The Seljuk Han of Anatolia



In one of the best tales of the Arabian Nights, Maruf the Cobbler found himself daydreaming of his own fabulous caravan of riches. Destitute and almost friendless in an alien land, Maruf at first mentally conceived – and then described – an unbelievably valuable cargo on its way to him. Instead of leading to exposure and disgrace, this idea was the foundation of his eventual success. The imagined caravan took shape, became real for a time – and arrived.

May your caravan of dreams, too, find its way to you.   -Idries Shah



Commerce only works if both sides of the deal are happy and get their needs satisfied. It is certain that there were some very satisfied customers along the routes across Anatolia and beyond.

After the establishment of the Anatolian Seljuk state in the 12th century, the Seljuk sultans placed special importance on the development of trade. In this context, the Seljuks conquered important ports, signed agreements with foreign trade agencies, introduced an insurance system for merchandise and founded caravanserais on different trade routes. Trade took place on land and on sea and opened a new era of economic development.

Trade meant not only business, but diplomacy, as it established a bridge between the Christian and Muslim populations of Turkey at this time, and restored relations after the upheaval of the Crusades. Trade was not just hard goods, but “soft diplomacy” goods as well: These roads were not only the pathways of trade, communication, development, and cultural exchange: oh, if those han stones could speak about all that was discussed and shared in their walls!


Local manufacture of goods was highly encouraged by the Seljuks. The Christian Greek and Armenian businessmen and merchants present in Anatolia at the arrival of the Turks were allowed to continue working in their towns. They formed an active sector of economic importance in the areas of metalwork, textiles, and construction, and even taught these trades to the Seljuks. Towns and market places grew up around the hans, such as at the Karatay, Pazar and Ezinepazar Hans. Ibni Bibi speaks of the houses around the Zazadin Han, so we know that locals must have benefitted as well from the goods brought in on the caravans. By the second quarter of the 13th century, the Seljuks had become an export nation, although they still imported more that they exported. They also developed many local industries and traded their own goods among the cities of the Empire. These industries included the production of alum and refined sugar. 

Parallel to this mercantile activity inland was an extensive shipping trade, based in the ports of Antalya and Alanya on the Mediterranean and in Sinop (1214) and Suğdak (1225) on the Black Sea. The capture of Antalya in 1207 had signaled a major triumph for the Seljuks, as it opened trade with Europe. The capture of Alanya in 1221 by Alaeddin Keykubad was an even greater asset, as the natural harbor provided the opportunity to set up a naval base in addition to the establishment of commercial activities, notably with Venice, Florence and France. The conquest of these ports stimulated the development of trade in Anatolia. Trade flourished between the Seljuks and other states, such as the Venetians, the Genoese and the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus. Many of the items traded eventually made their way to Europe as well, transported by the Latins and Byzantines from the maritime ports of Antalya, Alanya and Sinope.

Major trading originated in the inland Seljuk cities of Konya, Sivas and Kayseri, and was often handled in these urban centers by Greeks and Armenians. In a later time, the Venetians and merchants of Constantinople set up elaborate trade agreements, notably for luxury items such as textiles and gems. Trade was also maintained with the east to Syria and Iraq, as well as with the Kipchak Empire of Southern Russia via the active port of Sinop.

The trade currency was the dirrhem, generally struck with the reigning Sultan's name, and sometimes with elaborate symbols, such as a horseman, star, sun, lion, or crescent. Most of the coinage was minted in Konya, in copper, silver and gold. Some of the royal claimants to the throne contrived to mint coins bearing their own names. At the time of Alaeddin Keykubad, the currency issued by the Caliph of Baghdad, the Fatimids, the Beys of Aleppo and the Italian florin were all accepted as legal tender throughout the sultanate. Also employed as a banking exchange was the informal transfer system known as the hawala, the Arabic word for trust. Money was deposited in one place, its sum and availability communicated to the desired party, who then picked it up at a more convenient place or at the end of his journey. Large sums of money were transferred by trust, a handshake and a code word. This system was used by the Chinese, who called it fei qian, or "flying money". It was extensively used by Islamic traders as a means to avoid robbery along the deserted and isolated trade routes. It is still in use today in the Middle East.

