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The Seljuqs and Their Legacy

Court and Cosmos at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Detail from an exquisite mina'i or enamelware bowl, Iran, Seljuq period, late 12th-early 13th c. (1975.1.1643; The Metropolitan Museum of Art) (photo credit: Michael Pregill).

Hyunjin Cho


“They [the Turks] are like pheasants when they hold the wine cup; they are like lions when they hold the sword and spear… In battle they burn more fiercely than the fires of hell; they are fitter for the majlis [assembly] than the houris [virgins] of Paradise.”

— Amīr ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad Muʿizzī (1048-1125) on his Seljuk Turk patrons1

 

In his 1928 book Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, V. V. Barthol’d writes: “The Saljuqids could not assimilate themselves completely to the Samanids and the Ghaznavids [older dynasties of the eastern Islamic world], because up to the end they remained strangers to all culture.”2 An exhibition organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs, clearly disproves this early twentieth-century portrayal of the Seljuqs as barbaric.

A Turkic dynasty of Central Asian nomadic origin, the Seljuqs and their successors ruled over a vast territory from modern Turkmenistan to the eastern Mediterranean between 1038 and 1307. For almost three hundred years, the Seljuqs served as active patrons of art and architecture, stimulating an age of artistic splendor, technical innovation, and cultural adaptation that resulted in novel and original visual vocabularies. Court and Cosmos showcases approximately 270 exquisite works, including book arts, fashion, utilitarian objects, and architectural remains, produced in Iran, modern Turkmenistan, Anatolia, Syria, and the Jazira (or upper Mesopotamia, the area centering on Mosul now divided between Syria, Iraq, and Turkey).

As with many other expressions of culture and art, these objects and building decorations from the Seljuq period reflect the values, beliefs, and concerns of their patrons. The exhibition explores the culture of the Seljuqs and their successors through six thematic sections: “Sultans of the East and West”; “the Courtly Cycle”; “Science, Medicine, and Technology”; “Astrology, Magic and the World of Beasts”; “Religion and the Literary Life”; and “the Funerary Arts.”

While the Great Seljuq Empire (c. 1040-1157) lasted just over a century, its successor states ruled until the beginning of the fourteenth century in various political centers without constituting a unified state.3 This presents us with a tricky question: what exactly counts as “Seljuq” art and architecture?

The exhibition effectively acknowledges and addresses the difficulty of defining Seljuq art and architecture. It notes diversity as one of the driving forces of the Seljuqs’ creative output, and highlights objects and materials that reflect cross-cultural interactions amongst Muslims, Christians, and other communities. The hybridity of Seljuq art is particularly emphasized in a selection of objects from the Seljuk successor states, displayed in the  sections “Sultans of the East and West,” “Religion and the Literary Life,” and “the Funerary Arts.”

Detail depicting Alexander the Great, from the plate of Rukn al-Dawla Dāwūd, Anatolia or Caucasus, first half of the 12th c. (K 1036; Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck) (photo credit: Michael Pregill).

In “Sultans of the East and West,” the first section of the exhibition, a large selection of coins is displayed to show the ways in which Seljuq rulers asserted their royal authority. Besides these widely circulated materials, many rulers of the Great Seljuq Empire and its successor states also commonly expressed their imperial identities through precious metalwork, textiles, and glassware. One of the most exquisite examples that illustrate the authority and power of these Muslim rulers is the plate of Rukn al-Dawla Dāwūd (r. 1114-44), an Artuqid sultan of the northern part of the Jazira. This plate is extremely significant, for it is the only known medieval enamel object that bears the name of a Muslim ruler while stylistically following the Byzantine cloisonné tradition.4 As Rukn al-Dawla Dāwūd and other Seljuq rulers conquered areas with large Christian populations, such objects of hybrid beauty can be understood within contexts of continuing practices of Christian artists and craftsmen and the Seljuqs’ adoption and adaptation of local visual languages to communicate their power and authority.

