The Seljuk Han of Anatolia
The following chapter is an extract from the book of essays by Katharine Branning
on the history and culture of Tokat, Turkey, entitled
Tokat Ancient, Tokat Green (publication forthcoming).
Do you believe that stones can speak? I do, and those of a building in Tokat spoke to me so clearly that I dedicated five years of my life listening to them.
The stones in question belong to a caravanserai, or “han” as they are called in Turkish, located in the small farming village of Pazar, famous for its tomatoes, about 30 km outside of Tokat on the Amasya road. “Caravan Palaces” were wayside inns for merchants, and they constitute some of the most impressive monuments built by the Seljuks – and this han was built by one of the most powerful women of the Seljuk Empire. Her name was Mahperi Hatun.
I first set eyes on the large caravansarai at Pazar In 1993 on one of my visits to Tokat. I was intrigued by the refinement of its elaborately-carved portal, so different from the massive “crown” doors seen on other Anatolian caravansarais. As I looked up at the elegance of the flowers and pine cones carved on the column capitals on each side of the door, my initial reaction was to say to myself that this was all so delicate and so lovely, that it had to have been built by a woman.
A gaggle of honking geese passed in front of the han as I stood admiring the main door, yet their warning did not deter me from entering. Although the han had been abandoned for many years and had suffered substantially as a result, the essential architectural elements remained. The walls were in excellent condition, but the roof of the covered section to the rear had collapsed. As I slowly walked through the courtyard, overgrown with weeds and filled with campfire ashes, crushed cigarette packs, empty beer bottles and tumbled down blocks of stones, a strange, but very real, thing happened: the stones of that decrepit, yet very elegant han began to speak to me. A voice whispered to me – a woman’s voice. “Tell my story,” it sighed to me, “Tell the story behind the walls of my han.”
I did not know the story of this majestic han at that time, but I vowed to find out more about it, and I soon learned that my original instinct had been correct. Indeed, the construction of this han had been commissioned by a woman, and not just any woman: it was ordered by Mahperi Hatun, the wife of Alaeddin Keykubad, the greatest of all Seljuk Sultans, the teen who had grown up in Tokat. She was born a Christian and later became a Muslim. “Mahperi” means “moon fairy” in Persian, and Mahperi the Moon Queen shone as brightly as the moon after which she was named. With this visit began my desire to tell her story through this han; yet, as I would soon learn as I started my research, there is virtually no historical evidence about this woman. For if all the known information about Mahperi were assembled, it would constitute no more than three meager lines: the listing of her name in the inscription plaques on her buildings, and several isolated mentions in the works of the 13th century historians Ibni Bibi and Bar Hebraeus. Her name may be forgotten today, but one thing we can never forget: her lasting legacy of beautiful monuments, perhaps the most impressive being this han near Tokat.
The han that Mahperi built in the village of Pazar is, quite simply, one of the finest hans built in the Seljuk era. Yet few people know about this han, and it does not draw huge tourist crowds, as it should. The han is located on the Tokat-Turhal road which crosses the picturesque Kaza “Goose” Valley, less than 2 km outside of the village of Pazar, a meeting place for merchant caravans for centuries. A Seljuk bridge spans the Yeşilırmak River northeast of the han on the same road, which joins with the stunning natural beauty of the Kaza Valley to provide a setting of great charm.
We know that Mahperi built this han from the information we can read on the dedication inscriptions, one over the main portal and one over the door to the covered section. They provide her name, her affiliation to her son and his lineage, and a commissioning date of 636H (1238-39). The partly-broken inscription over the main portal reads as follows: "Mahperi Hatun, sovereign of the wives to kings, commissioned the construction of this han in 636 with the undertaking of Keyhüsrev bin-i Keykubat Mükerrem, the Great Sultan, the Eminent Sovereign, the shadow of Allah on earth, and the Savior of religion in this world." The other inscription of four lines over the covered section is complete this time, and reads: “Has ordered the construction of this han, may Allah bless it, under the reign of the great Sultan and glorious Khan, Shadow of Allah in this world, Giyat Khosrow, son of the fortunate Kaykubad, the prince of the believers, the good queen Safat al-dunya wal-din, mother of the Sultan of Sultans, Mahperi Hatun, in the year 636."
Her name, her son’s name, her husband’s name and a date: the main clues were now in my hands. The han was thus built after the death of her husband, Alaeddin Keykubad, the Tokat teen turned sultan, during the time when Mahperi was the most powerful woman in the land in her role as Sultana, or Queen Mother, to her son Giyaseddin Keyhüsrev II, who took the throne after the death of his father in 1237.
