Empires rise and fall. Some, like the ancient Egyptians’, last thousands of years and bequeath to posterity tremendous monuments. Others subsist for just a few generations, leaving barely a trace of their glories. The Great Seljuq Empire, which occupied most of western Asia and the Middle East from around 1040 to 1157, was among the more short-lived, and it left a comparatively modest material inheritance. But if the Seljuq dynasty produced nothing so grand as the pyramids, the Parthenon or the Taj Mahal, it nevertheless presided over a cosmopolitan multicultural age of terrific artistic and intellectual vitality and innovation. That period of creative fertility is reflected in “Court & Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs,” an absorbing and enlightening exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Organized by Sheila R. Canby, head of the Met’s department of Islamic art, along with the assistant curators Deniz Beyazit and Martina Rugiadi, the exhibition presents about 250 objects, mostly of portable size. They include intricately incised and silver-inlaid brass ewers, basins and dishes; animal-shaped incense burners; ornate candlesticks and lamp stands; gold rings and coins; illuminated copies of the Quran; architectural fragments and grave markers carved in geometric patterns; and garments of finely woven cloth. Scientific devices include an astrolabe and a brass cantaloupe-size globe that shines like gold.
While all of this testifies to an aesthetically and technologically sophisticated culture, a nonspecialist might wonder what is distinctively Seljuqian about it — what distinguishes it from, say, medieval Islamic arts and crafts in general. Nomadic invaders from Central Asia, the Seljuqs did not impose on their subjects a traditional aesthetic or religion of their own. Rather, they commissioned artistic and decorative works from artisans of various subject peoples. They built palaces, mosques, madrasas and hospitals in Islamic architectural styles. But what the Seljuqs created most consequentially was a relatively peaceful, prosperous and unified world wherein indigenous literature, arts and sciences were able to flourish in urban centers throughout the region.
This is perhaps surprising, given that the Seljuqs initially were known as fearsome warriors. A Turkic tribe named after a 10th-century ancestral chief, they came from the steppes east of the Caspian Sea, where they converted from their traditional shamanistic beliefs to Islam. Around A.D. 1000, they began moving south in search of fresh grazing lands. Under the shared leadership of Seljuq’s grandsons Tughril and Chaghri, they eventually ruled over a territory extending from Afghanistan to Syria.
In the long run, the Seljuq Empire was not cohesive enough to withstand divisions within its own family dynasty and rebellions by competing tribes. The empire collapsed in the mid-12th century, but its successor states persisted independently in places like Anatolia, Syria and northern Mesopotamia into the early 14th century.
Nominally Sunni, the Seljuqs cultivated a remarkably tolerant, progressive and pluralistic culture. Sufism — the liberal, mystical version of Islam regarded as blasphemous by fundamentalists — became widely popular. In his indispensable catalog essay, the historian A. C. S. Peacock observes, “The Seljuqs appear to have been the first rulers actively to court the support of the Sufis in exchange for both popular legitimacy and spiritual rewards in the form of the blessings (baraka) of a holy man.” The Sufi poet Rumi (1207–73) lived and prospered under the Anatolian Seljuqs in Konya, and the great Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi (1165–1240) spent time at the Seljuq court there.
While the history of the Seljuqs as told by Mr. Peacock is eventful enough to warrant a TV epic like “Game of Thrones,” the Met’s exhibition conveys the story in bits and pieces. Consider, for example, a lovely hemispherical wine cup just three inches in diameter made of hammered gold in Iran in the 11th century. It has a fanciful duck engraved into its inner bottom and a verse engraved around its outer rim that, translated into English, reads:
Wine is a sun in a garment of red Chinese silk
It flows; its source is the flask
Drink, then, in the pleasance of time, since our day
Is a day of delight which has brought dew.
The words were written by a 10th century poet named Ibn al-Tammar al-Wasiti, and they speak to a world of hedonistic sophisticates who blithely shrugged off Koranic dictums against alcohol consumption and drunkenness in the interests of worldly recreation and spiritual transport.
Islamic authority also was unable to stanch superstitious beliefs, as objects in a section called “Astrology, Magic and the World of Beasts” reveal. A gorgeous brass ewer with a tall spout rising from a fluted, round-bottomed gallon-size container made in Khurasan circa 1180–1210 is wonderfully decorated with signs of the zodiac and mythic creatures entangled with an elaborate tracery of incised and silver-inlaid bands. A museum label explains that the popularity of such magical imagery may have had to do with anxiety over an unusual number of earthquakes and solar eclipses during the 12th century.
The sciences were not abandoned, however. One of the most intriguing figures of the time was the engineer and inventor Ismail al-Jazari (1136–1206), who was renowned for designing automatons and water-powered clocks around the turn of the 13th century. In the section “Science, Medicine and Technology” are two pages from his treatise “Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Devices.” “Design for the Water Clock of the Peacocks” offers an elegantly drawn and painted diagram for a timepiece whose workings are far too complicated to describe here.
“Design for the Slave Girl Serving a Glass of Wine” illustrates a similarly complex machine that would have a sculpture of a young servant emerging from a cupboard eight times per hour to deliver an actual glass of wine. Al-Jazari’s inventions may sound whimsical, but they were based on cutting-edge science of the day. Not for nothing has he been called the father of robotics.
Considering the terrible state of affairs in the Middle East today, it’s bittersweet to think there was a time when the region’s Islamic culture harbored some of the most brilliant and humane creative minds the world has ever known.