Patterns of trade varied. Merchants bought and sold along the way, bumble-bee style. This style of calling at port of calls along the way was similar to the circuit trade pattern known as "tramping" in the marine trade of vessels in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas in the Late Bronze Age.  Merchants could also drive convoys of goods to a specific client, urban market or port of call. Trade was carried out inside hans as well, where merchants could meet with local clients and negotiate prices and orders.

The pack animals used for trade were camels, as they were perfectly adapted to local geographic conditions, and were the most efficient of all animals for speed, endurance and load capacity. Those used were a breed combining the dromedary (one hump) camel with the sturdier eastern Bactrian race (two-humps). They could carry some 250 pounds on their backs and could cover some 20 miles a day. A camel train (called a "katar") was comprised of little groups of 7 camels led by a donkey, and could transport a ton of goods between Konya and Kayseri in approximately 10 days. Time is money, but so is load capacity. The more a camel could carry, the more money the merchant could make; thus the advantage of staying in hans and not having to load the camel with baggage, texts, gear and food. The less gear the camel carried, the load capacity for marketable goods could be increased and more efficiently turn higher profits.


Metals: It’s all about tin, not silk! …. Everyone talks of the Silk Road, but in truth, the Anatolian trade route should have been called the “Tin Road”. The exporting of copper and the importing of tin was the cornerstone of trade in this area. An established tradition of metal mining and metal working existed in Anatolia since antiquity, handed down from the Ugarits and Hittites. Many peoples in the ancient world were attracted to Anatolia, and there are several reasons for this. It offered a natural land-bridge setting for incursions of people. In addition, it was a source of important raw materials, such as timber and agricultural products of all kinds. The arid, treeless steppe country of central Anatolia today was more forested in ancient times. Yet the real attraction of Anatolia was the abundance of the mineral wealth with which the advance of civilization became increasingly necessary. Anatolia thus took great economic and political importance in the history of the ancient Middle East due to metals.

Anatolia was an area of vital importance in human development in the Neolithic period, even before the development of metalworking. Tools of flint and obsidian were used to make cultivating tools, as can be seen at the Neolithic site of Çatal Höyük near Konya (7000-5600 BC). The inhabitants of Çatal Höyük were also acquainted with the use of other local materials. Already before 7000 BC at Çayönü, close to the rich Ergani Maden copper mines near the modern day city of Elaziğ, native copper was being cold-hammered into tools and pins, and there are signs of heat being used in a quenching process. Before 6000 BC, the local smithies of Çatal Höyük had mastered the technique of smelting, as can be seen in the trinkets found on the site.

The Anatolian mountains were the principal source of metal and of metallurgical techniques to the Mesopotamian world. With the increased importance of metal technology, the north-central and north-western parts of Anatolia, rich in metal deposits, were increasingly developed and settlements began to grow and prosper in the Chalcolithic era, such as Hacilar near Burdur and Acem Höyük near Aksaray (latter part of the third millennium BC). Although their economies were based on agriculture, the real wealth of these city states resided in their metals and metal products: Anatolia became the Bronze Age powerhouse around 2600-2300 BC. People wanted to trade in Anatolia’s metals, and this created the important period known as the Assyrian merchant colonies Period.

No site offers more evidence of the intense trade activity between Assyria and Anatolia than the famous trade post of Kanesh (Kültepe) near Kayseri. Around 1940 BC, merchants from Assyria were found here. Excavations have proven that Kanesh was a trading post with one quarter filled with merchants’ housing, and the large quantities of business correspondence written on clay tablets found here tells the story. And this story is that the Assyrians wanted metals. The Assyrians clearly wanted silver, gold and copper, and what they gave in return was woolen cloth, made up into clothing of various types, and a metal which was most probably tin.

The quest for tin formed the whole backbone of the Anatolian trade routes. Anatolia, although rich in minerals and with plentiful copper mines, was tin-poor. There was not enough local tin to sustain a developing Bronze Age economy (bronze is comprised of a mixture of about 10-12% tin and copper), so it had to be imported. Trade in tin certainly played a considerable part in economic life for certain. But the big dollar question is: Where did the Assyrians get the tin they traded?