This presence of hybrid and versatile visual languages – one of the defining characteristics of Seljuq art – is further elaborated through a handful of manuscript selections represented in the section “Religion and the Literary Life.” Produced in Mosul sometime in the thirteenth century, the Miaphysite Lectionary was commissioned for the Syrian Orthodox monastery of Mar Mattai. The depiction of the emperor Constantine (r. 306-337) and his mother Helena in this manuscript is significant, as their attire resembles that often portrayed in earlier Arabic book arts. Hence, this manuscript demonstrates the existence of a shared visual vocabulary amongst Christians and Muslims, and perhaps even implies direct collaboration between artists of different beliefs.5 This example, as well as another lectionary produced in the northern Jazira in 1241, shows the general peaceful coexistence of many religious communities during the Seljuq period.6

lectionary

Constantine and Helena, illustration from the Miaphysite Lectionary, Mosul, c. 1220 or 1260 (f. 223v, Syr 559; Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City) (photo credit: Michael Pregill).

The results of these intercultural interactions can also be witnessed in the funerary practices of the Seljuqs as they incorporated local ones into their own.7 Even though the Seljuqs were Muslims, their burial customs did not strictly follow those prescribed by Islamic law, and the Great Seljuqs adopted funerary customs then found throughout the greater Iranian world, which entailed the use of elaborately decorated and carved coffins, tombstones, valuable textiles, and cenotaphs. The Seljuqs of Anatolia continued these burial practices established under the Great Seljuqs; however, as exemplified by a cenotaph and grave markers produced in the Jazira in the thirteenth century, later Seljuq rulers in the Jazira and Syria built mausoleums inside mosque and madrasa complexes, rather than commissioning freestanding monumental mausoleums.

Court and Cosmos celebrates the coexistence of regional differences and collaborations amongst peoples of various backgrounds. In this diverse environment, there also developed a common “courtly cycle” – hunting, sports, military exercises, and festivities with drinking, eating, music, and dancing. Frequently depicted on the ceramics of Seljuq Iran are courtly themes of entertainment, literature, and love, like the “Ewer with Dancers” and the “Bowl with Enthroned Figure and Horsemen.”

The art patrons of Seljuq Anatolia, Syria, and the Jazira continued to use these motifs extensively in their metalwork, tile decorations for palaces, and ceramics. One of the most magnificent examples of such is the Blacas Ewer, an inlaid metal vessel made in Mosul that depicts aristocratic activities in a highly detailed manner.

blacasewer

The Blacas Ewer, brass, Mosul, 1232 (1886.1229.61; British Museum) (photo credit: Michael Pregill).

The themes of the courtly cycle are significant, for they provided the basic repertoire for the lavish imperial lifestyles and prerogatives of post-Seljuq empires and dynasties. What may be equally worthy of note, as addressed in the exhibition, is how courtly culture shaped the tastes of the elite and middle-class populations of the Seljuq empire and their successor states. In the “Courtly Cycle,” in addition to many objects used in the court, several objects suggested to have been owned by wealthy merchants or described as having been “mass-produced” are also displayed.8

One such object is a bucket produced in Iran in the twelfth century. This “mass-produced” bucket includes signs of the zodiac, which were widely used in many courtly objects for blessings (baraka). These apotropaic symbols also frequently decorated objects used beyond the restricted realms of the Seljuq courts, for non-royal members of Seljuq societies often emulated courtly aesthetics. By emphasizing Seljuq art’s crucial role in the development of Islamic art and displaying both upper- and middle-class material culture, the exhibition clearly illustrates both the immediate and long-lasting legacies of Seljuq art.

Besides these examples that portray the Seljuqs’ engagement in royal indulgences, Seljuq visual culture also reveal their active support of the study of science and mathematics, which improved their society’s knowledge of the cosmos. The section “Science, Medicine, and Technology” presents advances in scientific and mathematical knowledge under Seljuq patronage, such as a twelfth-century celestial globe and astrolabe from Iran, surgical tools, and pages from illustrated manuscripts on medicine, astronomy, and mechanical devices.

Closely related to their understanding of the world and technology, Seljuq-era lore on astrology and fantastic creatures is beautifully exhibited in “Astrology, Magic, and the World of Beasts.”9 This section demonstrates the Seljuqs’ deepening interest in the workings of the cosmos, especially predicting and even warding off misfortune, due to increasing insecurity and fear caused by natural phenomena and disasters such as solar and lunar eclipses, comets, and destructive earthquakes. Through numerous apotropaic objects, the exhibition reveals a number of animals that were commonly depicted in Seljuq visual culture – falcons, lions, dragons, and eagles – as artistic responses to omens and bad events.

aleppominaret

Destruction of the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo in April 2013.

