The iconography of this outstanding plaque is fascinating and extraordinary. A man in a belted tunic is standing on the head of a fabulous beast with a human head, big antlers and two bodies, each with four legs ending in claws and a long curling tail. Four other beasts occupy the leafy vines all around, similar except that they have raptor’s heads, two each side of the central beast, two each side of the man. The man has his hands stretched out to the side, but his relationship with his beasts is unclear.
Curious composite beasts are a feature of Seljuk Turk iconography, brought from deepest Central Asia and connected to its most distant past. In Konya they are ever-present on its old stones. There is a common theme going back millennia – the ‘hero’, Man, struggling with the beast that is his own nature. Very often this is presented in human evolutionary terms, as in Rumi’s famous poem, and on many of the Ghaznavid carved marble slabs. The man here is standing on the head of one big beast, but still has to wrestle with two others.
It is tempting to point out that this is the real meaning of ‘Jihad’. Achieving control over the writhing demon that is the ego. Of course, no one really wants to take on something so difficult; it is much easier to behead people on TV, throw homosexuals off buildings, and believe that you are doing God’s work.
This iconography appears on two related plaques, in the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, and in the collection of Rifaat Sheikh al-Ard in Riyadh. They are smaller, probably harness decorations, but what is striking is how much more conventional they are, even Westernized, in what they show. Each has a princely figure on horseback fighting a serpentine dragon, a design that lacks the mystery and power of this unique roundel.