The Seljuk Han of Anatolia

Daily Life in the Seljuk Han

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“Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai

Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,

How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp

Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.”


-quatrain XVI, The Rubayiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward FitzGerald translation, 1959


Two turquoise-glazed pottery models of a caravanserai, probably from Nishapur, northeast Iran, 12th century.


Like an oasis in the wilderness, the fortress-like appearance of Anatolian hans beckoned caravans from a great distance with their promise of security and comfort. One can imagine the joy felt by the travelers when they saw its massive door looming ahead across the plain after a strenuous day of travel in the heat and dust of the Anatolian plain.

Hans were run like mini-cities, and, much like modern hotels, they tried to anticipate every service a traveler could need. It was here that merchants rested from the ardors of the road, organized their goods, repaired their vehicles, tended their animals, ate and bathed. It was here, too, that commerce was carried out, as merchants bought and sold among themselves along the way. If we try to imagine a modern day comparison, hans were a combination of a roadside truck stop, a motel, and a warehouse.

Researchers are still undecided about what life in a han was exactly like. The only clues are provided by the few remaining vakif documents of hans that have come down to this day. A vakif is a foundation deed written for the establishment of a charitable institution or to build an architectural complex, medrese or han. It also establishes a system of rents which provide ongoing income to support the activities of the building and to provide for upkeep. These deeds often provide detailed information about urban space, property, building design and materials, and the human beings who used them. In this sense, the vakif document for the Karatay Han is a goldmine of information. The Karatay Han is one of the most impressive of all hans; one which had a rich patron behind it. However, we do not have enough information from other vakif documents to make generalizations as to the activities of other hans the Seljuks built based on the Karatay vakif alone.

According to the Karatay deed, every traveler, whatever his nationality, religion or social status, was entitled to three days lodging with food, medical care and other services, all at the expense of the State. To provide these services, each han employed physicians, imams (religious official), inn keepers, blacksmiths, money changers, tailors, cobblers, superintendents of provisions, messengers, and cooks. Perhaps it was only in the large and well-endowed hans, such as the Karatay, that free hospitality was offered, but in the other, more remote areas of the Empire, the story may have been different. It is totally feasible that these smaller-scale hans were built as businesses, and that the travelers were obliged to pay money to stay in them.


Kirşehir hotel business card, 1983


Trust in God – but tie your camel first. – Hadith of the Prophet

Attention was not paid just to humans, but to animals as well.

It is essential to remember that the most significant “customers” of the hans were animals, in terms of quantity and commercial importance. The needs of the animals were of primary concern in a han. A traveling merchant was completely dependent on the animals that transported his goods, so their needs came first and foremost. A full staff tended to the needs of the animals, and included veterinarians, grooms, saddle makers, blacksmiths, and stable hands for mucking the courtyard, which must have represented a considerable enterprise.

The number of animals in the hans was probably double the amount of humans, and represented a considerable concern for the organization of the life inside the han. The larger hans could house up to 400 animals (donkeys, camels, and horses.) The beast of burden of choice was the camel, as they could carry the heaviest loads and were well-suited to long journeys across dry plains. The camels used were a breed created by the crossing of the Bactrian camel (two-humped) and the dromedary camel (one hump). The ensuing one-humped camel was sturdy, well-suited to the varied climates and could travel far distances, but was nervous, difficult to handle and could not carry loads of more that 200-300 pounds (a Bactrian can carry some 500 pounds). Camels usually traveled in groups of seven (called a "katar") and were led by a pack donkey. Other animals used for transport and travel were horses and mules. It can also be assumed that dogs accompanied the caravans: one need only witness the vigilance of the Turkish Kangal shepherd dog to appreciate the security they would have provided to a traveling caravan. Most certainly “han cats” were also kept in order to prevent invasions of mice into the grain stores.

It is still not clear exactly how the logistics of housing animals and humans were managed, but services for both animals and humans were of equal importance.  Some researchers have suggested that the animals were tethered outside the han and tended to by grooms and guards. In view of modern sanitary principles, this hypothesis is tempting to accept, as the noise, smell and waste of animals would have been challenging at such close quarters. However, the animals represented a serious investment and were capital to the success of a merchant, so it is very doubtful that he would have let them out of his sight and left them in a potentially dangerous situation, prey to midnight rustlers. Some researchers believe that humans and animals were segregated, with the animals in the courtyard and the travelers in the side cells or in the covered hall. Others believe it was a free-for-all, with the merchants sleeping with their animals wherever they could find a space. As is a practice on many farms and ranches all over the world, it is not unheard of for farmers sleep in close proximity to their animals, and this too may have been the case in hans. The covered hall was probably used extensively in the cold winter months for animals, goods and travelers, and the open court was used in the summer.

Large spaces were needed to stable the animals, which probably numbered several hundred per night in the larger hans. The considerable size of the courtyard of certain hans, such as Karatay and Incir, are well-suited to handle large numbers of animals. In addition to feeding people, the animals needed to be fed with hay and barley. The mucking out of the stables and hauling in of bales of hay needed to cover the floor almost certainly required numerous hands and attendants.


How to care for a horse, from a manual for veterinarians dated 1220



It is estimated that the larger hans could house up to 200 travelers, but this number was probably more modest in the majority of hans. The possibility of staying overnight in a han allowed merchants to dispense with carrying the extra burden of tents, equipment, and food supplies along the way, leaving them more space for their commercial goods. Travelers were mostly men, and of all nationalities: Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Caucasians, Europeans (Venetians, Florentines, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Maltese), Syrians, Egyptians and Persians. All levels of society came to hans, from peasants to potentates; from sultans and statesmen to military commanders.

