Stones that point the way

Egyptand’s tourism sector is in for an even worse time after the huge tragedy experienced over the Sinai with an airplane that had taken off from Sharm El Sheikh.
If it turns out to have been an attack, as the current signs seem to show, then it is as much an attack on Egypt and its tourist industry as it is on Russia and foreign tourists. For thousands of ordinary Egyptian citizens rely on the tourism industry for their living.
It isnand’t just the sun, of course, and the beautiful waters of the Red Sea. The fascination with Egypt is tied up with its ancient history: the Land of the Pharaohs. When we hear the word Egypt the first image that comes into our mind is not the chaotic traffic and incessant cacophony of horns that can be heard in the background of every foreign correspondent report from Cairo, but pyramids soaring into the sky and the mysterious Sphinx statue.
The stones left behind by an earlier civilization still speak to us today. They tell us a story of grandeur in a rulerand’s court, of styles of worship and of burial rites, of what mattered to a people who lived many centuries ago.
The same is true of other world heritage sites such as Machu Picchu and Stonehenge. The people who built these edifices may be long gone. We may have no other historical evidence, such as chronicles, literature and textiles, that record their way of life. But the stones point the way to our understanding of at least something of their lives.
When it comes to these silent witnesses to former civilizations, nowhere is richer than Turkey. Anatolia was home to the capital of the Hittite Empire, Hattusha, and these fascinating ruins date back to the second millennium BC. Sites such as Ephesus, Bergama and Aspendos shed light on the Roman and Hellenistic eras. Istanbul is home to the glories of Byzantium, from its days as Constantinople: the Haghia Sophia amazes us today with its dome and beautiful mosaics.
Just as the Haghia Sophia is an iconic symbol of the glory of Byzantium, the Turkish tribe known as the Seljuks who swept into Anatolia in the 11th century and whose victory at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 marked the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire, have also left behind a distinctive archeological style.
From Konya to Erzurum, from Diyarbakir to Divriii, Seljuk mosques, madrassahs and tombs are distinctive for their use of stone and elaborate carving. They tend to be built around a square courtyard. The entrance to this courtyard is via a tall arched door or gate — and it is here that the beauty of the stone carving is normally concentrated. This elaborate decoration often mixes inscriptions of verses from the Quran with flora and fauna. The Tree of Life motif, lions and bulls are all common.
In a religious building two towering minarets will flank the doorway. In all buildings conical domes signify the Seljuk era, as do turquoise ceramic tiles.
Historians have long been able to read these architectural signs that point the way to understanding the daily lives and value systems of the Seljuks. A new collection of academic studies published by IB Tauris, titled and”The Seljuks of Anatolia,and” and edited by A.C.S. Peacock and Sara Nur Yildiz, attempts to bring new scholarly understanding to this topic.
They argue that Turkish historians often over-simplify this period by defining the Seljuks purely as the forerunners of the Ottomans. This is just as much a misnomer as the ubiquitous description of modern Turkey as a bridge between East and West. Turkey is much more than just a transit route between two different cultures. It has taken elements of each and mixed them together in its own way and created a new outlook, style and definition that is its own.
In the same way, the Seljuks are much more than just the aance party for the Ottomans. In their introduction Peacock and Yildiz argue that and”the Seljuks were responsible for a profound influence in the transformation of Anatolia from being largely Christian Byzantium into a land of Muslim Turks, following Byzantine abandonment of much of Anatolia in the wake of their defeat at Manzikert in 1071 by the great Seljuk leader Alp Arslan.and”
When seeking to find how the Seljukand’s lived, it is not easy as contemporary accounts differ on their perspective. For Western commentators, the world of the Seljuks was the exotic East. But for Eastern chroniclers this was the wild West. Literary evidence therefore is both scarce and biased.
We do, however, have their legacy in architecture. The scholars who each contribute a chapter to this book use the archeological evidence to shed light on the life of the Seljuks. As this means analysis of buildings, of coins, of civil engineering, of burial sites and much more it needs a whole range of experts. Hence a conference was held in 2009 focusing on the court and society in the period of the 12th and 13th centuries, and this volume consists of the papers presented there.
It is a period covering the Seljukand’s transition from nomads to city-dwellers. It is a period where Sufi groups began to rise in religious importance. It is period where the Seljuks shared Anatolia with other Turkish dynasties such as the Danishmends.
We are promised an analysis of how dynastic power and authority interacted with broader social, political and religious communities through the region. This sounds fascinating. In reality, because this is a collection of academic papers rather than a contiguous narrative, the spotlight is shone on a number of disparate points on this stage rather than lighting up the whole scene.
If you have a general interest in the subject without a lot of prior knowledge, this is not the book for you. A huge amount of background is required: we dive straight in with and”the house of Mengandujek in Divriii.and” (Mengandujek Ghazi was the founder of an Anatolian Beylik and he is thought to have been one of the military commanders that the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan sent to occupy parts of Anatolia after the victory at Manzikert — but the connection to the wider Seljuks isnand’t made so obvious in this book.) This chapter analyzes the various inscriptions on the wonderful buildings scattered around this town, and in particular the titles they use for the ruler(s). This is a good analysis of the visual rhetoric in the architecture of Divriii declaring the kingand’s rule and power both via the glory of the buildings themselves and via the power statements in the inscriptions.
As with all collections there are different voices. Some are more easily read than others. Some are more practical than others. Some are more obscure than others. The collection hangs together only loosely around a common theme. We jump from regal inscriptions of the Mengandujek dynasty through an analysis of the Byzantine lineage of Seljuk princes (from the women in the harem) to moral codes operating in Armenian churches on the periphery of Seljuk lands.
The overall impression is that of being so focused in on some individual tiles in a mosaic that it is impossible to see the connections and the overall picture. That is only possible if we step back and look at the broad sweep — and sadly there is no narrative superimposed to give an extra layer of meaning and understanding. This volume would have benefited greatly from the editors adding a few pages of commentary in between each article, linking them together into a seamless whole.
The stones left us by the Seljuks do speak. But this academic work is a little too erudite for their message to be heard clearly.
and”The Seljuks of Anatoliaand” edited by A.C.S. Peacock and Sara Nur Yildiz is published by IB Tauris. 17.99 pounds in paperback. ISBN: 978-178453165-2 Rating: two stars out of five


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