In a small panel mounted somewhat apart from the rest of the objects, visitors learn about the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, constructed around 1090. The Seljuq-era minaret once boasted  sophisticated stone-carving decoration, inscription bands, and one of the earliest examples of “honeycomb” (muqarnas) cornice. Here the exhibition documents a very recent loss of Seljuq heritage, for the minaret was destroyed in 2013. At a time when the cultural heritage of societies in the Middle East is increasingly vulnerable to destruction, looting, and illegal transactions, Court and Cosmos reminds us of the enduring value of the brilliant cultural productions and scientific contributions that once proliferated under the rule of the Great Seljuqs and their successors. Court and Cosmos, a survey of various dimensions of Seljuq courtly life, society, and intellectual advancements, is an important testimony to the Seljuqs and their magnificent legacy.

The exhibition Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from April 27 to July 24, 2016. The Met’s website devoted to the exhibition can be found here.

 

HYUNJIN CHO is a Ph.D. student in the History of Art and Architecture Department at Boston University. She is interested in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Persian/Iranian visual culture, including photographs, lithographic prints, book arts, and fashion. She has recently finished her M.A. Scholarly Paper on Iranian postage stamps issued during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896).

 

[1] Sheila R. Canby, Deniz Beyazit, Martina Rugiadi, and A. C. S. Peacock, Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016), 144.

[2] V. V. Barthol’d, Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, 3rd ed. (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Pub., 1992), 308.

[3] A. C. S. Peacock, The Great Seljuk Empire (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

[4] Canby et al., Court and Cosmos, 56-57.

[5] Ibid., 270.

[6] Ibid., 271.

[7]Ibid., 290.

[8] Ibid., 108.

[9] In the modern world, astrology is distinguished from astronomy and deemed a pseudo-science, and bestiaries full of fabulous creatures would not be considered an authentic part of natural history and zoology.  However, in medieval Islam, these subjects constituted significant aspects of scientific knowledge, and rich scholarly traditions were devoted to such topics. On the philosophical and artistic traditions surrounding medieval Islamic cosmography  and the study of the “wonders of creation,” see Persis Berlekamp, Wonder, Image, and Cosmos in Medieval Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) and Stefano Carboni, The Wonders of Creation and the Singularities of Painting: A Study of the Ilkhanid London Qazvini (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

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The Seljuqs and Their Legacy

Court and Cosmos at The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Hyunjin Cho


“They [the Turks] are like pheasants when they hold the wine cup; they are like lions when they hold the sword and spear… In battle they burn more fiercely than the fires of hell; they are fitter for the majlis [assembly] than the houris [virgins] of Paradise.”

— Amīr ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad Muʿizzī (1048-1125) on his Seljuk Turk patrons1

 

In his 1928 book Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, V. V. Barthol’d writes: “The Saljuqids could not assimilate themselves completely to the Samanids and the Ghaznavids [older dynasties of the eastern Islamic world], because up to the end they remained strangers to all culture.”2 An exhibition organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs, clearly disproves this early twentieth-century portrayal of the Seljuqs as barbaric.

A Turkic dynasty of Central Asian nomadic origin, the Seljuqs and their successors ruled over a vast territory from modern Turkmenistan to the eastern Mediterranean between 1038 and 1307. For almost three hundred years, the Seljuqs served as active patrons of art and architecture, stimulating an age of artistic splendor, technical innovation, and cultural adaptation that resulted in novel and original visual vocabularies. Court and Cosmos showcases approximately 270 exquisite works, including book arts, fashion, utilitarian objects, and architectural remains, produced in Iran, modern Turkmenistan, Anatolia, Syria, and the Jazira (or upper Mesopotamia, the area centering on Mosul now divided between Syria, Iraq, and Turkey).

As with many other expressions of culture and art, these objects and building decorations from the Seljuq period reflect the values, beliefs, and concerns of their patrons. The exhibition explores the culture of the Seljuqs and their successors through six thematic sections: “Sultans of the East and West”; “the Courtly Cycle”; “Science, Medicine, and Technology”; “Astrology, Magic and the World of Beasts”; “Religion and the Literary Life”; and “the Funerary Arts.”

While the Great Seljuq Empire (c. 1040-1157) lasted just over a century, its successor states ruled until the beginning of the fourteenth century in various political centers without constituting a unified state.3 This presents us with a tricky question: what exactly counts as “Seljuq” art and architecture?

