The Seljuk Han of Anatolia

Life in the Seljuk Han

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“Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai

Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,

How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp

Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.”

      quatrain XVI, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward FitzGerald translation, 1859 edition


Like an oasis in the wilderness, the fortress-like solidity of Anatolian hans beckoned caravans from a great distance with their promise of security and comfort. One can imagine the joy felt by the travelers when they saw its massive door looming ahead across the plain after a strenuous day of travel in the heat and dust of the Anatolian plain.

Hans were run like mini-cities, and they tried to anticipate every service a traveler could need. It was here that merchants organized their goods, repaired their vehicles, tended their animals, ate and bathed. It was here, too, that commerce was carried out, as merchants bought and sold among themselves along the way. If we try to imagine a modern day comparison, hans were a combination of a roadside truck stop, a motel, and a trucking depot.

Researchers are still undecided as to exactly how the internal space of a han was organized to accommodate humans and animals. Some believe they were kept separately, with the animals in the courtyard and the travelers in the side cells or in the covered hall. Others believe it was a free-for-all, with the merchants sleeping with their animals wherever they could find a space. The covered hall was probably extensively used in the cold winter months for sheltering both animals, goods, and travelers, and the open court was used in the summer.

The number of animals in the hans was probably double the amount of humans, and represented a considerable concern for the organization of the life inside the han. The beast of burden of choice was the camel, as they could carry the heaviest loads and were well-suited to long journeys across dry plains. The camels used were a breed created by the crossing of the Bactrian camel (two-humped) and the dromedary camel (one hump). The ensuing one-humped camel was sturdy, well-suited to the varied climates and could travel far distances, but was nervous, difficult to handle and could not carry loads of more that 200-300 pounds (a Bactrian can carry some 500 pounds). Camels usually traveled in groups of seven (called a "katar") and were led by a pack donkey. Other animals used for transport and travel were horses and mules. It can also be assumed that a number of dogs accompanied the caravans: one need only to witness the vigilance of the Turkish breed of the Kangal shepherd dog to appreciate the security they would have provided to a traveling caravan.

Some researchers have suggested that the animals were tethered outside the han and tended to by grooms and guards. In view of modern sanitary principles, this hypothesis is tempting to accept, as the noise, smell and waste of animals would have been unbearable at such close quarters. However, the animals represented a serious investment and were capital to the success of a merchant, so it is very doubtful that he would have let them out of his sight and left them in a potentially dangerous situation, prey to midnight rustlers.

A full staff tended to the needs of the animals, and included veterinarians, grooms, saddle makers, blacksmiths, and stable hands for mucking the courtyard.

Large spaces were needed to stable the animals, which probably numbered several hundred per night in the larger hans. The considerable size of the courtyard of certain hans, such as Karatay and Incir, are well-suited to handle large numbers of animals. As mentioned above, one can imagine the strong odor and considerable din that such a large group of animals would have made inside the han.

It is estimated that the larger hans could house up to 200 travelers, but this number was probably more modest in the majority of hans. The possibility of staying overnight in a han allowed merchants to dispense with carrying the extra burden of tents, equipment, and food supplies along the way, leaving them more space for their commercial goods. Travelers were mostly men, and of all nationalities: Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Caucasians, Europeans (Venetians, Florentines, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Maltese), Syrians, Egyptians, Persians and Jews.

