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Seljuk jars - Glimpses into the past
2002 / November

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.

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Seljuk jars - Glimpses into the past
2002 / November

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, Kütahya became the new centre of pottery and tile manufacture.

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Seljuk jars - Glimpses into the past
2002 / November
 
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.
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Seljuk jars - Glimpses into the past
2002 / November

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 southeast Anatolia.
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 kâsi, after the Persian city of Kashan, a famous centre of painted and glazed tile manufacture.

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Seljuk jars - Glimpses into the past
2002 / November
  The great 13th century mystic poet Mevlânâ 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.
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Seljuk jars - Glimpses into the past
2002 / November
  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
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