Selçuk history is harder to grasp than Ottoman history mainly because at its height the Great Selçuk Empire extended all the way from the Hindu Kush through Anatolia and down to the Persian Gulf. Anatolia lay on its western fringes, and after Sultan Alp Arslan’s great victory against the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 he was happy to allow powerful local atabeys (emirs) govern the area. So the Saltukid dynasty held sway around Erzurum and Tercan until 1202, while the Danişmends governed the region stretching from Tokat and Sivas down to Malatya until 1178. Meanwhile the Mengüceks ruled over Divriği, Erzincan and Şebinkarahisar until 1277, and the Artukids controlled the area around Harput, Mardin and Diyarbakır until 1409.
But the best known of the emirates was the Selçuk Sultanate of Rum (Iconium), which survived until 1307 with its capital first at İznik and then at Konya. Rum slowly swallowed up most of the other emirates until by the early 13th century its sultans controlled most of Central Anatolia from Sinop on the Black Sea to Alanya on the Mediterranean and from Denizli in the west to the shores of Lake Van in the east.
Selçuk architecture is instantly recognizable. Buildings -- whether mosques, medreses (theological schools) or türbes (tombs) -- were created from stone in an austere style that suddenly breaks out in a riot of carving around windows and doors. Mosques were long, low and full of columns, unlike the more familiar domed and centralized versions that found favor with the Ottomans. The Sultanate of Rum invested in a string of caravanserais to link the ports of the Aegean with Persia and Central Asia, the ancestral homelands of the Selçuks. All these structures were built to last which means that there are plenty of Selçuk monuments for visitors to admire.
Sultan Han, Sultanhani
Of more than a hundred caravanserais built to house traveling salesmen and their pack animals, the one at Sultanhanı midway between Konya and Aksaray is the largest covering almost 4,000 square meters of land. It was originally built in 1229 during the reign of Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad I (1219-37) but rebuilt and expanded after a fire in 1278. In plan it’s typical of almost all Selçuk caravanserais with a grand portal decorated with maqarnas (stalactite decoration) opening onto a courtyard ringed with rooms for the men and their animals to eat and sleep and with a mescid (chapel) raised up in the center of it.
Another beautiful Sultan Han, built just a few years afterwards, stands at Tuzhisar on the road heading out of Kayseri towards Malatya.
Alaeddin Camii, Konya
Given that Konya was the longest-lasting capital of the Selçuk Sultanate of Rum it won’t come as much of a surprise to learn that this was where many of the sultans were buried -- you’ll find their graves in the easily missable courtyard behind the Alaeddin Cami on Alaeddin Tepesi, the hill at the western end of Mevlana Caddesi. Built during the reign of Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad I (r.1219-37), this mosque is a long, low shed of a building full of columns but with an exterior that is more decorative than is usual in Selçuk buildings, no doubt because the architect was from distant Damascus.
While in Konya you can visit many other Selçuk buildings, most obviously the glorious shrine of Mevlana that dates back to 1274 but also the İnce Minare Medresesi (1264), the Büyük Karatay Medrese (1251-52), the Sırçalı Medrese (1242) and the Sahib-i Atiye Medresesi (1258), all of them now housing museums. The site of the palace of the sultans in front of the Alaeddin Cami is currently under excavation.
Döner Kümbet, Kayseri
If their caravanserais are some of the largest Selçuk monuments, their conical türbes (tombs), called kümbets, are the smallest. Shaped like tents in stone although possibly mimicking the design of Georgian and Armenian churches, kümbets crop up wherever the Selcüks made their home. There are a particularly large number in Kayseri, which was almost as important a city as Konya, and the so-called Döner (Revolving) Kümbet (1275), built for a princess, has become a symbol of the city.Particularly beautiful kümbets can also be seen in Niğde, Akşehir,
Ahlat and Gevaş.
While in Kayseri you might also want to inspect the beautiful Çifte (1206), Avgunlu (1193) and Sahabiye (1267) medreses and the Mahperi Hunat Hatun Cami (1238) whose hamam is still in business after almost 800 years. Also stunning is the Hacıkılıç Cami (1249).
Kızıl Kule, Alanya
Alanya is such an overblown seaside resort that it’s sometimes easy to forget that it’s also home to two striking Selçuk monuments: the castle (1226 onwards) that bestrides the headland and the contemporary Kızıl Kule (Red Tower) down by the waterside, which serves as a somewhat half-hearted museum. Follow the road round from the tower and you’ll find the scant remains of the last Selçuk shipyard (tersane) dating back to 1228.
Şifaiye Medresesi, Sivas
The Danişmend stronghold of Sivas is home to a cluster of wonderful medreses with imposing portals that typify Selçuk architecture. The Şifaiye Medresesi (1217) is not only beautiful in its own right but faces the Çifte Minare Medresesi, built in a similar style in 1271 even though by then Sivas had fallen to the Mongols, thus illustrating how the “Selçuk” style clung on even after the Selçuks themselves had been written out of the story.
While in Sivas you might also like to admire the Bürüciye (1271) and Gök (1271) medreses, as well as the Ulu Cami (1197), the city’s oldest surviving building.
City walls, Diyarbakır
The great basalt walls that stretch for five kilometers around Diyarbakır may be one of its most dramatic sights but visitors are not always aware that the finest of the 69 surviving towers are mainly Selçuk works, partly carried out in 1088 under Sultan Malik Shah and partly by the local Artukid dynasty. In particular the stunning Yedi Kardeş (Seven Brothers) tower was designed in person in 1208 by Sultan Salih Mohammed who adorned it with the image of the Artukid double-headed eagle.
As well as building caravanserais to accommodate travelers the Selçuks also constructed many bridges to make life easier for them. Perhaps the finest to survive is the 150-meter-long, single-span Malabadi Bridge, near Silvan in the southeast, which was completed in 1147 by Timurtaş from the Mardin branch of the Artukid dynasty.
Çifte Minareli Medrese, Erzurum
In faraway Erzurum the Saltukids were responsible for the stunning early 13th-century Çifte Minareli (Twin Minareted) Medrese which is currently under restoration. Its elaborate facade appears symmetrical until you look more closely whereupon you see that the motifs on either side of the entrance are actually completely different.
The Çifte Minareli Medrese sits in a corner of the city that was heavily stamped by the Selçuk presence. Right beside it stands a far more austere Ulu Cami dating back to 1179, while behind it are three 12th-century kümbets (tombs), one of them containing the remains of Emir Saltuk (r. 1081-1102), the founder of the Saltukid dynasty.
Ulu Camii and Darüsşifa complex, Divriği
Of all the magnificent Selçuk monuments in Turkey, this mosque and hospital complex in Divriği, east of Sivas, is arguably the finest with the result that it’s the one that appears on the country’s list of UNESCO world heritage sites. Both buildings date back to 1228 when the mosque was commissioned by the Mengücek emir Ahmed Şah and the hospital by his wife Turan Melek Sultan, a daughter of Fahreddin Beyram Şah, the ruler of the Erzincan branch of the Mengüceks. The two buildings perfectly exemplify the Selçuk preference for austerity paired with an exuberance so wild that the hospital’s Taç Kapı (Crown Door) has been described as a Selçuk take on Rococo.
The little visited tomb and caravanserai complex at Tercan, between Erzincan and Erzurum, has been very crudely restored but merits a mention if only because its founder, Melike Mamahatun, was a rare instance of a female governor, presiding over the Saltukid emirate from 1191 to 1200 when she was overthrown in favor of her son after seeking a husband from amongst the Egyptian Mamluks.