, cobalt blue, deep purple, black and white, with brown and yellow more rarely employed. Tiles were used extensively to decorate doorway arches, mihrabs, and minarets on all types of Seljuk monuments.
The finest examples of tile work are to be found at Konya. Konya was the first center of tile and glazed brick production in Anatolia, and by the 13th century, its production was exported throughout the Islamic world. The dazzling celestial dome of blue tile at the Karatay Medrese in Konya is an unforgettable masterpiece of decorative art.
1) Monochrome Glazed bricks and tiles
Monochrome glazed bricks and tiles became an important decorative element for the exterior of monuments, especially on minarets.
Glazed bricks: The production technique was a simple one, consisting of coating one of the narrow sides of a brick with glaze and then firing it. The glazed bricks could be cut up different shapes or used as is. Of sturdy and durable nature, these bricks were generally turquoise in color, although after the middle of the 13th century, cobalt blue and a darker eggplant color are also seen. The design patterns achieved by using these tiles become more complex at this time as well, evolving from plain turquoise bands to geometrical patterns, zigzags and lozenges, with more and more area covered on the minaret. Minarets with glazed tile decoration include the Kayseri Ulu Cami (1205), the Taş Medrese of Akşehir (1250), the Sahipata Mosque in Konya (1258), the Gök Medrese and Çifte Minareli Medrese in Sivas (1272), the Ince Minareli Medrese in Konya (1264) and the Yivli Minare Mosque of Antalya (mid-13th). Aside from minaret decoration, there are a few Seljuk monuments that use glazed bricks for exterior decoration. These include the Izzeddin Keykavus tomb in Sivas (1219-20), and the breathtaking Sırçalı Medrese in Konya (1242-43), and the Malatya Ulu Cami. However, the interiors of monuments, decorated with glazed tiles, are a different story.
Glazed tiles: This is again a relatively simple technique, where glazes tiles are produced by applying a colorless or colored glaze over a fired brick, and then refiring to fix the glaze. Preferred colors were turquoise, aubergine purple and dark blue. Colors were often combined to form original geometric patterns by using tiles in shapes of squares, rectangles, hexagons, 8-pointed stars, lozenges and bowties. Monochrome glazed tile panels were used to cover the interior walls of Seljuk works, creating a visual riot of colored glazed brick decoration on arches, vaults, iwans, domes and squinches (dome transition elements). Glazed bricks were often used in conjunction with unglazed red bricks to form complex patterns, such as the dome decoration of the Ulu Cami in Malatya (1247).
Plain tiling was also seen on sarcophagi of the Seljuk period, such as on the sarcophagi in the Türbe of Sultan Kılıç Arslan II (1156-1192), located next to the Alaeddin Mosque in Konya.
Another important Seljuk decorative technique was the monochrome tile-mosaic technique. Monochrome glazed tile panels were cut into pieces and reassemble into geometric, floral and abstract patterns. This labor-intensive, but very flexible technique used cut up tile pieces which were then set like mosaic cubes to form intricate angular patterns of stars, geometric and key patterns, or kufic style script. These smaller mosaic cut tile arrangements could be adapted to cover curved surfaces such as arches, domes and squinches. Large-scale designs were used on doorways and the pendentives of domes, such as at the Karatay Medrese in Konya (1251) and the Taş Medrese in Çay (1278). Together with carved stone, the tile-mosaic decoration formed the basis of Seljuk architectural decoration.
The tiles were first baked, and then cut into the geometric shape desired. The mosaic bits were laid out to form the desired pattern, and then the reverse side was covered in plaster, which left the inlaid mosaic bits embedded in a panel which could then be attached to the wall or surface. The white of the plaster mortar showed through between the bits, creating a lively contrast with the blue tile pieces.
Using this technique, the Seljuks used glazed tiles to adorn mihrabs. Here the cut-up pieces were set into a distinctive pattern of small honeycomb stalactite niches, known as muqarnas. Famous examples include the mihrabs of the Alaeddin Mosque (1220), the recently-restored Sahip Ata Mosque (1258) and the Sircali Medrese (13th c.), all in Konya. The clay was first shaped into a single honeycomb cell-shaped mold and then fired. The tile was then colored, glazed and baked a second time before setting in place to create the niche.
Tile for fills and borders were created in large plaques and cut as needed. They were principally used to decorate mihrab niches, but were also seen on vaults, domes and squinches.
In the case of hans, ceramic decoration was not extensively employed, which is fitting with the utilitarian profile of these buildings. Tile was used only as decoration for the borders of mihrabs of the kiosk mosques of the Aksaray and Kayseri Sultan hans.
For a list of cities with Seljuk monuments with important programs of ceramic decor, click here.
2) Figurative underglaze painted tiles
The second major type of tile decoration of the Seljuks involved the use of figurative underglaze painted tiles. Production involved painting a design using heat-resistant paints onto a clay biscuit (once baked) tile. Then a colored or colorless transparent glaze was applied over the design and the tile was refired to set the glaze. Colors for the designs included black, brown, green, blue, turquoise and the beloved aubergine purple. Sometimes the design was silhouetted in black. The tiles were of octagonal or star shape, with the figural decoration in red, gold, black and white, usually on a blue ground.
