The Han and Caravanserai of Turkey

All throughout Turkey you can find the remains of ancient civilizations. Mosques, castles, palaces, and entire cities left silent and abandoned. Among all these ruins one of the most interesting reminders of long-gone eras are the remote caravanserai and hans scattered throughout the Turkish countryside. The hans and caravanserai of Turkey were built as a part of the ever-evolving world of commerce. They were designed as fortified inns to serve the needs of caravans and to protect the wealth that flowed along the Silk Road. While their design was first and foremost a practical one, they were also works of art, putting on display the artistry and craftsmanship of their culture.


But what is a Caravanserai?

The simplest definition of a Han or Caravanserai is a fortress-like inn built to host travellers and caravans. They were designed to protect merchants and merchandise from bandits as well as the elements in remote places where water may be scarce, winters cold, summers hot, or supplies difficult to find.

Silk road han
Ruined courtyard of Incir han with the covered hall still standing.


What’s The Difference Between a Han and Caravanserai?

Generally speaking, ‘Han’ and ‘Caravanserai’ are used to describe the same thing: a large fort-like building designed to house and protect the merchants and goods of caravans. There is a difference though. Caravanserai, from the Persian Caravan and Saray (palace), is used exclusively to describe those buildings that were set in remote areas to serve as stop over places for caravans travelling through remote places. The term han can be used to describe any countryside caravanserai as well as the ones built within cities while the term caravanserai is never used to describe a ‘han’ built in a city. ‘Han’ can also be used in other ways such as a historic mansion, a household in villages, or even an office building which is why we use the more specific term ‘caravanserai’ whenever applicable.

Outside of the Turkic world you will find similar buildings called ‘Rabat’, ‘funduq’, or ‘wikala’.

Susuz Han Burdur


The History of the Han and Caravanserai

While the vast majority of caravanserais in Turkey belong to one particular period (11th to 14th centuries) they evolved out of something far more ancient: trade and trade routes. Modern Turkey occupies a broad peninsula-like land that bridges Western Asia and Europe, at times serving as a bridge between these worlds and at other times becoming the powerful center to which trade flowed. Some of the oldest trade routes that we know of in this area date back 4,000 years to the karu or trading colonies, of the Assyrians. Subsequent powers saw the benefits of trade and expanded the networks, upgrading old roads and building new ones; many of todays roads still follow routes established thousands of years ago.

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While the trade routes through this region would come to be known as the Silk Road, they often had nothing to do with silk, and weren’t even roads in the sense that we think of it. In the earliest times trade was focussed on metals, especially tin and copper which when combined make bronze, the metal that defined an epoch of human civilization. While these trade routes did include roads, vast sections of these trade routes were simply open tracts of land with the occasional way point and other sections of this ‘road’ were in fact sea routes.

Over the millennia an uncountable variety of goods have passed over these trade routes depending on the time and technology of the day. Tin, olives, grain, spices, and most famously, silk flowed between the cities and markets of the ancient world, bringing wealth. While trade was important for producer and buyer alike, there was incredible wealth to be gained by controlling these routes.

Ani Ruins Abughamrents
Abughamrents Church with a section of the city wall in background.

Trade routes were not static, but rather shifted with the times, avoiding areas of conflict and following markets (The City of Ani was once a major center on the Silk Road but then was utterly destroyed). Knowing the importance of controlling trade, the Seljuks established a network of trade routes that directed trade to their capital at Konya and connected the land routes of Asia to Seljuk-controlled ports along the Mediterranean and Black Seas. This allowed producers from within Seljuk lands to sell their goods internationally, it gave the Seljuks access to international goods, and, it produced wealth for the Seljuks by way of taxes. Control of the trade routes also had an additional benefit for the Seljuks: it reduced the control that their rivals (the Byzantines of Constantinople, the Empire of Trebizond, the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople, Empire of Nicea etc.) had over this revenue source.


The Design of the Seljuk Caravanserai

The caravanserai was a key part of the Seljuk’s plan for ensuring that caravans passed through their lands rather than by other routes. Caravanserai were built at regular intervals, usually 30 – 40 kilometers apart so that merchants could spend every night in a comfortable place, protected from bandits and the elements.

While they were often beautiful, they were first and foremost practical buildings with tall, thick walls of stone, a single door, and only narrow slits for windows. Obruk Han, for example, is particularly castle-like, with turrets along its length and crenelations above its gate house. Safety wasn’t the only thing the Seljuk Caravanserai had to offer though. A typical caravanserai would have raised platforms for the loading and unloading of animals, a hamam, or bathhouse, for washing, a small mosque, kitchens, a blacksmith and craftsmen to repair gear, and even luxury rooms set aside for distinguished guests. Many caravanserai consisted of two sections: an outer courtyard surrounded by an arcade of covered vaults, and an inner hall. With hot summers and winters of driving snow, these different sections allowed guests and animals to remain comfortable during their stay no matter the season.

