Miracle in Divriği: The Heavenly Portal

It is worth having a close look at Divriği Great Mosque and Hospital, the only Turkish handiwork included in UNESCO’s five hundred architectural masterpieces of the world.

The unique stone-carved ornaments seen on the two great portals (the kiblah or the northern entrance of the mosque, and the hospital gate) are the features that determine the universal artistic status of the mosque and hospital. The three-dimensionalstone carvings and sculpture-like attributes of this structure appear to be exceptions to the tradition of the Islamic Golden Age and Seljuk period, which were generally of two dimensional shapes, in line with the Islamic and Seljuk arts.
There are three reasons why I consider these buildings’ stone carvings magnificent works of art: 1. The artistic features of the three-dimensional stone carvings used in this building, which are neither present in Islamic Architecture, nor in concurrent Ecclesiastical Architecture; 2. The unique design of the portal that represents the gate to heaven, compared to the portal designs found in Islamic Architecture in general; 3. The incredible geographical and historical breadth reflected by the motifs on the carvings.

Another feature that makes this masterpiece genuine and unique is that no other work, at the same level of extraordinary expertise, remains from the master stonemason, whose name we make out from the inscriptions to be “Hürremshah of Ahlat”. It is certain that Hürremshah had worked on these portals along with many other master stone masons; however there are some sections where impressions of his distinguished creative dexterity and imagination are quite eminent. Furthermore, the unfinished parts of this magnificent building give us clues towards the master’s methods.

STATUESQUE CARVINGS
The Mengücek Principality was one of the smallest principalities established by the members of Oğuz Clan (Turkmen), who accepted Islam and conquered Anatolia after Alparslan’s defeat of the Byzantine emperor, Romanos Diogenes, in Malazgirt (Manzikert) in 1071. The Mengüceks, who reigned in the regions of Erzincan, Kemah, Divriği and Şebinkarahisarin throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, probably established family links with the Danishmends and the Seljuks sometime between 1080 and 1270. They took part in battles between the Turkmen Principalities and the Georgians; however information about this principality is very limited and oblique. Despite the fact that the main centers of the principality were Kemah and Erzincan, the Mengüceks built this significant building in Divriği, a center of secondary importance. We obtain the principle information regarding the history of the Mengüceks from the inscriptions of the Great Mosque and some other buildings in the area. The most intriguing facts are that the biggest and the most magnificent building of the Seljuk period was erected in this small and fairly unknown city, and that statuesque stone carvings ornament the portals of the structure.

The cultural environment, created by Turkmens who migrated West through Iran, displays a typical symbiotic historical course. After the 11th century, the Near East became an area that went through periods with Muslim Persians with a Zoroastrian past, semi-pagan Turks re-defining themselves, the Arab-Islamic world’s witnessing of the Abbasid renaissance, and Near Eastern Christianity’s assimilation with Byzantine Anatolia, finalizing in a regional Islamic cultural restructuring under Turkish political sovereignty.

The migrants, who flooded the geography towards the West like a river, brought with them Pagan, Buddhist and Islamic beliefs and the crafts and craftsmen of the areas from the East.

The time between the 11th and 13th centuries marked an era of colossal change in the Middle East, Central Asia and Anatolia during the Seljuk period. By the end of the 10th century, with Ghaznevids demolishing the State of Samani, in a platform created by the Karahanli State, and the Harzemshahs and Seljuks conquering Syria and Anatolia,  region experienced an abundance of action that was sometimes even chaotic. However, this activity also created a suitable medium for magnificent buildings and distinctive ideas to emerge. Bahauddin Walad from Balkh stayed in the palace of Behramshah of Mengücek, the Azerbaijani poet Nizami presented his Mathnawi, consisting of five books (Mahzen ül-Esrar), to Behramshah and Hürremshah of Ahlat and designed his masterpiece in a remote corner of Anatolia, all due to the mobility of craftsmen, philosophers, poets and scientists caused by the Turkish conquest of Anatolia.