These tiles were used in the Seljuk palaces, and are of high quality and beauty. They are different than the mosaic style panels in that the tiles are 1) of a different shape (in a distinctive star and cross combination), 2) they depict figural compositions and 3) they are painted in the underglaze technique described above.
These tiles show a wide design repertory of lions, bulls, sphinxes, eagles, and women and robed princes in the traditional Central Asian cross-legged sitting pose, as in the tile which designates the "return to home" hyperlink above. These tiles are joyful, captivating, imaginative, and full of life and movement.
Figurative underglaze tiles were used as decoration at the Kubadabad Palace, the Aspendos Palace, the Huand Hatun Baths in Kayseri (now on display in the Ethnography Museum), at the Konya Şekerfuruş Mosque and at the tomb of Izzeddin Keykavus in Sivas.
Tiles could also be overglaze gilded, although this is rare due to the cost and detail of the work. Gold leaf is cut to the desired decorative pattern and applied with a brush to the the tile, which was refired in a very low temperature kiln to set the leaf in place. Examples were used in the Konya Karatay Medrese, the Sahip Ata Tomb in Konya, at the the Kılıç Arslan II Kiosk in Konya (now on display at the Karatay Museum) and on the Seyyid Mahmud Hayrani Tomb in Akşehir (now on display at the Taş Medrese Museum).
A third technique was the minai luster technique, in which metallic oxides (copper or silver) were applied after the first glazing and then refired at a lower temperature to deposit the metal on the surface of the tile. This technique, originally used on glass, gives a beautiful shimmer to the tile.
The excavations by the eminent professor Dr. Rüçhan Arik of the summer palace of Alaeddin Keykubad on Lake Beyşehir, the Kubadabad, have revealed an impressive cache of luxury polychrome and minai wall tiles, decorated with jumping and running animals (domestic and hunting species), lake birds, human figures (servants as well as elite courtiers, men and women), double-headed eagles, mythical creatures (harpies, gryphons, sphinxes) and scenes from everyday life, such as hunting and falconing parties. The series consists of a panel some 22 stars linked together by tile crosses. This magnificent panel has been reconstituted on a wall of the Konya Karatay Museum. The Kubadabad cache is extremely important, as the figurative element of the tiles provides a window onto the daily life of the period. Similar tiles have been found at other Seljuk palaces at Antalya, Alanya, Aspendos, Akşehir and Kayseri. Tiles with the Persian polychrome overglaze minai technique have also been found at the excavations of the royal pavilion at Konya.
3) Ceramic Wares
Compared to the tiles, few pottery vessels or ceramic works from the Seljuk period are known, but excavations are currently revealing more insights. Excavations carried out in 1965-66 at Kalehisar near Alacahöyük have revealed important information about the ceramics industry of the 13th century. Two kilns were unearthed along with a substantial quantity of kiln material and shards of ceramics decorated with the sgraffito and slip techniques. Other archeological sites for pottery include Ahlat, Eskikahta, Adiyaman (Samsat), Korucutepe near Elaziğ. Examples of these wares may be seen in the Karatay Museum in Konya, The Mevlana Museum in Tokat, and the Çinili Kösk Museum in Istanbul.
There appears to have been several types of ceramic wares:
- unglazed earthenware vessels, usually jars and jugs
- sgraffito (“scratched”) wares; a technique where the decoration incised in the slip before the glazing and firing. Designs were simple geometric, floral and figural elements. This is a common technique known since the 9th century
- champlevé technique wares, where the design is incised in deep grooves which are then painted in black and covered with a transparent or green glaze, similar to Syrian Raqqa wares of the 13th century.
- lusterware fragments of bowls have been found in southeastern and eastern Anatolia (Samsat and Ahlat). They could have been Iranian imports or made locally. They include purple, cobalt blue or brownish metallic glazes
- wares with a painted decor of designs in blue or black or under a transparent or monochrome glaze (usually green)
Seljuk ceramic vessels are somewhat crude and coarse, often unglazed or monochrome-glazed (usually turquoise), and exist in the many shapes for everyday tableware use: pitchers, dishes, goblets, flasks, lamps, jars and jugs. They are usually made of reddish or off-white clay with a coarse grain. The glaze is thick.
It is certain, however, that the Seljuks preferred to focus their ceramic production on the tiles used to decorate buildings, and not to develop a luxury ceramic ware production, as was the case in Iran.
To learn more about the world of Seljuk ceramics, please consult the work by Dr. Rüçhan Arik (cf. Treasures of the Anatolian Soil on the bibliography page.)
A poem to the ceramic arts of the Seljuks by the Kayseri poet Muhsin Ilyas Subaşi.
Küçük Aya Sofia Mosque, Akşehir, dome detail; 1235
Tile from Kubadabad palace excavations showing the "seated Turkish prince" pose
Figurative tile from Kubadabad showing mystical figures
Glazed ceramic bowl, 12-13th c.; Karatay Museum, Konya
Konya: Tomb of Sahip Ata, 1283
Tokat, Gök Medrese, 1277
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