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The Seljuk caravanserais of Turkey reflect the art and architecture of the Seljuks and the wealth of the caravanserai’s benefactor. Karatay Caravanserai, and Zazadin Han were build by influential viziers and reflect their wealth, the Sultan Han of Aksaray is arguably the finest in Turkey and was commissioned by the sultan.

Sultanhanı Ext Entrance
The main entrance into the fort-like Sultanhan caravansarai

Most caravanserai were built relatively plain, with ornamentation being limited to the grand entrances, or ‘crown portals’ on the exterior of the main entrance as well as the entrance into the covered hall. The grandest crown portals consisted of a large flat façade, engraved with fine geometric patters and angular knotwork. Above the door itself would be a high pointed vault of muqarnas, or stalactite vaulting. Less ornate entries would often use a segmental vault nested beneath a high pointed arch, though even these would sometimes be decorated with engraved patterns or alternating layers of coloured stone. Karatay Han is particularly interesting with its pair of interlaced dragons carved into the back of the crown portal and Incir Han, stands out as a unique piece of architecture with its scalloped vault above the entrance to the covered hall.

Sultandağı Ishaklı Caravanserai

While the entrances tend to be the main places to find ornamentation, some caravanserai were also built with ornate raised mosques in the courtyard. Some were cubes on sets of raised vaults, decorated with fine mihrabs and patterns in the vaulting.

Zazadin Han

While the covered halls of the Seljuks caravanserai were often more impressive than beautiful, many were topped with fine ‘kümbet’, a cupola structure usually consisting of an octagonal pyramid on top of an octagonal drum (though other Seljuk kümbets could be circular, dodecagonal, ribbed, or fluted. See the Ahlat Kümbets, Amasya’s Gökmedese, Karaman’s Alaettin Tomb, and even the Tomb of Rumi for some interesting examples of unique Seljuk era kümbets). These kümbet allowed light to enter the center of the hall through windows in the drum and acted like chimneys, drawing smoke out of the otherwise closed space of the hall. While there were no purpose-built kitchens in many Seljuk caravanserai, there would have been some fires cooking and heating in the hall.


The Han and Caravanserai After the Seljuks:

By the end of the 13th century the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum had fragmented into a handful of semi-independent Beyliks, or principalities. This collapse of central authority combined with the instability plaguing much of western Asia at the time brought about a sharp decline in trade and wealth which in turn ended the practice of building grand caravanserai.

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While caravanserais were still built, they were small and simple, without the ornate artistry of the Seljuk buildings. See Çakırsazhan and Eğret Han as examples of Beylik period caravanserais.

Çakırsaz Caravanserai Han Kütahya
The entrance to the rather diminutive Çakırsaz Caravanserai.

The Ottomans would pick up the practice of building caravanserai, though their designs were a significant departure from those built previously. The Ottoman caravanserais were large, less cohesive, and less castle-like than those that came before. The caravanserais at Döğer and Payas are a collection of buildings. In the case of Payas there is a separate castle, a semi attached hamam and mosque, a bedestan, or market, as well as a more typical caravanserai space.

Hatay Antakya Payas Castle Caravanserai courtyard
The courtyard of the Payas caravanserai.

While the Ottomans built relatively few caravanserai in the countryside, they did build numerous hans within cities. The town of Merzifon, cities of Amasya, Bursa, Istanbul, Afyon, and Erzurum are all home to examples of the Ottoman han, with Bursa and Istanbul being home to numerous and particularly grand examples. The Ottoman hans were often built with a bedestan, or market for high-value goods, nearby so that merchants could conduct business near the han they were staying in.


What makes the hans and caravanserais of Turkey so interesting is not just that they are fascinating individual buildings, but the fact that they are each connected as a part of a vast network that stretched over thousands of kilometers and thousands of years. Caravanserais were an evolution of the Assyrian Karu, and the Persian ‘Royal Stations’, designed to make trade easier and more profitable. A goal that our modern markets and shipping networks are still striving towards today.


Seljuk Caravanserai:

Çakallı Taşhan

Hanabad Çardakhan Caravanserai

Ertokuş Caravanserai

Incir Han

Sahipata (Sultandagı) Caravanserai


Susuzhan Caravanserai

Sultanhanı (Kayseri)

Sultanhanı (Aksaray)

Karatay Caravanserai

The City of Ani (There is some politicized debate on whether some of these buildings were built as caravanserai or not)

Behramşah Complex (this ruin may have been a madrasah or a small caravanserai, there doesn’t seem to be much consensus.)


Beylik Period Caravanserai:

Eğret han Caravanserai

Çakırsazhan Caravanserai


Ottoman Caravanserai and Urban Hans:

Payas Sokullu Mehmet Paşa Complex

Döğer Caravanserai

Merzifon Han

Bursa Han district

Istanbul Grand Bazaar and Tahtakale neighbourhood is full of large hans.

Amasya Han

Afyon Taşhan