x0x Seljuk jars - Glimpses into the past
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x0x Seljuk jars - Glimpses into the past
By Cihat Soyhan
The discovery that clay taken from the fertile earth could be used to
create vessels for storage was one of the most important steps forward
in human civilisation. Using pottery jars for storing and carrying
water, one of the most essential needs, transformed domestic life.
For archaeologists and historians pottery is among the most important
sources of information about past cultures. The first pottery was made
35,000 years ago, when clay was shaped into figurines or small relief
motifs. At first pottery was dried in the sun, until the discovery
that heating by fire rendered the clay stronger and less porous, which
meant that vessels could be used to hold liquids as well as dry
substances. Eventually glazes made of melted sand were developed that
gave pottery an attractive waterproof coating.
The Turkic peoples had made pottery in Central Asia, and this art
developed still further after the Seljuk Turks arrived in Anatolia, a
land which had been an important centre of pottery production from
very early times. Both Seljuks and Ottomans adopted Anatolian
materials and techniques for their ceramics. In the 12th and 13th
centuries, Konya was the centre of Seljuk ceramic manufacture, but it
was during the Ottoman period that the Turkish art of ceramic making
reached its peak with the Iznik tiles and vessels produced between the
14th and 17th centuries. And with the decline in the Iznik potteries,
Kutahya became the new centre of pottery and tile manufacture.
Under the Seljuks the most common form of pottery decoration was
sgraffito, designs incised with a sharp implement. This technique was
widely used in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Memluk Egypt between the 9th and
13th centuries, as well as by the Byzantines and Seljuks in Anatolia.
There are close similarities between the motifs and forms of Byzantine
and Seljuk pottery, and often they can only be distinguished by
differences in the type of clay, slip and glaze.
Among the finest examples of Seljuk pottery are large unglazed jars
made of red paste used to store water, grain, olives, olive oil, grape
syrup and other foodstuffs. While some are very simply decorated with
flutes and zigzag lines, others have stamped motifs or relief
decoration in the technique known as barbotine, by which very soft
clay has been applied with a nozzle.
The repertoire of motifs is diverse, including human and animal
figures, masks, rosettes and undulating branches. Archaeological
excavations in Central Anatolia have revealed jars of this type with
close affinities to Syrian ceramics and thought to have been made in
As well as pottery plates, bowls, jars and other vessels, glazed tiles
were widely produced by the Seljuks as architectural decoration for
both secular and sacral buildings. These tiles were known as kasi,
after the Persian city of Kashan, a famous centre of painted and
glazed tile manufacture.
The great 13th century mystic poet Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi
(1207-1273) speaks metaphorically of pots and potters when he says:
`No maker of bowls makes bowls for their own sake, but to place food
within them.' And a Turkish proverb asks, `How much longer are you
going to make bowls for all who break them?' meaning that it is
unproductive to keep making up for the repeated mistakes of others.
Analysis of jars made by ancient civilisations and discovered in
excavations can reveal the nature of their original contents, whether
wine, grape syrup or grain. Then again jars have been found buried not
by chance but on purpose, containing gold and silver coins that the
owner intended to retrieve after the danger was past.
Ancient Greek amphoras, with their tapered bases, narrow necks and
rotund bodies were used for transporting commodities by ship over long
distances. Another and stranger use of pottery jars was in Anatolian
Seljuk architecture! Empty jars were used to fill the spaces between
the curving surfaces of domed and vaulted roofs. Since these were
lighter than earth or stones, the weight on the columns and arches was
diminished, and even more importantly, these improved the acoustics of
the building. Hence they were known as `sound jars'.
* Cihat Soyhan is an art historian