The Seljuk Period

The Seljuk dynasty, founded in the mid-llth century, settled in the Near East taking Iran, Iraq, Syria and Anatolia briefly under its hegemony. When it came to an end in 1157, its cultural and political traditions were sustained by the principalities that succeeded it.

As the Turks enriched their already existing metalwork tradition with new forms and processes, they did not ignore the traditions of the Islamic peoples with whom they were coming into contact. In their new creations, however, it was necessary to strike a harmonious balance between these new influences and the culture they had already possessed. The fact , that they had succeeded in doing this is an important point readily observable in the art of metalwork.

Among all these factors, a rule originating in one of the hadiths of the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have especially affected the art of metalwork. According to this hadith, the use of such materials as gold, silver and silk is to be avoided by Muslims since they are regarded as luxury items and are therefore in contradiction with the Islamic ideal of simplicity.

It is debatable to what extent this hadith and certain verses of the Koran expressing a similar prohibition actually influenced the use of precious metals. What we do observe is that the use of such metals was reduced to a minimum in the Seljuk period, either for the religious reasons noted or because gold and silver were scarce and therefore costly. The same cannot be said of the Ottoman period however. Parallel to the prosperity of the Empire, the use of gold, silver, si Ik and precious stones increased, especially in the Palace.

The Ottoman sultans, viziers and high-ranking statesmen showed an avid interest in jewelry made of these materials both for gift items and, less often, for their own use. The Venetian Ambassador Ottoviano Bon reports in 1608 that golden vessels and silver-embroidered tableclothes graced the sultan's table and that these were replaced by green porcelain (celadon) during the Holy Month of Ramadan.

The infrequent use of precious metals in the Seljuk period resulted in a concentration of metalwork in the other metals, and enamel work, originally Byzantine, even showed considerable development during this time. As a result, the kind of copper, bronze and brass masterpieces produced by the Seljuks became relatively fewer in number under the Ottomans, though still produced; while objects made of silver and precious stones in contrast attained a high level of quality and aesthetic value.

Differences in the interpretation of Islam also emerge in another aspect of the art of metalwork. Like the use of precious metals, the depiction of humans and animals was also prohibited according to Islam, a ban more frequently observed in the Ottoman period and less frequently under the Seljuks, on whose metal objects we see a large number of human and animal figures. Beginning with inscriptions of Islamic prayers and verses from the Koran on vessels in the l2th century, this tradition, continued to develop culminating in the , creation of highly ornamental and masterfully executed calligraphic inscriptions in which the connecting lines and final decorations were often adorned with such figures. The fact that the Seljuk metalworkers who produced such work were originally from Central Asia is readily observable from the considerable similarity between these figures and motifs and those used earlier.

The bulk of Seljuk metalwork preserved today in museums and private coIlections came from Iran and northern Mesopotamia. Khorasan in particular was a major center of metalwork in the llth and l2th centuries and under the Zangid principality the region around Mosul and Artukid was regarded as the center of metalwork in southeastern Anatolia. Recent finds confirm that the traditionally high level of achievement in this field of art was maintained uniformly both under the Anatolian Seljuks and the period of principalities that followed.

Style, Decoration and Form

The abundance of human and animal figures on the metal objects produced in the Seljuk period has already been pointed out. These motifs, which derive in general from the Central Asian animal style, are based on certain shamanistic beliefs and notions. Through reconciliation with Islamic practices, such beliefs were kept alive for a long time in works of art. Motifs employed included symbols of the moon, figures and symbols representing power and good fortune, and certain mythological and heraldic animal figures. Among these, the most frequently depicted were harpies, griffins, double-headed eagles, sphinxes and dragons. Compositions incorporating zodiac signs or rulers sitting cross-legged holding a pomegranate in their lap are also frequently encountered.

The figures and the many diverse symbols used in conjunction with them are an expression of a variety of religious beliefs. The depiction of human and animal figures on objects was avoided in mosques and mausoleums.

Another important and innovative development was the use of calligraphic inscriptions of Islamic prayers and expressions on metal objects. A salient feature of such inscriptions was that they were often used in compositions incorporating human and animal figures and vegetal motifs. This practice, which was first observed in Khorasan in the l2th century, may be termed "figurative calligraphy." The inscription itself, which usually adorns a vessel or other object as a border or frieze, generally expresses a dedication or good wishes. Because the words are often abbreviated, such inscriptions, which most frequently employ the Kufic or Naskhi scripts, may be difficult to read. Sometimes the name of the artist and the place and date the object was made were also inscribed.

After the year 1220, geometric designs begin to be observed, consisting of interlocking rectangl'es, polygons and circles. These motifs are often so expertly joined that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins, thereby giving expression to a concept of infinity.

Around this time, too, Mosul emerges as an independent school allowing the uninhibited depiction of scenes from everyday life such as musical entertainment, dance and acrobatic exhibitions and polo games. Objects depicting such scenes thus have special value for the insight they give into palace social life at the time.

The objects produced by the Artukids are important representatives of the southeastern Anatolian art of metalwork, both for their quality and for their dates and dedicatory inscriptions.

Metal objects from the Seljuk period and of the principalities that followed are found in various museums and collections.

Owing to the scarcity of extant objects, it is as yet not very clear to what extent articles made of the precious metals such as gold and silver were popular with rulers of the Seljuk period. Furthermore, the major sources of gold and silver in this period have not yet been identified conclusively.

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