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The flight of the falcon: Rhoads Murphey reflects on a thousand years of Turkic cultural development.

IS ART THE REFLECTION of society and its values, the tastes and personal ambitions of rich patrons, or the artistic creativity of the artist transcending both the conventions of society and the constraints of patronage? Confronted by the Royal Academy's assembly of some 350 objects associated with Turkic culture, ranging in date over a thousand years, in geographical range from China to the Mediterranean, one is tempted to dismiss such questions and simply revel in the artistic genius that produced them. Yet it is legitimate to speculate about whether there is a quality in Turkic culture that unifies it across time and space.

Between AD 600 and 1600, the Turkic peoples inhabited the three distinct zones of Inner Asia, Central Asia and Western Asia, and though they encountered a radically different blend of ethnicities, religions and aesthetics in each, there is a constant that links these heartlands under Turkic rule: their cultural pluralism, cosmopolitanism and tolerance for dissent from the conventions imposed by a single or dominant culture. Wherever they travelled, they remained open to creating new forms that adopted elements of their own civilization and that of the lands they inhabited.

The origin of the name Turk is somewhat contested. The collection of peoples referred to today as Turks originated as a group of tribes in the Altai region of Inner Asia in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. They were known, perhaps pejoratively, in Chinese sources as Tuchueh/T'u-kuie (modern form, Tujue) from about 550, when their empire-building in the steppe began to impinge directly on the borders of the Chinese empire. But these mentions in Chinese dynastic annals shed little light on their development and status in earlier centuries--which are both contested among scholars.

The steppe region where they originated encompasses southern Siberia and all the Orhon river basin south of Lake Baykal. All the tribes recognised a single ancestor, the part-historical, part-mythological figure known from epics and inscriptions as Oghuz Han. Oghuz lent his name to the confederation, and through military subordination and alliance-making, his followers and descendants created broader confederations that were instrumental in founding other dynasties bearing the names of their own clans.

Thus the Uyghur were one of nine tribes of the Dokuz-Oghuz who rose to prominence in the mid-eighth century, and in later centuries created a number of separate dynastic formations. An Oghuz clan-leader called Seljuk ibn Dakak (d.c. 1009) founded the Seljukid dynasty and bequeathed it to his son Toghril (r. 1038-63), and two centuries later another Oghuz clansman, Osman, founded a dynasty which bore his name, the Ottoman. Although these men shared a common Oghuz Turkic ethnic stock, their subjects represented a broad range of other ethnic groups both nomadic and sedentary.

It is more accurate to avoid the use of the word Turk as the name of a people, except where qualified by a clan identifier (such as Oghuz Turks) or the name of a clan leader and dynastic founder (such as Seljukid Turks). Here we will use the name 'Turkic' to describe the ethnic group, and 'Turkish' to refer to their language, which they learned to write using an independent system known as the 'Runic' script. Another frequently-encountered term 'Turcoman' tends to be used for groups or dynasties that retained a greater commitment to the nomadic ways associated with their steppe origins. The earliest surviving written samples of Turkish are preserved in multi-lingual stelae found in sites along the Yenissei and Orhon rivers in the Altai region; these date from the seventh and eighth centuries.

Their relative isolation allowed the first Turkic tribes to develop an indigenous steppe culture, though trade and diplomatic contact with Tang China assumed growing proportions over time. Centralized rule over tribal confederations gradually emerged under the Empire of the Celestial Turks (Gok Turks, 682-744) and its successor state the first Uyghur kaganate, 744-840. The term 'kaganate' implied central authority and concentration of power, and the kagan, like the Chinese emperor, possessed the 'mandate of heaven'.

In 840 the first Uyghur kaganate was defeated by another Turkic group, the Kirghiz. The Uyghur leadership now decided to leave the nomadic environment of the steppes, and to move south to the eastern terminus of the Silk Route in Turfan (now in Xinjiang, western China), where a power vacuum provided attractive opportunities for control of the wealthy trade route. The caravan city Kocho (Gaoching in Chinese) served as their principal base. Here the Turkic peoples adopted a more sedentary way of life and were powerfully exposed to a variety of cultural influences, which can be seen in the heady mix of Indo-Iranian, Chinese and locally distinct artistic styles represented in wall paintings found in the richly endowed Buddhist monasteries of the region. Their libraries were filled with translations of the scriptures of several other religions and written in a babble of languages--from Sanskrit and Chinese to Uyghur Turkish.

