The Seljuk Han of Anatolia   

Seljuk Architecture

a brief introduction

“What a miracle is this Seljuk architecture! It has an elegance, a distinction of design and a subtle delicacy of ornament surpassing any other known to me since French Gothic at its best.” 


-Bernard Berenson (A Letter to Derek Hill, 1958, in Islamic Architecture and its Decoration, AD 800-1500: A Photographic Survey.

Edited by Derek Hill and Oleg Grabar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.)



The most enduring legacy of the Seljuk Empire is their architecture. A large number of Seljuk buildings still stand in Turkey today, and can be considered some of the most distinguished monuments ever built in Islamic lands. Of exceptionally high order and quality, this is a powerful and direct architecture: rectilinear, dignified, imposing and imperious. It projects an image of noble determination at the same time as one of subtle majestic beauty. The sculptural carved stone decoration, an integral part of the building scheme, provides a balanced complement to the forceful strength of the architecture. The fact that such a sophisticated building program was achieved in such a short period of time makes the accomplishment all the more impressive.

The Seljuks built mosques, the educational and charitable institutions known as medreses, hans, mausoleums, bridges, palaces, public baths, and fortifications. These structures date mostly from the 13th century, with a few from the 12th.

Art historians have defined a broad chronology of Seljuk architecture based on an analysis of the carved decoration of the monuments:

 -  A short beginning period (up to 1215), characterized by a limited, sober and restrained use of decoration (Alaeddin Mosque, Onu and Altinapa hans). The design repertory consisted of triangles, zigzags, the Greek key, arabesque and dogtooth motifs. The carving was in low relief.

 -  This period was followed by what is known as the "Classical period" of Seljuk architecture, with a fully-developed style. Lasting only for a short period (1215-1250), it encompasses the most outstanding buildings of the era, notably the Sultan hans, and the Karatay and Sircali Medreses in Konya. The area of decorated surfaces on the building was increased and the tracery carving became elaborate and highly-developed, with a large place given to the arabesque, animal and floral motifs, as well as medallion bosses.

 -  The third period, characterized by an extensive use of glazed tile work, geometrical compositions and the elaboration of sculpture, is known as the "Baroque" period (1250-1307). It comprises the buildings erected during the period when the Seljuks were vassals to the Mongols. Notable monuments include the Sahip Ata Mosque at Konya and the Çifte and Gök Medreses in Sivas.


-  The architecture of the Seljuks of Anatolia inherited many aspects from the numerous empires that preceded it or with which it came in contact: Persians, Assyrians, Sassanids, Great Seljuks, the Greek and Roman sphere, Armenians and Byzantines. Although inspired by many design and construction elements, Seljuk architecture developed its own distinct identity.

-  The most distinguishing characteristic of Seljuk architecture is the monumental portal, built of stone, ornately decorated in a wide variety of techniques. No matter what the building type - mosque, medrese, dervish lodge or han - the size and detailing of this portals was always the focus of the building. These portals extend outward from the facade and are carved with calligraphic and geometric motifs. They are rectangular in shape and have a recessed pointed hood made of stalactite niches (known as muqarnas). They received the most embellishment and were often built of finer materials than the other parts of the building.  A few examples exist with marble. Inscriptions are placed in the rectangular space between the doorway arch and the muqarnas hood

-  Another feature is the decoration in stone and faience. The Seljuk design program combines intricate stone carving and colorful glazed ceramic decoration in a palette of turquoise blue, cobalt blue, black and white. Design elements include calligraphy, polychrome bands of stone, vegetal and geometric patterns, and human and animal figures. Decoration on Seljuk monuments was used in moderation, and was concentrated around the main door or the sides of the entrance, or, in the case of mosques, on the minarets or domes. The exuberance and color of the stone sculpture and tile work lightened the severe appearance of the plain stone walls.

-  An important element used in Seljuk building construction is the iwan, a large vaulted chamber left open at one end. The iwan provided shelter and allowed contact with the outdoors. Buildings could have 1, 2, 3, or 4 iwans around a central courtyard.

