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Art and Architecture

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Central Islamic Lands

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Richard Ettinghausen et al.

From The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250
© 1987 Yale University Press
Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press

Construction and decoration


By far the most common material for monumental buildings was stone, though brick was used for secular vaults and also in cities such as Konya. Wood also was sometimes employed, occasionally for entire buildings. Rubble in mortar was common for simpler vaults and walls.

Most structures were vaulted. Supports might consist of long and solid walls, especially in the madrasas, where the Iranian iwan had imposed its plan and elevation. A more common and original type, however, used piers and columns, ranging from borrowed older columns to new ones with muqarnas capitals, from polygonal, round, or even cross-shaped low piers carrying high and wide arches to the superb high piers and arches of the caravanserais. The arches are usually carefully outlined, even when bonded with the masonry. Like the piers and columns, they are an interesting revival of Late Antique and early Christian practices in the Near East.

Vaults display an equally fascinating variety. The most common system of roofing a long space, for instance in the khans, was by means of tunnel-vaults, often divided by transverse arches. Small rectangular areas, as at Divrik, show endless variations on the simple theme of the crossvault, with a multiplication of decorative rather than structural ribs. Domes were usually on pendentives, at times with muqarnas although squinches are also known. At Konya an original mode of transition is the 'Turkish triangle' [391], a rationalization of the pendentive into simple geometric forms. Sometimes a combination of several long triangles gave greater, but still very angular, movement to the passage from square to dome.

Seljuq architectural decoration reflects the same multiple influences as building construction and design.221 The portals of the Ala al-Din mosque in Konya and of the Karatay madrasa are typically Syrian in style, while other mosques and caravanserais use the muqarnas half-dome of Syria and Iraq. At Divrik, Kayseri, and in the Sultan Hans, stone carvings on façades and along the major lines of the architecture reflect the brick decoration of Iran. Apparently more original is the use of mosaics of glazed tiles, not merely as an element of emphasis but completely to cover large wall surfaces. The best-preserved examples are at Konya, in the iwan of the Sircali madrasa [417] and in the zone of transition of the Karatay madrasa. The technique originated in Iran, but it first occurs independent of other decorative devices in Anatolia.

However, the most spectacular results were achieved in stone-carving and on façades. Almost every monument warrants a detailed study, for each presents peculiar problems. Of the two groups which define the most striking characteristics of this decoration, the first comprises certain monuments of Konya. The impact of Syria is obvious, but, on the portal of the Ince Minareli madrasa [389-390], the reserve of the Karatay façade [387] has given way to an odd composition of columns, recesses, and mouldings. Architectural elements transformed the elevation into a non-architectural combination of thick interlacing epigraphic bands and geometric or floral designs in both very low and very high relief. The arches of the portal are absurdly composed, and the architectural elements do not lead into an architectural composition. In addition the constant opposition between kinds of relief and the lack of appropriate proportion between such diverse elements as a column and an epigraphic band contribute to the fascination of the façade, but also to the general impression it gives of being a sort of collage.

The second and much more spectacular group includes the façades of the main buildings of Sivas [395] and Divrik [382].222 The whole wall is involved in the composition. Highly developed corner towers frame it, while two tall thin minarets emphasize a huge central portal. The portal at Divrik is even splayed. The decoration includes both the traditional Islamic epigraphy and geometric or floral arabesques and fantastic combinations of vegetal and even animal forms which, in their tortured violence, recall Celtic miniatures and Romanesque façades. An actually Romanesque origin can possibly be proposed for a portal in the mosque of Sivas. Even the geometric designs, like the ones on the Sultan Hans [396], are not always of the Islamic symmetrical and organized type but recall the endless meandering of northern, so-called barbarian, ornament. In now disappeared secular buildings, figural sculpture was often used:223 dragons, lions, elephants, fantastic animals, astronomical figures, princes and court and attendants. At times crude, this sculpture seems to reflect a visual awareness of the artistic wealth of the Anatolian past and perhaps the memory of ancient pagan beliefs from Central Asia.

Medieval, so-called Saljuq, architecture of Anatolia was a highly original achievement. The last Islamic province to develop in the Middle Ages, it took its inspiration from Iran, Syria, and the Jazira, drawing also on the strong indigenous Christian and even earlier traditions of Anatolia and conscious of the grand architecture of Christian Europe. The great achievement of this architecture was that it drew together so many disparate elements to create monuments which may at times seem awkward and strangely composed, but which always express the powerful spirit of the conquerors and a passionate need for expression through buildings. This complexity in the process of architectural creation is demonstrated, among many other arguments, by the presence of many signatures of builders on the monuments.224 The relationship between patrons and builders became in Anatolia much more elaborate and much better documented than elsewhere in the medieval Islamic world.

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