Turfan under the second Uyghur dynasty (840-c. 1206) was exceptional for the seemingly harmonious co-existence of divergent religious and linguistic traditions. Evidence recovered from monastic caves in nearby Dunhuang confirms the remarkable ethnic diversity, multiculturalism and social inclusivity of the Turfan region during the period of Uyghur ascendancy. Perhaps the Turks were already beginning to demonstrate a disinclination for religious and cultural exclusivity, something that would be seen again and again over the coming centuries.

While the Uyghurs moved to western China after 840, another group of Oghuz Turks--perhaps more wedded to the ways and customs of the steppe--moved west to the region of Transoxiana broadly referred to as Turan. The succeeding centuries, to 1200, saw the establishment not just of Turkic dynasties but more importantly of Oghuz Turk and other nomadic movements and also settlement on a semi-permanent basis. This brought profound longer-term effects, not least the introduction of the Turkish language to western Iran, trans-Caspia, Transoxiana and a large part of the area in and around the Caucasus.

From the mid-ninth to mid-tenth centuries, the Oghuz Turks, Arabs and Persian-speaking peoples of Iran, who had recently converted to Islam, underwent a process of mutual accommodation and acculturation. By the mid-tenth century the majority of the Turks in Transoxiana had also embraced Islam. As the Oghuz drifted south into Iran, Turanian and Iranian cultures penetrated one another more deeply, especially so after the establishment of new Oghuz Turkic dynasties.

After 1000, the westwards and southwards diffusion of Oghuz peoples through conquest followed by mass migration and establishment of political formations, resulted in a mixed culture composed of Turkic, Arab and Persian elements. Turkish political dominance here lasted with little interruption until 1500.

In 1038 the Great Seljukid state in Iran was founded--so-called because it came first and influenced the other Seljukid states that rapidly proliferated and came to control large parts of Iraq, Syria and Anatolia by the late eleventh century. Breakaway elements from the Oghuz confederation at the centre of the Seljukid state of Iran founded their own state with its capital at Konya in central Anatolia. This Seljukid state of Rum was founded in 1077 following a victory by Oghuz tribesmen over Byzantium at the battle of Manzikert six years earlier.

At this date, the political landscape of Asia from Turfan in the east to Konya in the west was dominated by dynasties whose founders all shared a Turkic origin. Contact between the Turkic homelands was not necessarily consistent or continuous, but the continuity of Turkic rule facilitated cultural transmission, with localized transformation of stylistic elements. Artistic repertoires developed associated with the Far East (the hatayi style, referring to Chinese aesthetic influence) and the Far West (the rumi style, referring to the artistic traditions of the Seljukid and Byzantine borderlands in Asia Minor).

In the Islamic lands Turkish was used as a court language and as a medium for expression in secular literature, so that Turkish language, culture and general aesthetics enjoyed a raised profile and status across a very wide geographical space--from Kashgar in the east, home of Mahmud of Kashgar, author of a Turkish lexicon in 1077, to Asia Minor. With Turkic rulers acting as the arbiters of taste and patrons of art, literature, architecture and other court-sponsored cultural activities across Asia, the effects were pronounced.

Within this vast area, considerable regional differences can be perceived. Turkish dialects are broadly grouped into eastern or Uyghur Turkish dialects, written in the Uyghur script derived from the Sogdian alphabet, and western Turkish dialects (most prominently Ottoman Turkish) written in the Arabic script. The Oghuz who migrated westwards spoke Turkish with a distinct regional accent and sometimes used words not found in Kashgar's lexicon.

In 1206 the second Uyghur dynasty fell to the Mongols, a non-Turkic people, who had built up their power over the steppes and through the thirteenth century created their own vast empire across Asia. Yet from the point of view of Turkish development the effects of Mongol domination were relatively short-lived. They ruled Iran for a century after the death of the Mongol Genghis Khan in 1227, and their formal political entity (the Ilkhanid state) was created in 1256; but just four years later, in 1260, the Mongols faced a serious setback in the west, when they failed to secure Syria and Egypt after being defeated at the battle of Ayn Jalut by the Egypt-based Mamluks. Attempts to penetrate Syria continued until the 1290s, but without much success.

The year 1260 also marked the establishment of the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty in China, and this lasted until 1368. Thus from 1260-1330 the two halves of Asia were united under Mongol rule. Yet neither in China nor in Iran was their rule very prolonged. Compared to this brief spell of Mongol unification, the region's connections and reconnections under local Turkic dynasties over the whole of the period 1000-1500 allowed for a more sustained exchange between the steppe and the settled zone of Iran and Anatolia than was ever achieved by the Mongols.