The exhibition effectively acknowledges and addresses the difficulty of defining Seljuq art and architecture. It notes diversity as one of the driving forces of the Seljuqs’ creative output, and highlights objects and materials that reflect cross-cultural interactions amongst Muslims, Christians, and other communities. The hybridity of Seljuq art is particularly emphasized in a selection of objects from the Seljuk successor states, displayed in the  sections “Sultans of the East and West,” “Religion and the Literary Life,” and “the Funerary Arts.”

Detail depicting Alexander the Great, from the plate of Rukn al-Dawla Dāwūd, Anatolia or Caucasus, first half of the 12th c. (K 1036; Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck) (photo credit: Michael Pregill).

In “Sultans of the East and West,” the first section of the exhibition, a large selection of coins is displayed to show the ways in which Seljuq rulers asserted their royal authority. Besides these widely circulated materials, many rulers of the Great Seljuq Empire and its successor states also commonly expressed their imperial identities through precious metalwork, textiles, and glassware. One of the most exquisite examples that illustrate the authority and power of these Muslim rulers is the plate of Rukn al-Dawla Dāwūd (r. 1114-44), an Artuqid sultan of the northern part of the Jazira. This plate is extremely significant, for it is the only known medieval enamel object that bears the name of a Muslim ruler while stylistically following the Byzantine cloisonné tradition.4 As Rukn al-Dawla Dāwūd and other Seljuq rulers conquered areas with large Christian populations, such objects of hybrid beauty can be understood within contexts of continuing practices of Christian artists and craftsmen and the Seljuqs’ adoption and adaptation of local visual languages to communicate their power and authority.

This presence of hybrid and versatile visual languages – one of the defining characteristics of Seljuq art – is further elaborated through a handful of manuscript selections represented in the section “Religion and the Literary Life.” Produced in Mosul sometime in the thirteenth century, the Miaphysite Lectionary was commissioned for the Syrian Orthodox monastery of Mar Mattai. The depiction of the emperor Constantine (r. 306-337) and his mother Helena in this manuscript is significant, as their attire resembles that often portrayed in earlier Arabic book arts. Hence, this manuscript demonstrates the existence of a shared visual vocabulary amongst Christians and Muslims, and perhaps even implies direct collaboration between artists of different beliefs.5 This example, as well as another lectionary produced in the northern Jazira in 1241, shows the general peaceful coexistence of many religious communities during the Seljuq period.6

lectionary

Constantine and Helena, illustration from the Miaphysite Lectionary, Mosul, c. 1220 or 1260 (f. 223v, Syr 559; Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City) (photo credit: Michael Pregill).

The results of these intercultural interactions can also be witnessed in the funerary practices of the Seljuqs as they incorporated local ones into their own.7 Even though the Seljuqs were Muslims, their burial customs did not strictly follow those prescribed by Islamic law, and the Great Seljuqs adopted funerary customs then found throughout the greater Iranian world, which entailed the use of elaborately decorated and carved coffins, tombstones, valuable textiles, and cenotaphs. The Seljuqs of Anatolia continued these burial practices established under the Great Seljuqs; however, as exemplified by a cenotaph and grave markers produced in the Jazira in the thirteenth century, later Seljuq rulers in the Jazira and Syria built mausoleums inside mosque and madrasa complexes, rather than commissioning freestanding monumental mausoleums.

Court and Cosmos celebrates the coexistence of regional differences and collaborations amongst peoples of various backgrounds. In this diverse environment, there also developed a common “courtly cycle” – hunting, sports, military exercises, and festivities with drinking, eating, music, and dancing. Frequently depicted on the ceramics of Seljuq Iran are courtly themes of entertainment, literature, and love, like the “Ewer with Dancers” and the “Bowl with Enthroned Figure and Horsemen.”

The art patrons of Seljuq Anatolia, Syria, and the Jazira continued to use these motifs extensively in their metalwork, tile decorations for palaces, and ceramics. One of the most magnificent examples of such is the Blacas Ewer, an inlaid metal vessel made in Mosul that depicts aristocratic activities in a highly detailed manner.

blacasewer

The Blacas Ewer, brass, Mosul, 1232 (1886.1229.61; British Museum) (photo credit: Michael Pregill).

