The Seljuk Han of Anatolia

Decorative Elements

The decoration of hans, often rich, follows the general inventory of design elements used in Seljuk architecture, with some variations. Wood and tile decoration, banded or striated masonry (brick and stone masonry courses), metal or timber ties to arches, all prominent elements seen in Seljuk mosques and medreses, are not used in hans.

As for other buildings of the Seljuk era, all the design is focused on the main door. These highly-decorated portals can be seen as a stylistic will to convey a message of power and imperial aspirations. As such, hans became symbols of power beyond their well-known functions. In addition, the level of their decoration and service features provide some insights into the social and political status of the donor, as well as his or her financial power.

All eyes up front and behold the crown portal! Decoration in hans is restricted to the stone around the main entry portal and the portal to the covered section. This grandeur attracts the attention of travelers coming from afar. The use of stone carving is the dominant decorative element, especially around the portals. The technique of sculpture in high- and low-relief encourages the vibrant and lively play of light and shadow on the building walls. There can also be an inscription plaque and other carved motifs on the main door.

In many cases, especially in the larger hans, the main door decoration is comprised of a rectangular frame with geometric ornament, often enclosing a triangular arch filled with carved stalactites (known as muqarnas) over the entry door itself. Not all han portals have stalactites, but they are frequently seen. Stalactites are both a structural and ornamental device and are used in much of Islamic architecture. Muqarnas can be used as a corbel to close an opening, as a frieze, as a pendentive and to reduce a square to a chamfer on an arris (a sharp edge formed by the intersection of two surfaces) or a capital. Inverted, it is occasionally used to transpose a circular or multi-faceted shaft to a square base. A similar purpose is served by the “Turkish Triangle”, an arrangement of slender triangles, interlocked and with their planes at variance. Muqarnas are a form of corbelling in which the corbel is set at an angle to the main wall, the edge of the corbel being the furthest projection. This supports in turn similar corbels placed above the first and on either side of it, so that their line of junction continues the edge of the first corbel. The process repeated successively produced a continuous stacking of receding corbels which can be elaborated and decorated to an astonishing degree. It has provided Islamic artists with a device capable of application to many materials, on the largest and smallest scale. It has been used to dazzle and delight the beholder, to display the virtuosity of the artist and the wealth of his patron and in the process has become more peculiarly identified with Islam than any other feature. The portals of the Sultan Han Aksaray and the Evdir Han provide spectacular examples for han portals.

Carved stonework is main decorative element of hans, and is seen as the dominant decorative element, especially around the portals. The side iwans of the main entries of hans are generally elaborately decorated, with small niches surmounted by muqarnas. Column capitals are carved, as are often the shafts. The major carved elements are polygons, stars, ribbons, rosettes and vine-leaf scrolls. Some of the other elements seen include:



Ak, Eğridir, Incir, Karatay, Susuz, Sultan Han Aksaray, Sultan Han Kayseri

Flower blossoms

Eğridir, Karatay, Sultan Han Aksaray


Sultan Han Aksaray, Sultan Han Kayseri


Ağzıkara, Ak, Çardak, Eğridir, Karatay, Kesikköprü, Sultan Han Aksaray


Ağzıkara, Eğridir, Sultan Han Aksaray, Sultan Han Kayseri


Ak, Kızılören, Sari


Karatay, Sari, Sultan Han Aksaray, Sultan Han Kayseri

Pointed arrows

Evdir, Sari


Ak, Karatay, Sari, Sultan Han Kayseri

Astrological symbols


Arched bricks

Ağzıkara, Sultan Han Kayseri, Sultan Han Aksaray

Lambrequins (decorative roof edging)

Ağzıkara, Evdir, Karatay, SultanHan Aksaray, Sultan Han Kayseri


Ağzıkara, Karatay, Zazadin, Sari, Susuz, Sultan Han Kayseri


Animal figures are also seen. The lion is a frequently-used decorative element in hans (Ak, Cardak, Alara, Incir, Karatay) and are perceived as an honorific animal used to depict the power of the Sultan. The Seljuks often used the name “aslan” (lion) in the names of their statesmen, such as Alparslan (brave lion), Aslanshah (lion king), and four sultans bore the name Kiliçarslan (sword of the Lion). Even in Turkish parlance today, the word “aslan” (or “Aslan parcasi”, a bit of lion) is used as an affectionate term of flattery. Lion figures exist in the forms of statues, water spouts, consoles and moldings. Another favored animal is the eagle. Considered a holy animal in Turkish shamanist mythology, it is believed that eagles guarded the door of the fifth of the seven levels of heaven. The double-headed eagle was used as a symbol of Seljuk sultan, seen on their royal symbols such as the royal umbrella (çetr). Bird figures are seen on the Karatay and Ak Hans. The sui generis “Carnival of the Animals” parade of 15 animal figures at the entry of the Karatay Han is a masterpiece and includes birds, gazelles, rabbits, snakes and an elephant. Only three elephants are known to be represented in Seljuk art: here, on a stone from the Konya city walls (in the İnce Minareli Medrese Museum of Konya), one on a glazed tile from the Kubadabad kiln and used in the tepedarium of the Hunat Hatun Baths of Kayseri, now housed in the Güpgüpcüoğlu Ev Ethnography Museum in Kayseri (although its whereabouts are currently unknown), and here in this frieze in the Karatay Han.