One result of the Mongol ascendancy in Iran was that Oghuz Turkic groups were again displaced westwards, this time towards Anatolia. They took with them their culture based on the Irano-Turanian synthesis, in a steady stream of ideas and thinkers, practices and practitioners from the east, some of them refugees and others willing recruits. As a result eastern Anatolia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries witnessed an impressive cultural regeneration. Western Asia, and particularly Anatolia, was the beneficiary of upheavals elsewhere in Asia.

Among the dynasties established in western Anatolia in the early fourteenth century was that of the Ottomans, founded by Osman (1259-1326), son of Er-Tughrul (Warrior Brave Tughrul), who himself bore the name of the first Seljuk ruler in Iran, Toghril Beg (r. 1038-63). After the fall of the Seljukids of Rum in 1307, the Ottomans began a period of massive expansion and survived as a major power until 1920. Another Anatolian dynasty was that of the sons of Aydin (Aydin Oghullari, 1308-1425). Their control of the Mediterranean port city of Izmir after 1327 allowed them to play a leading role, alongside their Ottoman contemporaries, in opening access to the Turks' next homeland--in Europe.

In all the periods and places associated with Turkic rule up to 1350, the Turks can be seen both as people bridging diverse cultures and as pro-rooters of intercultural understanding across Asia. The year 1354 marks the beginning of a new era of cultural symbiosis--this time between Islam and Christianity on a new continent. In that year the Ottomans established a garrison at Gallipoli on the far side of the Dardanelles. It would be alarmist to see this as a first step in the Muslim conquest of the Balkans or displacement of its indigenous races; it would be more accurately seen as the beginning of a new era of commensality in a widened arena. Since the thirteenth century, close co-operation had developed between the Byzantine Empire and Anatolia, principally as a result of the Latin occupation of Constantinople in 1204, after the Fourth Crusade. Until 1261 the Palaeologid court, ousted from Constantinople, operated from Nicea where closer economic ties with the East became a matter of necessity for survival. In addition a Greek empire based on Trabzon on the southeast coast of the Black Sea became a market destination and trading partner for a wide range of Anatolian goods and transfer point for imports bound for the Anatolian interior. Ties through marriage also developed.

The Turks had been living in a kind of condominium of cultures with the Greeks and Armenians in Anatolia for some centuries. Their new association with the West gave rise to a new kind of cultural exchange, notably between the artists of the Italian Renaissance and Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1451-81) who after 1453 took possession of Constantinople, the city which bridges the gap between the two continents, and who commissioned portraits by the likes of Gentille Bellini and medals by Costanzo da Ferrara.

To complete this overview of the international character of Turkic cultural history through the ages, it is helpful to look at some of the artifacts of the various Turkic homelands. For this purpose I have chosen just three.

The first relates to the Kalila wa Dimna stories, tables about two jackals which were used as a means of conveying advice to rulers, and originated in India around AD 300. They passed from the Sanskrit original, via a fifth-century Pahlavi translation into eighth-century Arabic, later joined by tenth-century verse and twelfth-century prose translations into new Persian and thence to Turkish-speaking audiences in fourteenth-century western Anatolia. This textual odyssey provides a uniquely detailed example of i east-west transmission of cultural influence. Its path from twelfth-century Iran to early fourteenth-century Anatolia was eased by the patronage of a Turcoman prince, Umur Beg of Aydin (r.1334-48), who commissioned the translation into the vernacular. The court poets of the Aydin principality were kept busy translating this and other eastern classics for the amusement and edification of Turkish-speaking audiences in the west. Western Anatolia at this time was far removed from the cultural reach of Konya, let alone front the cultural ambience of its long-since defunct parent-state in Iran, but it appears to have developed a cosmopolitan cultural atmosphere of its own, with a strong sense of its oriental origins.

The Arab traveller Ibn Battuta (c.1304-c.78), who traveled widely in the Muslim world and reached as far as India and China, visited Umur Beg in the years immediately preceding his succession to the Aydin principality and following the demise of the Seljukids, a time popularly associated with turbulence and disorder.

Battuta gave Umur Beg high marks, both for the generous scale of his artistic patronage and the cultural cosmopolitanism of the Aydin court. He remarked in particular on the distant origin of the luxury items in evidence in this remote corner of Anatolia, acknowledging the prince's gift of: 'two robes of kamkha which are silken fabrics manufactured at Baghdad, Tabriz and in China'. The wider circulation of material goods, artistic influences and intellectual and literary traditions associated with the East was clearly connected with the patronage and support supplied by Turcoman courts--the Aydin Oghullari and their sponsorship of the Turkish translation of the Kalila wa Dimna stories are but a single instance.