Around 1780 BC, for reasons to this day not understood, the Assyrian trade connection with central Anatolia came to an abrupt end. At this time, the Hittites made their appearance, and soon grew into the most powerful empire of the Middle East. From their capital at Boğazköy near modern Yozgat, they led military campaigns to the west, south to Aleppo, and battled with the local dynasties and Pharaonic Egypt for supremacy. Although researchers have learned much about the history of this kingdom, the perplexing question of the tin source remains. Where did this tin, widely used in the manufacture of bronze, the glory of ancient Anatolia, come from? There is no clear indication of any source in the area from which it could have come. The tin which was used in the Mediterranean basin, Anatolia, western Iran and Mesopotamia had to come from somewhere, but where? Such far-flung suggestions have been the desert of Egypt, Thailand and Malaysia, Cornwall, Bohemia, or perhaps a source in Anatolia which was exhausted and thus unknown today. In recent years, a new possibility has emerged with the discovery of major tin deposits in Afghanistan. It may be thus that Afghan tin was brought overland to Assur, or that it was carried south to the coast and then brought by ship up the Arabian Gulf to the Mesopotamian ports, where it was loaded on to donkeys for transport north to the trade networks of Anatolia. The tin trade into Anatolia remains one of the great mysteries of economic development of the ancient world.

Alum: Hard and heavy metals were exported and imported, but another major trade commodity was used for a softer product: textiles. This product was alum, one of the most important goods exchanged in the Middle Ages. Many hans were built to facilitate the transport of alum from the mines around Afyon to the port of Antalya, where it was then exported to Europe. Alum, an essential mordant for dyeing wool (it fixed the dye to the wool so the colors would not run) and in tanning, was a particularly important export for the Seljuks. The cloth of the robes of the medieval Kings and Popes of Europe were woven with thread treated with Turkish potassium alum. The alum mines of Egypt were almost exhausted by the start of the 13th century and thus the alum mines in Seljuk Anatolia became important sources for alum. The tax revenue on alum and the monopoly of its export belonged to the Seljuk Sultanate. History records show that for one year this alum monopoly was sold to a partnership of a Genovese and a Venetian merchant, then bitter trade rivals, who then jointly ran the alum monopoly in the Seljuk territory. In the 13th and 14th centuries, caravans of camels loaded with alum moved down the roads, from han to han until they reached the port of Antalya where the alum was loaded onto ships. Today, alum in still used in baking powder and for pickling.

In addition to the tin, copper and alum mentioned above, what exactly was sold along these routes? What was unloaded from the tired camels tethered at the end of the day in the courtyards of the great Anatolian hans?

What did the Seljuks export?

·       alum

·       sugar from the refineries of Alanya

·       soap

·       wool

·       saffron

·       sesame

·       nutgall (used in medecine and dyes)

·       wax

·       mohair

·       spices

·       thoroughbred horses

·       livestock

·       produce: fruits (notably apricots), grains, olives, wheat, and salted fish

·       carpets

·       cotton textiles

·       dried wheat

·       chemical and mineral compounds: salt, borax, and yellow arsenic orpiment ("King's yellow"; arsenic trisulfide pigment, for dyes and paints).

·       metals: silver, lead, zinc, copper, iron

·       lapis lazuli

·       leather, wool, mohair

·       gum Arabica, pine resin, timber, charcoal

·       slaves, taken captive in war or raid, usually supplied by the Kipchaks. Slaves appeared to be the most valuable commodity of the Black Sea route. The Seljuks were the middlemen in the trade of slaves. Circassians and Kipchaks of Southern Russia were sold in the great markets of the Crimea to the Egyptians, who imported them to become Mamluk slave servants.

·       Mail and documents of official and governmental nature were also transported along these routes.

The imports of the Seljuk Empire included:

·       tin

·       spices, arms and cotton from Egypt

·       glue

·       wine

·       linen

·       light-weight woolens, delicate silks, musk, ambergris and other perfumes from Baghdad

·       glass from Syria and Iraq

·       cobalt from Iran

·       fine silk, pearls, paper, sandalwood, gun powder, jade, lacquer and porcelain from China

·       gems from Central Asia

·       black pepper, gems, gold and silver ingots, pharmaceutical products and aromatics from India

·       thoroughbred horses from Georgia

·       slaves, Caspian caviar and furs from the Caucasus and Southern Russia.





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