THE GREAT MOSQUE AND HOSPITAL OF DİVRİĞİ
A distinctive and imposing inscription on the north entrance gate states that the building was constructed by Ahmet Shah of Mengücek in 1228/29 (626 in Hegira). On the hospital’s gate is another inscription that reads 629 (1228/29 in Gregorian) and states that the hospital was built by Turan Melek. This complex, which contains the Great Mosque, hospital and tomb of Ahmet Shah and his wife were all constructed as a single rectangular mass, since the idea of constructing separate buildings for different functions, similar to that of the Ottoman Empire, had not yet developed. The mosque and the hospital were built adjacent to each other. The tomb occupies a part of the hospital. However, its high cupola is emphasized on the exterior as well,as its cone protrudes from the top of a high dome. The great dome covering the kiblah opening, the dome of the tomb, the light wells in the middle of the mosque and the hospital, and the big portals of the structure lend a picturesque and medieval silhouette to this building, which rises from a hillside overlooking the city of Divriği.

Despite the Western portal and the two ‘sah’s on the Western front which were wrecked in the great earthquake of 1509, the Great Mosque is one of the most well preserved mosques of the Seljuk period, with its spatial dimensions, the order of the altar axis, the magnificent design of its maksoorah (an area in a mosque which is screened off or partitioned off) dome, its three-dimensionalbotanical ornaments on the altar wall, which have been unmatched by any other building in Turkey, and its ornate vaults. The covered hospital has a similar authenticity to its design as well.

The Northern portal of the mosque and portals of the hospital have preserved their genuine designs and stone carvings in the Divriği Complex. The demolished Western portal was re-built in the 16th century or later on with a different style, and the Eastern window was built in the mid-13th century in the classical Seljuk style.

A UNIQUE STRUCTURE
These three-dimensional statuesque carvings are unique in design, not only for Anatolian - Seljuk architecture, but also for the architecture found in the European Middle Ages. The North portal is 14 meters high and was built to representing the gate of heaven, based on two abstract tree-of-life interpretations. Moreover, the gate of the hospital is an original architectural design enriched with extraordinary statuesque and atectonic elements. The unmatched design of the stone carvings and perfection in their application are the main reasons why the Great Mosque of Divriği was chosen as one of the world’s most important buildings.
The North portal of the mosque contains two different types of symbolism. The first one is the symbol of Eden, rooted in its depiction in the Qur’an, and the other are the two trees-of-life that encircle the gate like a wreath, which represent heaven. Here, the trees-of-life refer to three palm fronds and a sun repeated three times to form nine palm fronds and three sun discs, iconographies symbolizing shamans rising to the sky, as indicated in Turkish mythology. The 3x3 mounting also exists in Turkish cosmogony.

A VISION OF EDEN
The North gate symbolizes the gate of such a unique garden. However, large and abstract leaves do not remain enslaved by the outlines of the architecture. These abstract, three-dimensionaltrees-of-life weaved with big palm fronds, each one of which is a garden in itself, create a magnificent imagery,  filled with flowers, mostly lotuses which unite horizontally, forming a wreath around the gates. The statuesque vision of the artist surfaces by exceeding all architectural boundaries in an entirely new approach that distinguishes itself from all traditional stereotypes. The large palm frond on the North gate, which jumps over the recess by the side of the gate and flows into the recess, is a prime example of this statuesque independence.

This vision of the trees of heaven, contrary to all traditional ornamental Islamic art forms, which forbids figures, has similar characteristics to the three-dimensional sculpturing found in other cultures. These stone carvings should be viewed as important artifacts rooting from symbiotic lifestyles and the multi-cultural resourcefulness of the resident and migrant communities.

The portal of the hospital can be regarded as a bolder architectural design than that of the North gate. Here, two richly engraved arches, almost leaning against each other, form a frame at the entrance with breathtaking thrusts, almost like successive, oncoming waves.

The portal of the hospital is not as complete as the North gate of the mosque. However, on the façade of the portal, especially in the recess, there are some elements carved and completed in different styles. Among these are the two figure heads that appear on either side of the portal. These are motifs that could only have been seen in that period, in regards to the Islamic tradition which forbids the use of human figures. Another interesting feature of the design is the column which gives an unusual effect with its rich plastic character, separating the window that opens up to the intermediate level from the recess. Windows divided by two columns are seen in the Pencikent pictures of the Central Asian Islamic period as architectural visions. Here, this style was experimented with and improvised upon, and now is the dominating feature of the entire structure

WISDOM OF A STONEMASON
Without a doubt, numerous stone masters worked in Divriği. Among these, the only one whom we know the name of is Hürremshah of Ahlat, whose name we come across twice. We may assume that this grand master who devotedly engraved stones like lacework, and created awe-inspiring design of heavenly gates , was an ardent Sufi like Yunus Emre, Mevlana and Hacı Bektaş Veli, who lived in the 13th century.