This han is robustly built, comprised by layers of finely-cut limestone blocks of excellent craftsmanship. The han has the classic Seljuk plan of an open courtyard with a covered section to the rear. A rare architectural feature of this han – I know of no other instance – is the presence of an external fountain set into a niche on the front wall to the left of the main door.
This han is also distinguished by the quality of its decorative elements. Look closely and you can see the holes carved at eye level on the corner edges of the square piers of the courtyard, used to tether camels. The room to the left upon entering was obviously the most important in the han, and served perhaps as the treasury or a sort of bank vault for the merchants. A delicate strip of antique white marble spolia, with a carved chain of lotus blossoms, is set above the inner door lintel of this room. The decoration of the han is centered on the main entry door, which contains lateral niches and a frame of arabesques. A simple broken arch frames the door, and a wide variety of carved decoration can be seen on each side: twisted ropes, capitals with vines and pinecones (or perhaps stylized narince grape clusters?), chevrons and lozenges. All in all, this han has a completely different look and feel to it than the fortress-style Konya-Kayseri group of hans: here reigns a feminine, yet strong grace, perhaps reflecting the personality of its royal patron.
Hans were an important part of Seljuk life. The Seljuk sultans set the development of international trade as one of their main goals, and it was as crucial for them to win this economic battle as it was to win those for new territories. The Seljuk sultans realized that financial prosperity was the cornerstone for the society they wished to build, and that this depended on the free flow of commercial goods throughout the kingdom. The Sultans needed to foster a favorable terrain for trade, one that provided a safe and attractive area in which to do business. They rolled up their sleeves and came up wıth a commercial plan with the same determination they showed on the battlefield.
One after the other, the Seljuk Sultans of Anatolia set out to conquer the important coastal Black Sea and Mediterranean cities they needed to establish sea-to-sea, kingdom-wide trade routes: Antalya in 1207, Sinop in 1214 and finally Alanya in 1221. They repaired the existing roads and bridges, many dating from the Roman and Byzantine eras, which had been neglected and fallen into disrepair during many years of constant warfare and earthquakes. New ones were built where needed to link the empire northwards to the Black Sea and the Caucasus, eastwards to Iran, or southwards to Mesopotamia and Southern Iran, joining the so-called “Silk Road”, the series of trade routes linking China to the Mediterranean Sea.
The last step in the concerted business plan of the Seljuk sultans was to create an infrastructure for the merchants themselves. All along the most important trade routes, they built way-stations at regular intervals spaced a daily camel’s pace distance apart (every 40 miles or so). Their architectural program answered every need of the traveler, and, to use a modern comparison, hans were a combination of a truck stop, a motel and a warehouse. As a truck stop, they offered a place to refuel, which in those days meant resting the animals, feeding and watering them, shodding them, and tending to any illnesses they may have picked up. The merchants had the possibility of eating a cooked meal, taking a break from the road, and easing the loneliness of the journey through socialization with fellow travelers. As a motel, hans allowed the merchants to rest for the night in fairly reasonable and comfortable quarters. As a warehouse, hans gave them the opportunity to unload their gear in a safe environment, to store it, sort through it, repackage it if necessary, and prepare for the next arduous leg of the journey.
The building of hans with their adjunct array of social services represents one of the most liberal institutions created by the Seljuks. Every traveler, whatever his nationality, religion or social status, was entitled to three days free lodging with food, medical care and other services, all at the expense of the State. The Sultan, his family, court members or wealthy private citizens established foundations for the construction, ongoing operating expenses and upkeep of hans. These hans were largely responsible for the expansion of both domestic and international trade, and we are very lucky to still have Mahperi’s han with us, for of the estimated 400 hans built by the Seljuks, only a hundred or so remain today.
The day I that stood in front of the han in 1993 and its whispering stones, I formed the dream for writing a novel, the Moon Queen, committed to telling Mahperi’s story. After I decided to write the story of Mahperi, I returned to visit the Pazar han in 2005. To my great surprise, the large courtyard was no longer filled with crumbling stones and overgrown weeds, but with churning bulldozers and forklift trucks. The Foundations Directorate of the Turkish Ministry of Tourism, alarmed by the reports of use of the han by miscreants (those empty beer bottles were a definite warning sign) ordered a complete renovation of the han, which started in August, 2005, two days before I showed up at the door.