Secondly, the enigmatic art of the painter known as Black Pen (Siyah Kalem) was produced in the 1480s under the patronage of the AkKoyunlu ruler Yakub Bey (r. 1478-90) in Tabriz, northwest Iran. This minimalist but highly evocative style of painting developed under the court natronage of the Ak-Kovunlu Turcomans at Tabriz--a city that had risen as the centre of the Mongol Ilkhanid state but retained its importance under succeeding Turkic dynasties. It had few followers and its subject-matter, centred on demons and shamans, ghouls and goblins, seems strangely out of tune with its Islamic surroundings in western Iran of the late fifteenth century. Siyah Kalem's artistic oeuvre conjures up the cultural world of central Asia in the early Islamic era, and bears a striking resemblance to some of the Buddhist cave-paintings of Turfan. Does it represent a throw-back to an earlier era, a direct stylistic transference through renewed contacts with Inner Asia? Or was it a reflection of Siyah Kalem's own artistic individualism? Historians of art are divided in their verdict. Yet such artists worked under court sponsorship, side by side with artists producing in a more conventional Perso-Islamic miniaturist style, and both conventions clearly co-existed under the protection of Turcoman royal patronage.

These patrons showed a remarkable tolerance for diverging interpretations of culture in a manner that had, by this time, become typical of the cultural cosmopolitanism of Turkic/Turcoman courts throughout western Asia. From the death of Timur (whose own empire had combined Mongol and Turkic elements) in 1405 to the rise of the Turco-Persian Safavid dynasty in Iran in the early sixteenth century, central Asia, Iran and eastern Anatolia were again briefly united politically. This gave rise to further cultural syntheses that derived their strength and vitality from a rich mix of contacts, influences, material resources and intellectual stimuli. No wonder diversity of artistic production is associated with this period.

Finally, we look briefly at the two worlds of the emigre scholar and mystic Islamic philosopher Jalal alDin Rural, who was born in Balkh (Khurasan) in 1207 and died in the Rum Seljukid capital Konya in 1973. Rumi (literally 'the Westerner') disliked being pigeon-holed and held himself to be of neither east nor west. Yet it is undeniable that he was an exile from the east who wrote his masterpiece, the Mathnavi, in Persian. His achievements both as thinker and as creative writer are so original that, like the artist Siyah Kalem, he defies easy definition; but the fact that he produced his best work in the Turkish- and Greek-speaking environment of Seljukid Konya is significant. Konya may not have been responsible for his creative genius, but neither was it a place that stifled creativity. Rumi's origins were in one cultural crossroads, Khurasan, once the birthplace of the Abbasid revolution in 750 and an intellectual centre of the freethinking Sufi movement that swept the Islamic world in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and he moved to Anatolia where he found a borderland society undergoing major political change and cultural transformation. Disparate elements from Turkic, Mongol and Persian traditions, wedded to current trends in mystical Islam, all combined in the cultural crucible of the mid-thirteenth-century Anatolian melting-pot; and the results resembled those that had been experienced by the Uyghur Turks in Turfan half a millennium earlier. In both places cross-cultural contacts led, not to meltdown and fusion into a single dominant tradition, but to an enrichment of the local cultural environment. Not only were all the contributing traditions able to co-exist and survive, but the close cohabitation of cultures led to many innovations unique to Anatolia.

After several centuries of confrontation between the Arabs and Byzantium, the mutual accommodation between Turks and Greeks that became characteristic of Seljukid rule represented something of a welcome change. The commercial contacts between Greeks and Turks after 1904 had led to other forms of exchange, and had pronounced effects in the sphere of material culture. Religious division between Christians and Muslims continued but, as they came into more regular physical contact, they found less contentious modes of communication. In this open climate the Mevlevi dervish order, which Rumi founded, thrived, characterized by its spirit of inquiry, exploration and cultural inclusivism. It was an experiment ideally suited to the character which Konya had already acquired. Several of the objects presented at the Royal Academy exhibition were produced in Seljukid Anatolia or in the potteries of Iznik and textile workshops of Istanbul in Ottoman times. In the stylistic repertoire of artists working in this milieu it is possible to detect the same leaps of imagination and lively juxtapositions that was characteristic of Rumi's thought.