The themes of the courtly cycle are significant, for they provided the basic repertoire for the lavish imperial lifestyles and prerogatives of post-Seljuq empires and dynasties. What may be equally worthy of note, as addressed in the exhibition, is how courtly culture shaped the tastes of the elite and middle-class populations of the Seljuq empire and their successor states. In the “Courtly Cycle,” in addition to many objects used in the court, several objects suggested to have been owned by wealthy merchants or described as having been “mass-produced” are also displayed.8

One such object is a bucket produced in Iran in the twelfth century. This “mass-produced” bucket includes signs of the zodiac, which were widely used in many courtly objects for blessings (baraka). These apotropaic symbols also frequently decorated objects used beyond the restricted realms of the Seljuq courts, for non-royal members of Seljuq societies often emulated courtly aesthetics. By emphasizing Seljuq art’s crucial role in the development of Islamic art and displaying both upper- and middle-class material culture, the exhibition clearly illustrates both the immediate and long-lasting legacies of Seljuq art.

Besides these examples that portray the Seljuqs’ engagement in royal indulgences, Seljuq visual culture also reveal their active support of the study of science and mathematics, which improved their society’s knowledge of the cosmos. The section “Science, Medicine, and Technology” presents advances in scientific and mathematical knowledge under Seljuq patronage, such as a twelfth-century celestial globe and astrolabe from Iran, surgical tools, and pages from illustrated manuscripts on medicine, astronomy, and mechanical devices.

Closely related to their understanding of the world and technology, Seljuq-era lore on astrology and fantastic creatures is beautifully exhibited in “Astrology, Magic, and the World of Beasts.”9 This section demonstrates the Seljuqs’ deepening interest in the workings of the cosmos, especially predicting and even warding off misfortune, due to increasing insecurity and fear caused by natural phenomena and disasters such as solar and lunar eclipses, comets, and destructive earthquakes. Through numerous apotropaic objects, the exhibition reveals a number of animals that were commonly depicted in Seljuq visual culture – falcons, lions, dragons, and eagles – as artistic responses to omens and bad events.

aleppominaret

Destruction of the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo in April 2013.

In a small panel mounted somewhat apart from the rest of the objects, visitors learn about the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, constructed around 1090. The Seljuq-era minaret once boasted  sophisticated stone-carving decoration, inscription bands, and one of the earliest examples of “honeycomb” (muqarnas) cornice. Here the exhibition documents a very recent loss of Seljuq heritage, for the minaret was destroyed in 2013. At a time when the cultural heritage of societies in the Middle East is increasingly vulnerable to destruction, looting, and illegal transactions, Court and Cosmos reminds us of the enduring value of the brilliant cultural productions and scientific contributions that once proliferated under the rule of the Great Seljuqs and their successors. Court and Cosmos, a survey of various dimensions of Seljuq courtly life, society, and intellectual advancements, is an important testimony to the Seljuqs and their magnificent legacy.

The exhibition Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from April 27 to July 24, 2016. The Met’s website devoted to the exhibition can be found here.

 

HYUNJIN CHO is a Ph.D. student in the History of Art and Architecture Department at Boston University. She is interested in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Persian/Iranian visual culture, including photographs, lithographic prints, book arts, and fashion. She has recently finished her M.A. Scholarly Paper on Iranian postage stamps issued during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896).

 

[1] Sheila R. Canby, Deniz Beyazit, Martina Rugiadi, and A. C. S. Peacock, Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016), 144.

[2] V. V. Barthol’d, Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, 3rd ed. (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Pub., 1992), 308.

[3] A. C. S. Peacock, The Great Seljuk Empire (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

[4] Canby et al., Court and Cosmos, 56-57.

[5] Ibid., 270.

[6] Ibid., 271.

[7]Ibid., 290.

[8] Ibid., 108.

[9] In the modern world, astrology is distinguished from astronomy and deemed a pseudo-science, and bestiaries full of fabulous creatures would not be considered an authentic part of natural history and zoology.  However, in medieval Islam, these subjects constituted significant aspects of scientific knowledge, and rich scholarly traditions were devoted to such topics. On the philosophical and artistic traditions surrounding medieval Islamic cosmography  and the study of the “wonders of creation,” see Persis Berlekamp, Wonder, Image, and Cosmos in Medieval Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) and Stefano Carboni, The Wonders of Creation and the Singularities of Painting: A Study of the Ilkhanid London Qazvini (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

The Seljuqs and Their Legacy

Court and Cosmos at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Seljuqs and Their Legacy

Court and Cosmos at The Metropolitan Museum of Art