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. Hans were built by the Great Seljuks in Iran and Central Asia before the settlement of Turks in Anatolia, and before that, other societies had erected similar buildings.

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 Byzantine and Roman times.

Hans were not common in the Islamic world prior to the Seljuks. 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, dating from the 10th century, were located in the western frontier areas of the Maghreb at Mounastir, Susa, Tafertast and Tit. They were known as ribats (fortresses). These forts served as of bases for military maneuvers and for the garrison of troops, and were 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 caravansarais originated from the ribat building form, or, were refurbished ribats that had been abandoned over the years. 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. There are some 20 known (see list below), of varying size, and all are of excellent construction.

The Karakhanids, very active builders, were developers of caravansarai architecture of colossal dimensions. They built some ten hans, which served as the prototype for the later Anatolian hans. The plans included open courtyards, iwans 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 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 Shahname. It included a 4-iwan courtyard with a domed area behind it.  

Ribat-style hans were also built by the Great Seljuks along the main trade routes. 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 double courtyard and impressive stucco decoration.

Many ribats existed in Transoxiana at this time as well to protect travelers, due to the unstable aspect of this frontier area. This area was not yet thoroughly Islamicized. 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.

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 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 caravansarais (hans) for caravan passengers.

However, some Anatolian hans were also 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 out buildings, such as the Kuruçeşme Kandemir, Alay and Elbistan Kuru Han 1. 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 the role of welcoming traders, as is described in the journal of Ibn Battuta.



*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 Mah (Mashad, Iran), 11th c.

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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