Stylized presentation of stock themes was clearly unacceptable to these artists, nor would their patrons have accepted it. A spirit of experimentation and novelty was kept alive in both the Seljukid and Ottoman art, thanks in large measure to the enrichment of native Anatolian tradition by artists from Tabriz who, like Rural, brought a fresh perspective and breathed fresh life into the local scene.

I leave the reader with Rumi's own invitation to his fellow Anatolians to 'dare to be different' and his exhortation to explore all paths, especially those least tried and travelled, on their individual voyages of discovery. This excerpt from the 'Parable of the Ant' (Mathnavi, Book VI), in a loose translation based on verses 831-845, sums up the spirit of Seljukid Anatolia:
   These spiritual window shoppers,
   Who idly ask, 'How much is that?'
   Oh, I'm just looking.
   They handle a hundred items and put
         them down,
   Shadows with no capital.

   Even, if you don't know what you
   Buy something, to be part of the
         exchanging flow.
   Start a huge, foolish project,
   Like Noah
   It makes absolutely no difference
   What people think of you.


C.E. Bosworth The New Islamic Dynasties (Edinburgh, 1996); Along the Ancient Silk Routes; Central Asian Art from the West Berlin State Museums (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982); The Age of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1987); History of the Civilizations of Central Asia, Vols 3 and 4 (UNESCO, Paris, 1996, 2000).


'Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1660' opens at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London on January 22nd and runs until April 12th. 10am-6pm. For tickets phone 0870 8488484 or visit

RELATED ARTICLE: Presenting an Identity.

THE TURKS WERE FOR MANY YEARS THE BOGEYMAN OF EUROPE, but for the two Turkish curators of the Royal Academy's exhibition (Norman Rosenthal at the RA was the third member of the curatorial trioka) Turkic identity has always been a more complex issue.

'It was an old wish to show how a nomadic culture developed and achieved its goal of being a state,' says Dr Filiz Gagman of Istanbul's Topkapi Saray Museum. 'The Turkic people were always concerned about this idea of statehood--even today we talk about 'father state' or 'mother-state'--but it was only when the nomads settled and adopted the system of passing the state in its entirety to the oldest son, that the ambition was realised. Mehmet II established his capital here at Istanbul but he only achieved political stability by declaring that it was legal, on succession, for the oldest son of a sultan to kill off all his brothers. I should point out that this practice changed in the seventeenth century, the period after our exhibition ends!'

The exhibition was set up by the two friends whose museums sit close by each other in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. Filiz Cagman's Topkapi Museum, in the old Ottoman palace, is contributing 167 artefacts to the Royal Academy. Meanwhile at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, located in the palace of a former grand vizier, her colleague Nazan Olcer is contributing forty.

The two women chose the exhibition's timeframe with a view to emphasizing the variety of Turkic experience before the Ottoman empire shook Europe with its 'shock and awe' military tactics.

'This will be the first exhibition to explore the development of Turkic cultures,' says Cagman. 'During this period the Turkic people were involved with many civilizations. They embraced Manicheanism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and then Islam. The Turkic people have always had two languages, wherever they live: Turkish and one other, be that Arabic, Persian or whatever.'

The exhibition opens with the art of the Uyghurs, nomadic sky-worshippers who rose to prominence in Central Asia at the crossroads of the Silk Route. Although still essentially Turkic in outlook, the language and way of life the Uyghurs are now under threat from the Chinese government. Examples of Uyghur portraiture at first glance seem almost Chinese but their culture is a distinct one whose art reflects their development from paganism to Manichaenism and Buddhism.

'The next group in the exhibition is the most significant group,' says Ms Gagman. 'The Seljuks of the eleventh and twelfth centuries ended up ruling the entire region, Iran, Iraq, Syria through to Anatolia; but they also contributed. They adopted Persian as a language but they retained their Asian artistic side.'

Nazan Olcer believes it would be wrong if exhibition-goers left with the idea that the existence of a common language predicates a 'national' Turkic art. She also feels strongly about the fact that, of the two twelfth-century doors from Cizre ulu mosque which she is sending to London, only one has a knocker. 'These doors are important for Seljukid art as well being significant in the efforts of Turkey in pursuit and defence of its cultural and historic heritage. One of the knockers of this door is now in a European collection, and is the most famous symbol of our stolen artefacts. And the Uyghur part of the exhibition is represented almost entirely with objects from Berlin, taken by the Turfan expedition at the beginning of the twentieth century. There are many artefacts of that rich heritage that were stolen and are now in various museums in the world.'

Adrian Mourby

Rhoads Murphey is Reader in Ottoman Studies at the University of Birmingham.
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Date:Feb 1, 2005
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