-  The dome, employed in Middle Eastern cultures since Assyrian times, is another distinctive feature of Seljuk architecture. The dome was supported by squinches or pendentives in a peculiar triangular shape, known as "Turkish triangles". The interior face of the dome was decorated with tiles or glazed bricks.

-  As opposed to the brick architecture of the Iranians and Byzantines, the walls of Seljuk buildings are made of rubble or rough stone which was then faced with large blocks of beautifully dressed stone, laid with great accuracy. Building materials were readily available from the rich stone quarries in western Anatolia and the extensive limestone quarries in the central plateau region. There were numerous clay deposits for the making tiles as well.


To resume:

The Anatolian Seljuks built the following types of structures :


The largest mosque in a city was called the Ulu Cami, or "Great" mosque, and was located in the most prominent spot in town. The typical mosque plan consisted of an enclosed rectangular space, which offered shelter from both the hot and cold climate. The rectangle was arranged in an elongated basilical plan, with a wide central aisle. They could have aisles parallel or perpendicular to the prayer niche. There was no forecourt. The mosques included minarets (usually single) and domes. As many of the Ulu Mosques were commissioned by the Sultan or by his viziers, they often had elaborate decorative programs, including carved woodwork for mimbars and furniture and tilework for mihrabs (prayer niche) and minarets, as well as specially-commissioned carpets. Mosques were often built in conjunction with a medrese to form a complex known as a külliye.


In addition to the larger Great Mosques, the Seljuks built small, square-shaped mosques covered by a single dome, known as "mescits", notably in the region of Konya and Akşehir. These were neighborhood or bazaar mosques scattered throughout the city and which were used for daily prayer. A particular subset of mosques developed during the late Seljuk and Beylik periods, known as the "mosques with wooden pillars" series. Their interiors comprised a forest of wooden pillars instead of stone piers.

MEDRESES (schools for theology or science)
These educational institutions were built using a rectangular plan with an inner courtyard. This courtyard was either open or closed by a central with a dome, included 1-4 iwans, and was surrounded by cells on one or two storeys. These cells served as dormitory rooms for students, and were equipped with fireplaces. The iwan were used as lecture halls and study spaces. The iwans often had lavishly-decorated entrance frames surmounted by pointed arches.

This building type reflects the social dimension of the Seljuk state and its dedication to providing health care for its citizens. Hospitals were made available free of charge, and were operated by endowments set up by the royalty or wealthy persons. The operating expenses were paid for by income from farmland and businesses determined by the endowment agreement. They were often operated in conjunction with a medrese used for the teaching of the doctors. The Seljuks paid much attention to the needs of the ill and the poor, especially as concerned health issues. Orphanages, mental institutions and almshouses followed the same general building plan and decoration scheme as the medreses. In Divriği, the hospital is located next to the mosque; in other instances the hospital is attached to a medrese (Kayseri Cifte and Sivas Keykavus Medreses).


HANS (or Caravanserais)
There is one type of Seljuk construction that stands out from the others: the caravanserai, or han. These hans are interesting, not only for their architecture and decor, but also for the purposeful agenda behind their development. These distinctive structures made their first appearance in Central Asia during the Karakhanid era (9th-11th c), growing in response to the extensive trading network in Transoxiana. Of considerable size, they display impressive decor on their entrances.


Döner Kümbet, Kayseri, ca. 1275

In addition to hans, the Seljuks also developed the specific building form of the tomb tower, known as a "kümbet", or "türbe". Turbes were of 2 types: a cylindrical tower with a low flat dome, sometimes covered on the outside with turquoise tiles; or a circular, polygonal or octagonal body fitted onto a square base by means of Turkish triangles and roofed with a conical turret. These tomb towers were often decorated with carved inscriptions and figures. They comprised two storeys, with the sarcophagus in the upper chamber, which also served as a mosque chapel with a mihrab. The sarcophagus is empty, and serves as a marker for the remains of the deceased who is buried in the earth. The entrance to the upper chamber was set fairly high on one side. Türbes are the translation in stone of the former shamanistic tent tombs of the Turkomans. An important number of them can be found in the city of Kayseri. No one who has seen the forest of gravestones and the eleven Seljuk türbes in the cemetery of Ahlat overlooking Lake Van can forget their poetry and mystical evocation.