In a rare instance, at the Karatay and Susuz Hans, human figures are also depicted.

Lions Ak, Alara, Çardak, Cay, Incir, Kesikköprü
Snakes Kesikköprü, Agzikara, Karatay
Quadrupeds Ak, Karatay
Birds Ak, Karatay

The outer walls of hans generally have buttresses and are topped with crenellations, which are not as extensively used in other Seljuk buildings as they are in hans. The outer walls are reinforced with solid side turrets and corner towers, which lend an aura of strength and security. Although these elements are structural, they do add a decorative element to the han. Carved animal figures or heads serve as water spouts, and lend another decorative element to the outside walls. Spolia, when used, was probably not meant to serve as a decorative element, but rather as a structural one. However, it cannot be denied that these stones add much attraction to the exterior walls of hans, such as the Kadin and Zazadin Hans.

Calligraphy, an important decorative element of Islamic art, is limited in hans to the inscription plaques. In its role as the vehicle communicating the word of God as revealed in the Qur'an, calligraphy is an important aspect of Islamic art. The writing style on the inscription plaques is usually in the bold, blocky and imposing kufic style, which is more suitable for stone carving than the smaller, cursive and more intimate thuluth style.

Tile decoration is not used in the decoration of hans, which differs from other Seljuk monuments. It appears to be restricted only to the mihrabs in the sultan hans. The underglaze tiles generally have octagonal, star or cruciform shapes, with the colors of blue (cobalt and turquoise) and green predominating, although purple, black and white can be seen. The vast decorative repertory and techniques seen on the Seljuk tiles used to decorate medreses (angels, animal and human figures, mythical creatures, painted on a single tile before firing) is not seen in hans. The decorative patterns comprise simple geometric and vegetal patterns used as borders.

In general, the decorative elements of Seljuk art reflect the cultural environment. The Anatolian Seljuk state brought together the design elements of the diverse cultures that comprised the cultural and historical mosaic of 12th-13th century Anatolia. The Central Asian, Arab, Turkmen, Byzantine, Greek, Georgian, Kurdish and Armenian cultures constituted a medley of political, social and artistic ingredients that melded together in the Seljuk cauldron. The symbolism of the highly complex set of decorative elements of the Seljuk Anatolian era probably originated in the many religious traditions of the Turks prior to their conversion to Islam. These include:

Totemism: this religion, predominant among the Turkic tribes before their conversion to Islam, is characterized by a belief in a kinship between an individual and a chosen "totem", which could be either animal, plant or another object. This object became the symbol of the person or his family. Common totems chosen were wolves, snakes, horses, fish, birds (notably hawks and eagles), lions and trees. This tradition is still subconsciously a part of Turkish life today (sacredness of the wolf, horse and lion, the tradition of hanging ribbons in trees, the wearing of the blue bead, etc). The animals, especially the lion, seen in stone carvings and on textiles stem from this tradition of an animal-centered culture. Animals, especially horses, played a large part in the life of the early Seljuks.

Shamanism is a form of religion characterized by the belief that the unseen world of gods, supernatural forces, ancestral spirits and demons is made manifest on earth through shamans, or priest-doctors, who use magic to communicate with them. The shamans wore horsetails during their ceremonies, and this tradition was maintained by the Ottoman Janissary chiefs. The double-headed eagle, which was used as a symbol of the Seljuk state (particularly by Alaeddin Keykubad) is believed to have originated in shamanistic Turkmen traditions. It is derived from a part eagle-part owl figure, and was replicated by many dynasties throughout the 10-15th centuries. This extremely popular dynastic symbol passed on to Byzantium, Sicily, and various European states (Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires). Another shamanistic device, the shining sun face, was taken by Giyaseddin Keyhusrev II as his dynastic symbol. The tree of life motif (seen on the Çifte Medrese in Erzurum, the Döner Kumbet in Kayseri and on Seljuk fabrics) has its origins in shamanism, as well as the stars and other astrological elements often seen in han portals.

Işak Baba, the shaman priest who led a serious civil revolt during the reign of Giyaseddin Keyhüsrev II, showed the enduring hold the beliefs of the shamanistic religion over the population.

In addition, the Seljuks incorporated many design elements from the other cultures with which they came in contact:

©2001-2019, Katharine Branning; All Rights Reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced in any form without written consent from the author.