16.01.09, Blessing, Rebuilding Anatolia after the Mongol Conquest

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Benjamin Anderson

The Medieval Review 16.01.09

Blessing, Patricia. Rebuilding Anatolia after the Mongol Conquest: Islamic Architecture in the Lands of Rūm, 1240-1330. Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies, 17. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014. pp. xxiii, 240. ISBN: 978-147-242-4068 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Benjamin Anderson

The cities and towns of the central Anatolian plateau exhibit a thrilling variety of physical settings and cuisines, in strong contrast to their relative linguistic and religious homogeneity, the latter a result of the policies of the Turkish state in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This tension between place-based diversity and state-driven homogeneity is nothing new. As Patricia Blessing argues in her useful study, it can also be traced in the diachronic history of the later medieval and early modern architecture of Anatolia. The sixteenth-century complex of Sultan Selim in Karapınar, one hundred kilometers east of Konya, would have looked at home on the outskirts of Ottoman Istanbul. Although the earlier and more ephemeral Rum Seljuk state never attained (nor, perhaps, did it attempt) a similar degree of standardization, patrons active in the Seljuk heartland around Konya in the first half of the thirteenth century nevertheless "increasingly supported a unified architectural style" (9). However, the intervening period resists analysis as a smooth transition from Seljuk to Ottoman. The period of Blessing's study, marked in political history by the collapse of Seljuk authority and the incorporation of central Anatolia into the nominal domains of the Mongol Ilkhanate, is instead characterized by "complexities of style and construction that have often been obscured by the established, rather uniform narrative of Seljuk architecture" (205).

Blessing presents and analyzes these complexities through a series of four case studies. The first chapter addresses Konya between the years 1240 and 1280, when architectural patronage was driven, not by the greatly weakened sultans, but by newly prominent viziers and regents who steered a delicate course between the Seljuk and Mongol courts. The following two chapters move forward in time and eastward in space, as the primary centers of architectural patronage shifted closer to the Iranian heartland of the Ilkhanate. Chapter 2 focuses on three monumental madrasas constructed in Sivas at the beginning of the 1270s and attributable to the patronage of high-ranking officials, and chapter 3 on the later medieval monuments of Erzurum, including one whose patron may have been an Ilkhanid governor of the region. While the patrons at the center of first three chapters were mostly office-holding elites, those in the final chapter, on Tokat, Amasya, and Ankara, seem to have been local worthies with no official ties to the Ilkhanid state.

Each chapter follows a regular procedure: the local history is related on the basis of written sources, followed by discussion of the major preserved monuments, whose foundation inscriptions Blessing transcribes and translates when available. Discussion of the buildings themselves is strongly geared toward the description of those carved stone portals that feature in many a tourist's photo album and in Blessing's own views, supplemented here by the work of nineteenth- and twentieth-century travelers and by plans redrawn after previously published models. Both the individual motifs and the overall composition of the portals lead to conclusions about a given monument's "political stance" (110; cf. 118-119, 187) on the assumption that "almost every monument discussed here has its own significance, hidden in its decorative program" (38).

These messages are parsed according to a dichotomy between "local" and "imperial" elements. Brick, stucco, and tile are taken to be "Iranian" and thus "imperial," carved stone "local" or "Anatolian" (89, 101, 153). One may recognize intuitively the basis for this scheme, but brick and glazed tile are essential components of the medieval and early modern architecture of western Anatolia, and brick was used in medieval central Anatolian monuments such as Üçayak and Çanlı Kilise. When it comes to stone construction more attention might be paid to the plainer walls and vaulting, in addition to the portals that dominate Blessing's discussion. The medieval architecture of Anatolia always drew on varied building techniques, systematic analysis and comparison of which would provide a more refined definition of the "local." As it stands, there is little here of the "minute structural observation" that, in one approach to architectural history, must anchor "notions of causation or iconographic meaning" [1]. Blessing's criteria for the evaluation of decorative motifs and compositional strategies could also profit from more precise definition. As it stands, differences in the appearance of two portals may be cited as evidence for divergent dates of construction (e.g. in Konya, 44-45), or similarities between two divergently dated monuments may be interpreted as "local references" (150, 187; cf. "regional references" at 202; and especially 98-104), leaving the variant assumptions about the relationship between "period" and "style" unstated in each case.

More and varied controls might supplement the reading of texts and the formal analysis of decoration, neither of which provides as sure a guide as we might hope. Later medieval Anatolia is notoriously "source poor," a difficulty that Blessing recognizes and systematically discusses (13-18), while fully exploiting the available sources, including those previously untranslated. The urban monuments that stand at the center of the study were subject to highly invasive twentieth-century campaigns of "restoration" aimed in part at making the portals look as good as new. These interventions are regularly noted (e.g. at 48, 61, 66, 105, and 171--where the apparent association of "recently restored" with "well-preserved" gives pause) but never systematically evaluated. Other, arguably more reliable, sources of evidence could help to answer the questions regarding workshop organization and the relationships between buildings raised here (as e.g. at 115-118): building archaeology, in which the most prominent decorated elements are viewed in concert with the structure as a whole; materials analysis; metrology (here mentioned in passing at 103); and energetics, in which the material remains of the building are evaluated as evidence for the resources and organization required for its construction.

This volume "provides a new framework for understanding the architecture of late thirteenth-century Anatolia" (205) which doubtless holds greater promise than one focused solely on the origins of Ottoman architecture. "The complex interactions of empire, culture, religion, and intertwined networks of peoples, trade, and politics" remain, as Blessing writes, "fertile territory for future research" (208), within which her thorough evaluation of the textual evidence and her perceptive analyses of the monuments' decoration will stand as valuable contributions.



1. Charles McClendon, "Encounter: Richard Krautheimer," Gesta 54 (2015), 123-126, here at 125.

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