The Islamic worlds of the late ancient and medieval periods are complex and fascinating. Long ignored by western scholarship, an appreciation is growing around their importance and impressive histories. One of these civilisations is the Seljuk Empire. In this article we want to let you know more about who they are and what makes their art so recognisable.
Brief History of the Seljuk Empire
The Seljuk people were originally nomadic from the central Asian steppe. They had not long converted to Islam when they conquered Khurasan, modern day Iran, Turkmenistan and northern Afghanistan, in 1040. They quickly developed their empire into a cultural hub, defining themselves as freed people different from their ancestors. In fact A.C.S Peacock, the writer on the main work on the Seljuks in English, said that; ‘The Scale of the State the Seljuks founded dwarfed any earlier Muslim Turkish Polity.’
The Seljuks were Turkish, but included Persian, Khurasani and Islamic people into their empire, and diverse practices into their culture. They co-existed in the middle east alongside the Christian Byzantine Empire, and tolerated people of different faiths. However, Islam was central to their empire. It therefore followed that they persuaded their people to convert and follow Islam. They funded large scale architectural projects, often of Mosques and many argue they lay the foundation for Islamic institutions in the region. You can see some of their conversion policies in the origins of what they built. A one fifth tax on non-Muslim land owners was levied to help pay for their many building projects.
However, it should be stressed that overall, ‘the Seljuks were not interested in enforcing conformity’. A.C.S Peacock tells us they had no uniform currency and different areas of their empire would have had a very different experience of what people Seljuk was. Indeed, he explains they had a complex political system that was largely based on ‘personal ties of loyalty and obligations between patrons and their vassals.’
By 1200 the Seljuks had lost their hold on the region. But the impact of their short reign on both cultural and political history in the region should not be ignored, nor forgotten.
So, why have I never heard of them before?
The reasons why we tell certain histories and not others are complex. Modern political situations and our current world view heavily influences what is included in our curriculum and history books. However, this aside, there are some practical reasons why there hasn’t been in depth Seljuk scholarship.
Firstly, the Seljuks have hardly any surviving written sources that they themselves authored. A lot of our information about them comes from a mix of external sources that often refer to them as Barbarian or just in passing. Not only is this evidence uneven, but to do in depth research one has to have a working knowledge of Turkish, Arabic and Persian.
The main glimpse we have into how the Seljuk’s viewed themselves is the Maliknama (Book of the King. It seems to be based on Turkish Oral histories but only goes up to the 11th Century. Therefore, we have a gap in knowledge for the end of their reign which is told almost completely through their conquerors.
We do have a lot of material evidence through archaeology but what we can learn from this is limited. The limitations are mainly due to the lack of interrogation of written sources. Archaeology is most useful to us when it can complement and expand on what we know from the written word. As we’ve already covered, the scholarship of the few existing Seljuk works is limited. Archaeology can give us intriguing glimpses into their art style and daily life but give limited assistance on matters of warfare.
What makes Seljuk Art distinctive?
Seljuk art and architecture has a few distinctive features, that once known, make it easier to identify. One should bear in mind that many Seljuk elements were later reused and copied throughout following Islamic empires; a ‘Seljuk’ element isn’t necessarily as ‘Seljuk’ as it may at first appear. However, there are still the key elements that you should be aware of as a budding collecting:
1. Animated Arabic Script
The use of Arabic, and other, scripts in Seljuk art is quite common. It is usual to see this calligraphy turned into ‘Animated’ letters. These often morph into people or animals – commonly birds. Indeed, the use of script was very common in Seljuk art. Typical phrases would have been religious and would have stemmed from Islamic texts and scholarship.
2. Inlaying of Precious metals
In bronze pieces, such as jugs or bowls, it is not common to see the inlaying of precious metals like gold and silver in decorations. In this period, gold and silver was readily available in the middle east and allowed for beautiful metallic flourishes. Often geometric designs and calligraphy are prime examples as to where this inlaying might be.
3. Geometric Tiles and Shapes
As we’ve already mentioned, Seljuk art did not just stop at ceramics and metalwork but carried into architecture. Whether that be through tiling or wall art, the common geometric motifs are visible. Different to the European architecture at the time, there’s a large emphasis on bright colours; most notably is the use of bright blue, an example of which is shown in the tiles below. These shapes became a basis for much of the later Islamic architecture in the region.
Advice for Collecting Seljuk Art
The Seljuk Empire is a fascinating period of history. As more people learn about it, the numbers of collectors of Seljuk items grows. Increasingly people want to handle and own some of this exquisite art for themselves. As with any historical collecting, you need to ensure that you are buying from well-respected sellers who have had teams of experts examine the pieces. The Seljuk period is still lesser well known than the Romans or Greeks so there are less likely to have been reproductions made – but you of course still need to be careful! Look out for detailed provenances and scientific testing. Never be afraid to ask your seller more about the piece and its history.
Some areas to consider collecting are: Seljuk tiles, Seljuk pottery, bronze vessels and works with detailed calligraphy. If you have any questions about collecting this pieces, feel free to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about this work and why we think it’s important in our art on the 15 best books to read about ancient history.
Susan Yalman, The Met Museum’s Article on Seljuk Art and History