Cooking was probably carried out in the courtyard, and meals were taken in a communal "around the campfire" style. Several hans have remains of tandir clay ovens in the raised platform sections. These ovens were used essentially for cooking and baking. Bread dough is pressed against the preheated surface, and pots are placed at its mouth for cooking. The French naturalist Pierre Belon, traveling in Turkey in 1553, describes the meals served in hans at this time in his work Les observations de plusieurz singularitez et choses mémorables trouvées en Grece. He describes a simple and uniform menu for everyone, both sultans and servants. It consisted generally of a stew or a bulgar pilav, some tarana (a sort of flour mixed with soured milk, and dried after fermentation) and rice. He says the stew and pilav were eaten all across Turkey, and that rice was imported from Egypt via Istanbul. He relates that meat was cooked differently than in Europe: "When they are finished roasting the meat, they remove it from the pot and then put in the pot that which they wish to thicken the stew." He also relates the Turkish custom of eating raw cucumbers and onions. Another Frenchman, Jean Thévenot, writes in 1665 (Relation d'un voyage fait au Levant) about Turkish food, stating that is is very simple, and that Turks are moderate in drink and food. He describes the pilav: "They put some rice in a pot with a chicken, or some lamb, and when the rice is slightly cooked, they add butter and serve it on a big platter with pepper and some saffron". These two Frenchmen, ever attentive to food, have thus left us valuable information on the food habits of the Turks of the Middle Ages. Both writers were impressed by the simplicity of the food, and how it was eaten in a communal fashion sitting on the floor around a large platter. Although they wrote after the Seljuk era, we can easily imagine similar large cauldrons of pilav cooking in the courtyards of the Seljuk hans.

Despite the efforts made to provide every sort of service to travelers, the comfort provided was rudimentary, and the proximity of humans and animals must have been trying. The latrines were probably located near the stable area, and had wooden or curtain partitions.

The inhabitants of the surrounding villages and the local peasants would have been involved as well in the life of the han, supplying food, animals for slaughter and other services. There were probably few women in the hans, except for women who could have come to work in the han or to entertain the travelers as dancers or musicians.

The administrative staff of the hans consisted of an administrator and a head "innkeeper" (hanci in Turkish), who acted much like a concierge in a modern hotel, directing new arrivals to the various areas and services of the hans. Other personnel included housekeepers and cleaners, cooks, a physician, an imam (religious official), a wainwright, money changer, tailor, cobbler, laundry workers, a superintendent of provisions, guards and police, messengers, and a score of gofers, probably small boys, who carried out chores and ran errands. Like in a modern hotel, there must have been a large service staff of at least 20 people per han.

Considerable importance was given to security issues inside and outside the han. The architecture of the han itself was the primary security measure. With their fortified walls, single opening and iron doors, hans were impenetrable to attack. Entrance via the main door was administered by the head doorkeeper ("kapici" in Turkish) who was seconded by several guards posted in the entry vestibule. Inside the han there were security guards to ensure that there was no theft of goods or property during the night. The doors of the han were locked at night and watchmen took their posts on the flat roofs to supervise the surrounding area. There were probably internal security guards as well, for in order for this entire system to work, merchants had to feel entirely secure from robbery even when inside the han.

It is interesting to imagine life in the han during a normal day. Tired and dusty, the caravaneers would arrive at the door, enter the han, and be taken in charge by the head attendant. Bellowing out his orders, the attendant would direct the porters to unload the bundles stacked high upon the backs of the animals. Grooms would then lead away the animals, group them according to merchant, and water and feed them. The merchants would meet with the other travelers in the han to discuss business and carry on commerce, spreading out their goods and negotiating prices, in a myriad of languages. Commercial alliances and new friendships were formed, with merchants often making plans to form groups to travel together.

At the end of the day, the travelers were refreshed after bathing and dining. All activity would cease at the moment of the evening prayer. Afterwards, the han would come to life. The courtyards and halls no doubt became the setting for a beehive buzz of activity. Story telling, sharing of news, animated conversations, debates, reciting of love poetry by "aşik" dervish troubadours, laughter and arguing carried on late into the night in a Babel of languages. Entertainment probably included board games and performances by musicians, acrobats and bear trainers. Indeed, these hans also served another important, non-commercial feature: they helped to spread news and information throughout the empire. People from all areas and countries came together and related events, shared situations they had experienced, and told of news from their home regions. This news was then passed on to the local villages and towns. In this sense, the hans served as an information hub, local news center and a sort of oral public library.

At dawn, visitors to the han would wake at the morning call for prayer. A scurry of activity would follow as the caravans prepared to depart. Once the caravans were ready and assembled, the doors would open, and the merchants would set out together down the road once more. Those who chose to stay could rest for another two days and reorganize their goods. With its guests now on their way, the han would once again busy itself with the cycle of daily activities needed to prepare for the next night’s arrivals.



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