Compared to the large dimensions of the mosques, medreses and hans, Seljuk palaces were modest structures, built of rubble stone and brick. No complete example exists, but much information has been gleaned from excavations of several sites. The Kubadabad Saray ("palace"), on the southwest shore of Lake Beyşehir near Konya is the only Seljuk palace to have been systematically excavated. It was built in 1236, according to (as legend would have it) plans drawn up by Alaeddin Keykubad I himself. Composed of 16 pavilions and a hunting grounds, it was decorated with a spectacular program of mural tile decorations some 2 m. high (now reconstructed for viewing in the Karatay Museum in Konya). Excavations have revealed kitchens, apartments, pavilions and stables.

There are traces of other Seljuk palaces. These include the Keykubadiyye (1224-26) in Kayseri, which consisted of 3 pavilions decorated with geometric tiles, and the Alaeddin Kiosk in Konya, at the foot of the hill where stands the Alaeddin Mosque. Very little is known of this latter structure, other than it was 2 storeys high and probably served as the palace of the Sultan. Its construction was started by Kiliç Arslan II and was completed by Alaeddin Keykubad I. It is believed that its interior was decorated with stucco and tile. Other Seljuk palaces built by Alaeddin Keykubad include the Alara Saray (1224), decorated with frescoes and tiles, and the kiosk at the rear of the stage of the Aspendos theater. The Sultans also built villas or "pleasure pavilions" for resting, entertaining or for hunting parties. These include the Haydar Bey, Hizir Ilyas and Kizil Köşk structures outside of Kayseri, and the Gulefşen, Sedre and Hasbahce villas outside of Alanya.

The Arsenal at Alanya


The Haydar Bey Pavilion

The most outstanding example of Seljuk military architecture is the Kizil Kule (“Red Tower”) castle on the hill above Alanya, built in 1226 by Alaeddin Keykubad I. It extends down to the sea and encloses a naval dockyard and arsenal guarded by a 33 m. high octagonal tower of red stone and brick. Other military constructions include the city walls and fortifications of Alanya, Konya, and Sivas, as well as the sea walls at Sinop.


The urban plan of the Seljuk city comprised an administrative sector, which included a inner castle or palace, a commercial district which included bazaars, markets, and squares, as well as residential neighborhoods. The city was doted with one large Ulu mosque and numerous neighborhood mosques. Urban constructions comprised covered and open markets, houses, gardens, streets with conduits for water and sewage, public water fountains, pools, and public baths. The more important cites (Konya, Kayseri and Sivas) were surrounded by walls with entry gates.


There is no remaining example of a typical Seljuk house, but the plan probably comprised rooms opening onto a courtyard. A late Seljuk summer pavilion, the Haydar Bey Kiosk in Kayseri, can give some indication as to the layout of a Seljuk house.


Abundant mineral springs exist in Turkey, and the Seljuks took advantage of them by encouraging a building program for baths, spas and fountains (Havza, Kirşehir, Ilgin). Some of these mineral spas were reserved for horses and valuable animals. The plan appeared to be centered on an octagon with four iwans, and there was no central bathing pool as in the Roman-style baths. There were separate sections for men and women, with a disrobing room, tepidarium, and hot room.

An impressive number of Seljuk bridges exist to this day. They were built to accompany the building program of the hans, and comprise spans of pointed arches. They were built over both the major rivers of Turkey and also smaller rivers.



Dervish lodges, or tekke, were an important part of Seljuk society, but few remain standing today. An outstanding example of a Seljuk tekke is the Şeyh Turesan Veli  lodge outside of Kayseri. Many of these were built in the Ilkhanid period and later. The city of Tokat has numerous examples.






Yildiz Bridge in Sivas

Eğriköprü in Sivas

Hidirlik Bridge in Tokat over the Yeşilirmak River, 1250

©2001-2023, Katharine Branning; All Rights Reserved.