Cooking was probably carried out in the courtyard, and meals were taken in a communal "around the campfire" style. Tandur ovens were also frequently seen in hans. Merchants may also have carried their own food with them, but once in a han, they most certainly ate the food prepared there, saving their supplies for the road. The foundation document of the Karatay Han states that travelers were to be given 1 kg of bread and 250 grams of meat and a bowl of other various foodstuffs (grains and greens) per day. As was the custom in many soup kitchens and dervish lodges, halva made from honey was served as a treat on Friday nights. The foundation document also lists the inventory of the kitchen battery needed to cook and serve the guests: 50 large pots, 20 copper platters, 100 large wooden bowls, 50 wooden plates, 10 large, 5 medium and 5 small stewpots, 2 large cauldrons, and 2 large basins. For a discussion of han food, click here.

The campfire and small braziers also provided heating. Braziers are seen in many other Seljuk buildings, such as medreses and dervish lodges.

Despite the efforts made to provide every sort of service to travelers, the comfort provided was rudimentary, and the proximity of humans and animals must have been trying. For a discussion of the various water service elements provided (baths, latrines, etc.) click here.

The inhabitants of the surrounding villages and the local peasants would have been involved as well in the life of the han, supplying fresh food for sale, animals for slaughter and other services, such as laundry and entertainment.

The staff of the hans consisted of an administrator and a head "innkeeper" (hanci in Turkish), who acted much like a concierge in a modern hotel, directing new arrivals to the various areas and services of the hans. it was he who was in charge of all the operations of the han, from supplies, bookkeeping, operations and overseeing personnel. He was obliged to respect any and all particular conditions set out in the foundation charter of the donor. Other personnel included housekeepers and cleaners, cooks, a physician, an imam (religious official), a wainwright, money changer, tailor, cobbler, laundry workers, a superintendent of provisions, guards, messengers, and a score of gofers, probably small boys, who carried out chores and ran errands. Like in a modern hotel, there must have been a large service staff of at least 20 people per han. Again, the Karatay vakif document is rich in details, including the salary scale of the han’s employees.


Considerable importance was given to security issues inside and outside the han. The most important feature of a han was to ensure optimal security for the merchants. The architecture of the han itself was the primary security measure. With their fortified walls, single opening and iron doors, hans were impenetrable to attack. Entrance via the main door was administered by the head doorkeeper ("kapici" in Turkish) who was seconded by several guards posted in the entry vestibule. Inside the han there were security guards to ensure that there was no theft of goods or property during the night. The doors of the han were locked at night and watchmen took their posts on the flat roofs to supervise the surrounding area. There were probably internal security guards as well, for in order for this entire system to work, merchants had to feel secure from robbery even inside the han.


It is interesting to imagine life in the han during a normal day. Tired and dusty, the caravans would arrive at the door, enter the han, and be taken in charge by the head attendant. Bellowing out his orders, the attendant would direct the porters to unload the bundles stacked high upon the backs of the animals. Grooms would then lead the animals away to feed and water them. The merchants would meet with the other travelers in the han to discuss business and carry on commerce, spreading out their goods and negotiating prices, in a myriad of languages. Commercial alliances and new friendships were formed, with merchants often making plans to form groups to travel together.

At the end of the day, the travelers were refreshed after bathing and dining. All activity would cease at the moment of the evening prayer. Afterwards, the han would come to life. The courtyards and halls no doubt became the setting for a beehive buzz of activity. Storytelling, sharing of news, animated conversations, debates, reciting of love poetry by "aşik" dervish troubadours, laughter and arguing carried on late into the night in a Babel of languages. Entertainment probably included board games and performances by musicians, acrobats and bear trainers. Indeed, these hans also served another important, non-commercial feature: they helped to spread news and information throughout the empire. People from all areas and countries came together and related events, shared situations they had experienced, and told of news from their home regions. This news was then passed on to the local villages and towns. In this sense, the hans served as an information hub, local news center and a sort of oral public library.

At night, the doors were closed to the sound of drums and stayed closed all night. Evliya Çelebi, the famous 17th century traveler, wrote about the operations of the han in his journal. The operations in his day must have been similar to those in the Seljuk era. He states: "After dinner, a fanfare signals the closing of the doors of the han. Wardens light candles and sleep in front of the door. Should any guests arrive in the middle of the night, they open the door and let them in and bring them something to eat left over from dinner.  No matter what happens, they never let anyone out. This was the rule of the foundation. Again in the morning the fanfare is sounded to wake the guests, at which time everyone inspects his goods and the hankeeper announces: 'Oh, the Ummah of Mohammad! Are your goods, lives and horses all right?' And the guests reply: 'They are well. May God bless the benefactor.' And then the doors are opened."

However, well before the drums, many travelers would have already risen to perform the dawn prayer. A scurry of activity would follow as the caravans prepared to depart. Once the caravans were ready and assembled, the doors would open, and the merchants would set out together down the road once more. Those who chose to stay could rest for another few days and reorganize their goods. With its guests now on their way, the han would once again busy itself with the cycle of daily activities needed to prepare for the next night’s arrivals.




©2001-2023, Katharine Branning; All Rights Reserved.