Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 28, 2017
Patricia Blessing Rebuilding Anatolia after the Mongol Conquest: Islamic Architecture in the Lands of Rūm, 1240–1330 Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 240 pp.; 10 color ills.; 73 b/w ills. Cloth $109.95 ( 9781472424068)

Patricia Blessing’s Rebuilding Anatolia after the Mongol Conquest: Islamic Architecture in the Lands of Rūm, 1240–1330 seeks to place the monuments within their immediate social and political landscape. Departing from previous approaches to the subject that have stressed continuities with architectural traditions of the prior Seljuk and later Ottoman period, Blessing instead emphasizes the local circumstances in which the monuments were produced. She considers how building forms and decoration were shaped by the particular circumstances of each patron, as well as by the rich and diverse architecture of prior Seljuk Anatolia, Ilkhanid Iran, and the medieval South Caucasus. Fundamentally, Blessing argues that the lack of centralized control in Anatolia led not to decline or stagnation in the culture of building, but rather to a diverse and dynamic tradition best understood on its own terms.

Divided into four main chapters, the book opens by outlining the historical, conceptual, and methodological context of the project, and advances its central themes of locality, mobility, and the frontier. Seljuk-controlled Anatolia (Rūm), established with the defeat of the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, was in the thirteenth century absorbed into the Mongol imperial sphere. In understanding the monuments produced during this era, Blessing employs concepts of Kunstgeographie and place-making to emphasize the distinctiveness and complexity of the Anatolian landscape, and its position as a center for cultural and economic exchange. The introduction presents a discussion of the primary sources used in the study, which include chronicles, inscriptions, waqfīyas (foundation documents), travelers’ accounts, and geographical literature. Acknowledging the limitations of the texts as direct sources for understanding the monuments, Blessing highlights the importance of the buildings themselves as historical documents, and more particularly, as evidence for the mobility of ideas from one point to another.

Chapter 1 focuses on the city of Konya. In the late twelfth century, Konya served as the capital of Seljuk Rūm, its importance attested by the many buildings constructed there by the sultans, particularly in its citadel. In the power vacuum of the 1240s to 1270s, however, new architectural patrons emerged, constructing buildings in the citadel area but also on the edges of the city. These patrons produced several madrasas, which, as Blessing demonstrates, relate in their form, decoration, and site to the city’s Seljuk past and its contemporary religious and political atmosphere. For example, the facade of Karatay Medrese (1251) features a pattern of bi-colored masonry, which Blessing reads as making deliberate reference to the earlier and nearby Seljuk Alaeddin mosque. This chapter also includes discussion of the Sahib Ata complex of 1258, which includes a mosque, mausoleum, and khānqāh (a Sufi gathering place). This complex offers an example of the wide range of monuments produced during Mongol-era Anatolia and the various religious communities they served. Moreover, as Blessing contends, its construction at the southernmost edge of Konya shows how post-Seljuk patrons sought to establish new points of authority in the city.

Chapter 2 focuses on three madrasas produced in a single year in the city of Sivas (1271–72). By the thirteenth century, Sivas was an important trading station; with the Mongol-era constructions in the city, it also became a university center. This chapter uses a combined study of inscriptions, architectural form, and sculptural decoration to explore the possible motivations of the patrons and to argue for the development of a local style. For example, the Çifte Minareli Medrese is considered in relation to the Iranian origins of the patron, Shams al-Dīn al-Juwaynī. The inscription, interestingly, defies convention in omitting mention of a reigning overlord, thereby reflecting the loss of Seljuk power in the region and highlighting the status of al-Juwaynī himself. The astonishing portal decoration of the Great Mosque and Hospital of Divriği, built in 626/1228–29 is also examined closely; Blessing considers various sources for this work, including Iranian stucco, but ultimately views it as a product of a regional tradition, drawing parallels with monuments in the city of Sivas.

Chapter 3 moves farther east toward the Ilkhanid frontier, to Erzurum, considering monuments constructed between 1280 and 1320. Patronage of the local Turkic Saltukid dynasty, under the newly Islamized Ilkhanids, resulted in the production of several monuments around the city. One of the most impressive is the Çifte Minareli Medrese, which Blessing discusses in relation to nearby monuments in Bayburt, Kars, and Ani. The thirteenth-century palace of Sahmadin at Mren (Kars region), for example, offers a particularly useful comparison, as it is a dated example (1271) of a muqarnas portal. Kale Camii, the Üç Kümbet (Three Mausolea), and the Yakutiye Medrese are also discussed in relation to the robust tradition of medieval Armenian architecture. As Blessing points out, carefully hewn ashlar masonry, copious exterior bas-reliefs and their particular motifs (particularly animal imagery), and the use of the conical cupola set on a cylindrical or faceted drum resting on a square bay all have clear precedents in the medieval building traditions of the South Caucasus.

Chapter 4 considers the smaller cities of Tokat, Amasya, and Ankara between 1280 and 1330. During this time, the Ilkhanids faced internal rebellions as well as conflicts with a range of external powers. This political situation shifted the trade routes, and the small cities addressed in this chapter benefited from their new economic position. Yet the material results were modest. Constructions such as the mausoleum of Nūr al-Dīn in Tokat attest to two major themes examined in this chapter: the smaller scale of the constructions and the increased localization (or conversely, decreased mobility) of architectural styles.

This book offers a new approach to the study of the architecture of Mongol-era Islamic architecture in Anatolia, highlighting the specific historical circumstances in which the tradition developed. It successfully charts the formation of local styles by comparing monuments within cities or by the same patron. Blessing’s use of historical documentation is thorough and rigorous; the bibliography is ample and up to date, and the images (with some color plates) are copious and mostly the author’s own. Three useful maps show trade routes through Anatolia and Caucasus. This reviewer would have wished for more and sustained discussion of each monument; although given the scope of the book, such sustained study is perhaps impossible. Equally desirable would have been a glossary; non-specialists would surely have appreciated easily accessible definitions for terms such as khanqah, Turkish triangle (a type of pendentive), and zāwiya (in this context, a Sufi lodge). More careful editing throughout would have also improved the volume: one feels obliged to point out, for example, that the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia lasted until end of the fourteenth century (1375), not the thirteenth, as stated on page 205, perhaps the result of a typographic error. These limitations, however, should not overshadow the importance of this book. Offering a successful and persuasive account of the striking and understudied monuments of Mongol-era Anatolia, Rebuilding Anatolia after the Mongol Conquest constitutes an important step forward for the history of Islamic architecture.

Christina Maranci
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Tufts University