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The Seljuk Caravanserai in Asia Minor

  • Written by Wolfgang Dorn
The Seljuk Caravanserai in Asia Minor

Without doubt, Caravanserai are included amongst the most magnificent and impressive monuments of Seljuk architecture ever. Also known as “domes of the roads”, the Caravanserai have begun to flourish within the first half of 13th Century and were spread about all along the ancient trade routes all over Anatolia and to the places in Northern and Southern borders.

The Seljuks had fast begun to expand their territories towards the East following their victory in 1071 against the Byzantine in Malazgirt in Eastern Anatolia and established a systematic State structure. Repair of the road network created by the Roman and Byzantines, building of new bridges and especially building of lodgings called Caravanserai, which made trade safer, can be said to be a part of the said structure. The interregnum when unrest was rife had resulted in the trade routes becoming unsafe because of the gangs high-jacking the traders and an economic downfall had become inevitable. The Seljuks entered into an agreement with the Venetians in 1220 according to which Venetians were granted a comprehensive and utmost privileges and freedoms in trade activities, except in trade of horses and cattle. In return for agreeing to pay higher tax and customs duties, Venetians had requested that the trade routes are kept safe to operate.

The new development resulted in an economical prosperity and cultural development for the Seljuk Empire. Indeed, building of Caravanserai was one of the factors that made all that possible. A safe heaven for the traders and built every 30 kilometers (the approximate walking distance traveled by a trade convoy), they were scattered all along the main routes. Konya and Kayseri were the triangulation points of the road network. Distribution towards the East was organized in those two cities.  In addition, the city of Sivas was becoming increasingly important as the connection point of Silk Road, just as it was the case with the connection points starting at (Sinop) the shores of the Black Sea, passing the central location of Konya and extending south to the ports of Antalya and Alanya on the shores of the Mediterranean.

The patrons of those facilities which at times had gigantic proportions were the Sultans themselves. Especially Aladdin Keykubat I. and his successor Gıyasettin Keyhüsrev II. are amongst such patrons. However, members of the court could also build Caravanserai.

The Caravanserai were partially fortified structures with high outer walls without any windows, the bastions and towers at the corner locations. There was mostly a single entry that allowed access into inner section of the structure, which in turn enabled easier defense. At the peak of their operation, a unique structure had been created in the world of Islam. Indeed, Persian samples were of benefit and efforts of Armenian architects must be mentioned.

The inventories that make up those unique monumental structures cover 76 individual complexes. From the inscriptions, we understand that Kızıl Ören Han located at west of Konya city is the oldest of such Caravanserai complexes (1205/06) and the most recent one is the Çay Han (1279/79), located in the town of Çay along Konya-Afyon road.  The most magnificent samples could be said to be the Sultan Hans located in Aksaray and near Kayseri, which were built in 30ies and 40ies of the 13th Century. The magnitude of the largest samples of the Caravanserai certainly mesmerizes the onlooker: With her 1430 m2 layout, the Sultan Han in Aksaray is almost as large as the Dom Cathedral in Köln. Construction of Caravanserai coincides with the beginnings of the Seljuk Empire; the reign of Aladdin Keykubat I., the supreme ruler of his time. Another notable event of the era is the formation of well known Sufi sect (whirling dervishes) by Celaleddin-i Rumi and sons.

At first glance, the similarity to late Romanesque/ Early Gothic church buildings of the sect of Cisterciensis in France is striking. I wonder if there may be any connections.

The signs left by stone masons on the outer walls of the buildings are always in Latin-Greek or Georgian or Armenian and never Arabic. Thus, as can be predicted, the Seljuks have used local architects after they conquered Anatolia.  Of course, I am talking about the ones who did not escape to the West, to France for example, before the Turks arrived. Therefore, those architects who have accomplished their dreams about a large hall, a church like structure was mostly of Armenian and Greek origin. The structural forms and components used can also be seen in 12th Century French Cathedrals. What is significant about the form used here is the design and extreme height of the halls, which were designed to be a space where animals and goods were accommodated and were not functional otherwise.

A prototype of structure of a Caravanserai is a structure with two sections. A larger section of the building (“the winter salon”) rises over a basilica foundation of more than one section and are covered by cradle vaults. An octagonal tower right in the middle of central section forms the peak. Very little light escaped through the cleavage shaped windows at higher sections. An atrium in front of this impressive hall was sometimes larger in diameter or smaller. A cloister on one side and enclosed rooms on the other served the traders and their goods (as well as the services provided widely at caravanserai such as public baths, barber shops and soup kitchens). Also, there were rooms for soldiers and the story tellers. The larger Caravanserai also had a mosque built in the center of courtyard. The mosque rose from a sub structure that consisted of arcs in the shape of horseshoe. The only connection it had with the ground level was a double sided set of stairs. The building appeared as if it dominated the trade activity down below.

Imagine the colorful life that prevailed inside a Caravanserai... The trade convoys entered the structure at dusk. They approached from all directions; fro Persia and Black Sea region, Syria and western shores. After the animals were unloaded, the goods stored, prayers were done at the small mosque and dinner had, everyone gathered at the courtyard. The pipes were fired up, flickering lights of torches illuminate the surrounds and the people began telling their story. Knowledge of things experienced were narrated, places visited were described. The difficulties in the voyage were discussed and advice given. The sound of music urged them to dance to magical rthym and they listened intently to the story teller. The opportunity to seek shelter in a Caravanserai was free for the first three days so some preferred to extend their stopover so as to have a rest. Surely, Caravanserai also acted as a communication port for stock exchange. Traders exchanged opinions on prices and markets, on other traders and work conditions, profits and losses alike.

The artistic furnishing of Caravanserai consisted of doors; the main door and the door opening to winter hall, where pack animals, horses and most of the goods were stored. Sometimes, the small mosque in the center courtyard would become part of the artistic endeavor. The typical Seljuk style lattice work covered the entrances with new combinations each time. Floral lacework sometimes accompanied animal depictions and decorated the entrances that are beyond comparison. There are no samples that are alike. Of course, the Caravanserai and interior design have changed in time. This was partly due to the financial strength of the founding father or the patron. As such, the caravanserai that were located along main trade routes – for example the route that extends over the Taurus Mountains to the southern shores- were significantly larger and imposing when compared to those along the less important trade routes. The largest ones of the Caravanserai were the two Sultan Han in Aksaray and Kayseri and the Karatayhan in Sivas.

When standing in front of the gigantic Sultan Han Caravanserai in Aksaray or when walking about the courtyard and the winter salon, one cannot help but acknowledge Adolf Körte’s statement, who noted in his diary in 1896 “I believe there are no other sovereign who approach the importance of commerce in terms of history of culture in such a grand respect as Aladdin Keykubat I. The said respect can be seen in this structure which exhibits the perfect harmony between beauty and functionality. This is indeed such a structure that can only be constructed on that very short time span of peak of cultural life of any nation”

Partly renovated and restored, today these –non religious- structures are the living testimony to a grand history and are always worth seeing for the traveler in Turkey. Needless to say, such structures as those that are the witnesses of pre-Ottoman culture need to be protected. Because, those structures are documentation to the importance of cultural and traditional values of Anatolia in a context beyond the ages, in the name of trade and culture.

- Wolfgang Dorn

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