The Seljuk Han of Anatolia

Origins of the Han  


The Anatolian Seljuks did not invent the concept of the han, but they brought it to a level of practicality and sophistication never before seen. The Seljuks institutionalized the concept of the han and made it a state-supported enterprise. The construction of these hans ensured safety and stability for traders, and, as a result, the Seljuks encouraged their construction for the economic betterment of the Empire


It is not known when the first han was built, but it is certain that most societies with advanced trading activities, such as the Hittites, Assyrians, Chinese, Romans, Persians and Arabs (the Prophet Mohammed himself a traveling merchant by profession), created stopping posts along the roads of trade to encourage commercial activity and to provide security. Post-houses existed in the Achaemenid and Sassanian eras, as well as military camps (castrum) in Roman times. In the Byzantine era, commercial hans were located in urban centers, not out on the road.


Hans were not common in the Islamic world prior to the Seljuks, but they did exist. In the early 9th century, over 20 stations, endowed by the wife of Haroun al-Rashid, were built along the pilgrim road from Baghdad to Mecca. However, the historical and architectural origins and sources of the Anatolian han are difficult to document. 


The first structures we can call hans in the Islamic sphere were known as ribats, and they date to the 10th century. In the early days of the Islamic expansion into North Africa, numerous fortress-like buildings were erected for military purposes. These buildings were located in the western frontier areas of the Maghreb at Mounastir, Susa, Tafertast and Tit. These forts served as of bases for military maneuvers and for the garrison of troops, and later their use evolved into outposts for trade as well.


Ribats were built throughout the Islamic world, from Spain to Central Asia. Ribat-style caravanserais first appeared in Central Asia in the Karakhanid (932-1212), Ghaznevid (963-1183) and Great Seljuk Periods (1040-1157). Researchers believe that these caravanserais originated from the ribat  building form, or, were refurbished ribats that had been abandoned over the years.


Central Asia and Persia were active trading areas well before the arrival of Islam, due to their link with China on the international web of roads known as the Silk Road, which included stopover stations. The Turkish dynasties carried on this commercial activity after they adopted Islam. Some caravanserai-like buildings remaining from pre-Islamic period in Central Asia were also used as ribats, such as the Menakeldi Caravanserai and the Taş Ribat. This was also an area and time which produced many holy men and saints, and these hans also served as lodges for dervishes who came here to spread Islam.


The Karakhanids (932–1212) were very active builders and were the first Turkish state to develop caravanserai architecture of colossal, castle-like dimensions. They built some ten hans, which served as the prototype for the later Anatolian hans. The plans included open courtyards, iwans on each side and covered sections. Notable is the celebrated Ribat-i Malik of 1078 on the Bukhara-Samarkand road, with its monumental, highly-decorated pishtaq portal (a rectangular frame around an arched opening, usually associated with an iwan) and fluted adobe walls.


The building of hans was an important contribution of the Ghaznevids (963-1183) to Turkish architecture. The Ribat-i Mahi near Mashad on the road to Sarakhs was built by Sultan Mahmud in 1019, in memory of Firdawsi, the author of the Persian epic the Shahname. It included a 4-iwan courtyard with a domed area behind it.  


The Iranian and Central Asian (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) hans of the Great Seljuk Period of 11-12th centuries are the earliest large body of han constructions. Ribat-style hans were also built by the Great Seljuks along the main trade routes. There are some 20 known (see list below), of varying size, and all are of excellent construction. Like the ribats of the Karakhanids and the Ghaznevids, they were built with 4-iwan courtyards, and included special small chambers arranged around the courtyard. The imposing Ribat-i Sharaf (1114) on the road from Mashad to Sarakhs is especially elaborate, with a courtyard and covered section, much like Anatolian hans, but here, the covered section had its own courtyard. It included impressive stucco decoration on its terra cotta portal.


Many ribats existed in Transoxiana at this time as well to protect travelers, due to the unstable aspect of this frontier area. This area had not yet completely embraced Islam. Undoubtedly many served as hans as well. Over time, the ribat came to be used for religious and commercial purposes in addition to its original military vocation, and later evolved into the purely commercial hans of the Seljuks.


The Mongols had a system of relay stations. The Khitan tribes in northern China, annexed by the Mongols in 1218, exercised a notable influence on the Mongols. The Flemish Friar William of Rubruck (Willem van Ruysbroeck), writing in 1253-57 on his journey to the Mongol court, speaks of the "iam" or the yam, the system of postal relay stations established during the reign of Ogedei for the conduct of imperial business (XV, 1). Marco Polo, traveling there a little later in 1271-95, speaks of the same system.


Over the years, these buildings have been called by different names in historical sources. European travelers, such as Pegalotti and Simon de Saint Quentin, called them “caravansarays”, the Arabs called them ribats, and the Seljuks called them hans. In some sources, they were also referred to by the term “derbent”, which means “mountain pass” and thus by extension, a guard post that was located at these strategic points. Another term used by the Seljuks was menzil (“halting place”). Ribats and derbents were generally used for military and security purposes, menzils as postal or administrative buildings, and caravanserais (hans) for commercial caravan passengers.


Some Anatolian hans were used for military as well as commercial purposes, as can be seen in the journal of Qadi Muhyiddin Ibn Abduzzahir, who relates the stay of the Mamluk Sultan Baybars in the Karatay Han in 1277. Some Anatolian hans also had small secondary buildings next to thems, such as the Kiziloren-Kandemir, Alay and Elbistan Kuru Hans. Although the exact use of these outbuildings is not known, they probably served as security posts.


It is interesting to note that later in the 14th century, dervish lodges, especially those founded by the Ahis, took on a role of welcoming traders, as is described in the journal of Ibn Battuta.


There are notable differences in terms of function and design between the hans of Central Asia, Iran and Syria and Anatolia. The study of these regional differences will be the subject of work done by researchers and  archeologists in the coming years, as more hans are discovered and systematically studied.



*Great Seljuk era hans and ribats in Central Asia and Iran:

Akçakale Caravansaray (Merv, Turkmenistan), 11-12th c.

Al Caravansaray (Sinjar, Iraq), 13th c.

Anusirvan Caravansaray (Semnam, Iran), 11th c.

Aruch Caravansaray (Agarak, Armenia), 12th c.

Başane Caravansaray (Merv, Turkmenistan), 11-12th c.

Caravansaray near Firuzabad (Darab, Iran), 11th c.

Daya Khatun Caravansaray (Amut, Turkestan) 12th c.

Dehistan Caravansaray (Dehistan, Turkmenistan), 12th c.

Deyr-i Gacin Caravansaray (Qom, Iran), 12th c.

Gardaneh-ye Nur Ribat (Ardabil-Nir, Iran), 11th c.

Hodja Nazar Caravansaray (Julfa, Nakhchivan), 12th c.

Jrapi Caravansaray (Jrapi, Armenia), 12th c.

Kosk Caravansaray (Shiraz, Iran), 12th-14th c.

Ode Mergan Caravansaray (Merv, Turkmenistan), 11-12th c.

Ribat-I Mahi (Mashad, Iran), 1019.

Ribat-i Sahipzade (Herat, Afghanistan), 12th c.

Ribat-i Şerif (Serahs, Iran), 11th c.

Ribat-i Zaferian (Sebzevar, Iran), 11th c.

Taşkale Caravansaray (Qom, Iran), 11th c



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