The highly talented stone masters who worked under Hürremshah were from different backgrounds; they carved repetitious two-dimensional motifs which were relatively less accustomed to, and the muqarnas details, and completed the carving of the palm fronds, column heads, the Central Asian-style windows on the Eastern front, inscriptions, domes, decorations of the vaults, general outlines of which were defined. These stone masters were sometimes devoted to a single motif.

Ahlat, the province where Hürremshah came from, was the most prosperous and renowned older cities of the era, reigned by a Turcoman family, known as Surmen Oğulları or the Erzenshahs, before it was ruined by Celaleddin Harzemshah in 1230.Unfortunately, there are no remaining Middle-Age structures left in this city. Hence, there are neither previous nor later examples of Hürremshah’s art.

The treasure of Divriği must be preserved as a museum, as a mutual art exhibition of all humanity. The motifs that decorate the portals are small, individual, some incomplete metaphoric abstracts, imagined by a stone master. The motifs are three-dimensional, bearing different depths, where geometrical designs were omitted and consist of organic shapes.

These portals, every square meter of which are full of magnificent stone-carved statues, possess the characteristics of a statue museum. These portals summarize the symbiotic art of the Turks with all other cultures they have been in contact with, and enlighten the mechanisms in the Turks transition from a migratory culture to a sedentary culture. For this, the Great Mosque and Hospital of Divriği must be regarded as a museum that reflects this cultural transition. Hürremshah of Ahlat, whom we assume is responsible for the stone-carvings, has earned his place among the greatest artists in the world.

Though what the lotus flower symbolizes varies greatly across the Chinese, Indian and Egyptian arts, it has always represented creation, revelation and other divine attributes. At Divriği, it expresses the symbolism the artist aimed to achieve as it takes its place at the top and middle parts of the wreath at the kıblah portal.

The mosque and hospital at the Divriği Complex make one block. One room of the hospital is the founders’ tomb while the large polygonal dome at the front hides the absence of mosque and mihrab. The cylindrilical brace, minaret and Western wall were rebuilt after an earthquake ruin in the 16th century.

The western corner of the vaulted room at the kıblah entrance of the Mosque’s heaven portal. This grand and unique composition has achieved to relay an impression of heaven at the mosque’s entrance through its extraordinary design and execution that transforms the Middle Eastern traditional tree-of-life motif into sculpture.

A tree bearing a ring above it (symbol of the sun) has been a tree-of-life symbol since the Hittites in Middle Eastern iconography. The arabesque created with diagonal lines that intersect with the circle and the asymmetrical plant motifs that overflow in certain places are the product of exceptional stonemasonry.

The authentic fragment remains from the crumbled Western wall were later used in the structure. These were the birds of prosperity for Turk principalities.

The two Seljuk figure heads on the hospital portal have been combined with medallions. The medallion ornate with plant motifs was probably not finished. Still, the human figure proves that the Turkish culture surrounding the Mengücek sultans was strong yet.

The Divriği Hospital is the best conceived and preserved structure of its kind among those that have been built in accordance with the covered madrassah typology of the Anatolian Middle Ages.

Its portal does not resemble Islamic Middle Ages portals. It is a composition made structurally authentic through the rich molding of its grand stone arch. The composition of the portal corners reach fantastic proportions in comparison to the kıblah and lose architectural characteristics completely. The stone carvings, made by different hands and masters, are incomplete, though the general design must have been Hürremşah’s conception.

The ornamental palm fronds are decorated as a whole and on the insides with symmetrical motifs. Each palm frond here has been imagined as a garden in itself.

The two Seljuk figure heads on the hospital portal have been combined with medallions. The medallion ornate with plant motifs was probably not finished. Still, the human figure proves that the Turkish culture surrounding the Mengücek sultans was strong yet.

In question here is the revival of a building with hundreds of carvings, some of which are broken or damaged due to eight hundred years of erosion, water damage, air pollution, lack of maintenance and inadequate restoration policies. The protection and revival of this building in the best possible way for the entire world is Turkey’s foremost cultural responsibility.