The Seljuk Han of Anatolia


Introduction and definition


The architecture of the Seljuks of Anatolia (1077-1307) is seen at its most spectacular in an impressive group of buildings called caravansarais, or hans, many of which still stand today. These buildings and the organization of their services are a testament to the energy and creativity of this short but glorious period of Islamic history. As states the German archaeologist Kurt Bittle in 1961:

"Whoever stood in the wide landscape himself, in front of one of these great hans, will never forget the deep resonance they emanate and will have felt, too, how they are an expression of that High Culture which distinguishes the Sultanate of Konya in the High Middle Ages."

The word "caravansarai" is also rendered as caravanserai, caravansary, caravansaray, or caravansara. The word is based on a combination of the Persian words “karvan” (caravan, meaning a group of people engaged in long-distance travel) with “sara” (palace with enclosed courts) and the nominative suffix “yi”. A caravansarai is also known as khan in Persian, han or kervansaray in Turkish, and funduq in Arabic.

A caravansarai is a building to house an overnight stop-over of a caravan, which is a body of merchants who travel together for greater protection. These buildings are generally known in Turkish as "hans" or a "kervansarays". More than just overnight inns along the road, these structures were often palatial and offered many services to their guests. In addition to their trade purposes, t can also be considered that these buildings served as depots for goods, treasuries for collected taxes, postal relay stops, military lodging, depots for military equipment and military guard posts.

The typical Seljuk han is a monumental stone building with a large, highly-decorated main portal which provided access to an open courtyard and a vaulted covered section to the rear. The outside walls are plain but may have side towers and supporting buttresses of cylindrical, half-octagonal or half-hexagonal shape. In the larger hans, there are gutter spouts in the shape of stylized animals heads. The main portal is often elaborately decorated in carved stone with bands of geometric patterned elements, rows of Qur'anic inscriptions and stalactite vaulting known as muqarnas. Once inside the main door, the visitor enters a large courtyard, surrounded by service rooms (dining hall, treasury, baths and latrines, repair shops and stores). The vaulted covered section to the rear could also have a richly-decorated entry door. This rear covered section was lit by a raised cupola in the middle and small slit windows in the side walls.

Hans constituted the second largest group of Seljuk-era buildings after mosques. It is estimated from texts and references that there were over 250 built in Seljuk times. Today, approximately only a hundred or so remain in various states of repair. Some are intact, some restored, and many are in a ruined condition. The Turks began building hans upon their arrival in Anatolia. The earliest dated han appears to have been built in 1210 by Sultan Giyaseddin Keyhüsrev I, but the majority were built during the glory days of the Seljuk Empire from 1220-1250.

Six of the hans are known as “Sultan Hans”, as they were commissioned directly by the reigning sultan. These Sultan Hans include the Evdir, Sultan Han Aksaray, Sultan Han Kayseri, Incir, Şarafsa and Alara hans. Other hans were built by the emirs or statesmen of the Empire, royal family members, or private patrons.

The Seljuk sultans of Rum, established in their capital at Konya, realized the importance of commerce to the prosperity of their empire. They set out to encourage incoming revenue by increasing the flow of goods throughout their lands. The first step undertaken was to repair the existing trade routes which had served merchants for generations. They had fallen into disrepair during years of constant warfare. These roads were repaired, and existing bridges were solidified and new ones built. The Seljuks then undertook the construction of a network of merchant way-stations along these roads. This network was largely responsible for the expansion of domestic and international trade. Hans connected trading centers inside and outside the Empire, such as Tabriz, Baghdad, Aleppo, Alanya, Antalya, Izmir, Istanbul, Trabzon, Erzurum and Kayseri. These hans were built along trade routes which served the major cities of the empire. One main route led north from Antalya on the Mediterranean coast through Konya and Aksaray and on eastwards to Erzurum, and another led from the Black Sea coast to Tokat, Sivas, Amasya, and Malatya. Hans were constructed at a distance of every 18 to 25 miles, calculated on the distance a camel could cover in 9-10 hours, although this is not a fixed rule. Caravans were led by hard-driving entrepreneurs who often pushed their camels for 15-19 hours at a stretch. Some of the camels carried more than 400 pounds, and could go for 10 days without a drink of water. In some cases, hans were spaced close together (for example, the 4 hans on the short stretch of road between Konya and Beyşehir) or at great distances apart (in the east).

Hans did not serve just the needs of commercial caravans but fulfilled other roles. They probably had military uses, as did their predecessors, the ribats of Transoxania. They served as well as royal guesthouses for visiting sultans and dignitaries, as prisons, dervish lodges, government outposts for the Sultan during military campaigns, temporary residences for the Sultan while traveling to the various cities of his empire, and probably as post offices. They were the backbone of the communication network of the Empire. Information shared in the hans spread on to the entire Empire. State officers, known as "kasid" or "kussad" circulated as messengers throughout the Seljuk territories. The Karatay Han was used by Seljuk emirs for hosting ceremonies, and was also used by the Mamluk sultan Baibars when he came to Anatolia in 1277.

Yet it is in their role as commercial structures that the hans will be remembered. In addition to ensuring support for trade, hans proposed a social services structure. The building of hans and the social structure provided by them represent one of the most liberal institutions created by the Seljuks. 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. Complete care for animals was provided as well, with the larger hans able to house up to 400 beasts of burden (donkeys, camels, and horses). To provide these services, each han employed physicians, imams (religious official), inn keepers, blacksmiths money changers, tailors, cobblers, superintendents of provisions, veterinarians, messengers, and cooks.

Although most hans were built with operating endowments (usually by the Sultan, his family or his principle viziers) to ensure their upkeep and service needs, they also generated the revenue for the State coffers.

The basic functions of hans were thus to provide safety, shelter and services to tradesmen:

Expenses for construction and maintenance were borne by the Sultan, or by other court members or private wealthy individuals who established foundations for their operating expenses. The deeds of trust of these foundations spelled out the guidelines of operations for each han. In addition, the State provided an insurance policy to compensate merchants who were attacked or robbed along the Seljuk roads. Foreign merchants who came to Anatolia enjoyed extensive rights and reductions on customs duties.

There was a frenzy of han building in Seljuk Anatolia during the 13th century, and comprised a homogenous type. The majority of these establishments were built during the period of great commercial expansion brought about by Giyaseddin Keyhüsrev I, Izzeddin Keykavus I and Alaeddin Keykubad, in the years of 1204-1246. They belong to what is known as the "Classical period" of Seljuk architecture. According to contemporary sources (the Danishmendname and Ibn Bibi's Seljuqname), the Sultans themselves stayed in hans, or used them for army postings. Sultan Hans were used by Izzeddin Keykavus and Rükneddin Kiliç Arslan as fortresses, where they gathered their troops of some 10,000 men. Baybars I of Egypt stayed at the Karatay Han during his siege of Kayseri in 1276. Alaeddin Keykubad reportedly stopped at his sultan han on his trips to and from the capital of Konya to Kayseri.

The great Gothic cathedrals of Amiens and Rheims in France were being completed at the same time as these Seljuk hans were built. Although more modest in program and construction techniques than these cathedrals, the Seljuk hans deserve to stand at their side in the historical timeline of great architectural endeavors.

Because so many Anatolian hans stand today, it is possible to study them and formulate generalizations about their plans, decoration, patronage and the road networks of the time. Please consult the section “Architecture of the Hans” for a more detailed discussion.

Although no two hans have the same exact plan, they all display the following characteristics:

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