I entered the han to find it in complete chaos: bulldozers churned, trucks beeped as they backed up, fallen stones from the arcades were being assembled in heaps by forklifts, and some 40 or so workers scurried about in all directions in a haze of dust, yelling out orders to each other so as to be heard above the cacophony of construction noises. In the midst of it all, the Turkish touch shone through: a young man dodged through the fray balancing a tray of tea glasses, a man squatting on the floor of the treasury room cut up cucumbers and tomatoes for lunch, and a wooden Tokat farm cart painted in a cheery blue with sprays of tulips on its sides stood alongside a modern orange metal dump truck. I stopped to talk with the construction manager and the foreman for the project, and I was surprised to learn that neither of them had any idea what this building was, much less the story behind the woman who commissioned it: they had just been given orders to clear out those fallen blocks. A few workers gathered around to hear what I was saying about the building, and I told them how the masons would carve their mark, much like a cattle brand, on the stones they cut, in order to tally the number carved for their wages at the end of the day. The workers looked at me, shaking their heads as if I were inventing the most fabulous of fairy tales. All of a sudden one of them cried out, “Over here, look!” and excitedly ran over to grab me by the hand to show me that he had discovered a mason’s mark, a real beauty. All the workers then joined in on a treasure hunt to find stones with original marks, and I saw looks of intense pride in their eyes when they found one, connecting them to the masons of almost eight centuries before them.
I returned the next year and found that the han had been completely restored. The missing parts of the portal and its inscription plaque were shored up with bright white stone and the two corner towers were rebuilt. The interior side arcades had been completely refurbished, and the roof of the covered section to the rear of the han, long caved in, had been replaced by a Plexiglas barrel vault. I pushed the door open and walked through the renovated, but still empty, space. The sound of the fluttering wings and cooing of pigeons was now replaced by the popping of the Plexiglas, expanding under the hot sun. Perhaps the evocative spirit I felt upon my first visit, with that gaggle of waddling geese scurrying outside and the overgrown romantic bushes inside was now gone, but instead there was new breath in this han, and I think Lady Mahperi would be happy to see her han surviving and living a fresh life. The renovation of this han allows modern visitors to understand how and why this han was built, effectively passing on the Seljuk heritage to future generations. Perhaps when families now come to eat the famous Tokat kebab in the restaurant set up in its courtyard, they will feel the legacy of Alaeddin Keykubad flowing in their veins. The brides and grooms who will enjoy their wedding banquet here will feel as important as royalty. Children will discover their Seljuk heroes. Perhaps the people of Pazar will feel pride that their village was picked by a famous queen to be the site of one of the most outstanding caravanserais ever built. Perhaps every citizen of the Republic of Turkey will feel the honor of being descendants of the Seljuk Empire.
This is not the only han Mahperi built: in fact, she is responsible for a necklace of seven hans in this northeastern sector of Anatolia, at Pazar, Çimçimli, Çekereksu, Tahtoba, Ibipse, Çiftlik and Ezinepazar. All are in a state of ruin except for the Ezinepazar Han, which was extensively renovated in the Ottoman era. This generous female patron also built the famous Huand Hatun Medrese Complex, the beating heart of Kayseri, comprising a medrese, a mosque, baths and her tomb. When I visited it I was struck by the inscription on her tomb which called her the “Mary of her times, and the Khadija of her times.” (Khadija is the beloved first wife of the Prophet Muhammad). She also built a dervish lodge on a windswept mountaintop outside of Kayseri. Yet it seems her most important legacy is those seven hans in the valleys of Tokat, for by building them, she ensured that this region asserted its economic clout in the Seljuk Empire, and through that, the well-being of its citizens. The talking stones of her han at Pazar have left us her story, as well as that of her era. Listen, and you, too, will hear them speak to you.
There is a hadith, or saying of the Prophet, that comes to mind when I think of Mahperi: “Doing justice is charity; and assisting a man upon his beast and lifting his baggage is charity; and pure, comforting words are charity; and answering a questioner with mildness is charity; and removing that which is an inconvenience to wayfarers, such a thorns and stones, is charity.”
The moon does not generate its own light, but reflects that of the sun. Mahperi reflected the light of her generosity onto others. Yes, it can be said that Mahperi Hatun, Seljuk Queen, did much to remove thorns in the path of wayfaring merchants upon their beasts in her kingdom; here, in the verdant valleys of Tokat. May she and her stones rest in eternal light.
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