The Seljuk Han of Anatolia

The Research Trail of Anatolian Hans


The study of the Anatolian Seljuk era, and, in particular, its architecture, is a relatively recent field of research. Hans were not widely known until the past 20 years.

Frederick Sarre, best known for his archaeological work at Samarra, visited several caravanserais during a trip through Anatolia and described his observations in his 1896 publication, Reise in Kleinasien. During his two-month journey, he described the Seljuk architecture he encountered in detail, but did not focus on hans particularly. He visited six hans (Ak, Işakli, Eğirdir, Obruk, Horozlu and Sultan Han Aksaray) and published the inscription of the Incir Han. He drew the plans for the Ak, Horozlu, and the Sultan Han Aksaray. He did discuss in detail the decoration, inscriptions and architectural features of the Sultan Han Aksaray. He seems to have been the first person to describe their various plan types. He described the Aksaray Sultan Han as having a courtyard and a covered section, and the Horozlu Han as being entirely closed.

Roughly 70 years would pass before a more structured and cohesive presentation of Seljuk hans would be written – and what a presentation it is. Intervening scholarship was sparse, but in 1961, Kurt Erdmann, former director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, wrote the definitive work on Seljuk hans, then and it remains so today. He published, along with his wife Hanna, the two volume Das Anatolische Karavansaray des 13. Jahrhunderts, which was based on extensive fieldwork. It presented the first comprehensive set of data on these buildings, and, most importantly, proposed a formal classification system of these structures. His work is a catalog raisonné, and it has fallen upon later scholars to take this data and interpret it in an art historical framework. His plan typology is widely accepted and used in the monographs of M. Akok and T.Özguç, R.H. Ünal and others.

Turkish scholars as well began to analyze these buildings in earnest in the mid-1950’s with the work of Osman Turan and Ozergin. Ünal, in his groundbreaking article in 1978, has published the largest number of monographs on the newly-discovered hans, and proposed his own plan typology system. Starting in the 1990s, scholars began to study hans and their inscriptions, and starting in the 2000s, many excavation studies were undertaken in view of restoration projects which were sponsored by the Turkish government. The industrious scholar A.T. Yavuz was particularly prominent in this area, seeking to expand Erdmann’s work and to recatalog hans according to a new classification system in her numerous articles and publications. Cengiz Bektaş published a work in 1999 which highlighted the spacial pattern of hans in the landscape, and was influential for bringing to the forefront the issues of building preservation and conservation objectives.

Primary Seljuk sources: The translation from Persian into modern Turkish of the work of the Seljuk historian Ibni Bibi in 1996 by M. Öztürk was a major breakthrough for Seljuk studies, since it allowed the discovery of many references to art and architecture, and has provided valuable clues as to the location of hans. This work is a capital primary resource for all aspects of Seljuk research, from history to language. R. Yinanç discovered the Sivas Foundation document relative to the bridge built over the Kizilirmak and the “ribat” next to it, which was the first vakif document to have been discovered. Later, the famed Turkish scholar Osman Turan published the foundation documents of the Karatay, Altinapa and Ertokuş Hans, which allowed scholars to have an idea concerning the administrative aspect of hans. Another important work was published by F. Sümer on the Yabunlu Pazar, the ancient trade fair located near Kayseri, as it brought to light the diaries of Qadi Muhyiddin Abduzzahir (Az Zahir) relative to the visit of the Mamluk Sultan Baybars at the Kayseri Sultan Han. S. Turan unearthed in Italian archives the commercial documents relative to the trade relationships between the Seljuks and the Italians at the end of the Byzantine era. Lastly, the exhaustive work of D. French on Roman roads and markers has done much to present the complexity of the trade routes in Anatolia in place before the arrival of the Seljuks.

Journals, maps and photographs: Researchers are now pouring over the journals of the 19th century travelers to Turkey, which have also proved to be valuable primary sources. Although these travelers were either on site to study classical antiquity (J. R. Sitlington Sterret, Hamilton, Rott, Huart, Ritter, and Oberhammer and Zimmerer), or were undertaking commercial ventures (Kiepert) or performing overt or covert military reconnaissance (Kiepert, Gertrude Bell and Tschihatscheff), they leave us valuable notations. Some, such as Kiepert and de Jerphanion, have left maps, and others, such as de Jerphanion, Sterret and Gertrude Bell, have left us priceless photographs at the budding of this new technology.

In the past 20 years, Turkish scholars, such as A.T. Yavuz, Mustafa Önge, Osman Eravşar and Ali Baş, as well as foreign researchers such as Redford, Blessing and Tavernari, have come to the fore in the study of the Seljuk era and the Turkish han. They have analyzed not only their plans, but have investigated such topics as their link to power imagery, patronage, road infrastructure, commercial aspects, craftsmen, construction techniques and materials, geological conditions, patronage, and their positioning along trade routes. Now, an entire generation of young scholars, led by Osman Eravşar, is active in the research of hans and they have done much to uncover new trade routes and long-forgotten hans. Research over the last 35 years suggests that further research is likely to uncover more and more hans along the routes of Anatolia. Researchers, such as R.H. Unal, are now looking into formerly unknown trade routes, such as those in the Sivas region or in the northeastern section of Turkey which were developed under the Mongols. Due to the research on these trade routes, many new hans have been discovered in the past 20 years. These include the Igdir Han, Dumluca, Burmahan, Mirçinge, Sevserek Han, Denizli Han, Ibrahimshah Han, Melleç, Ortapayam, Tol, Eynif, Sertavul, Kozak, and the Yerhan.

The Turkish government has set a goal to restore every han currently standing, and has completed countless restoration projects. Numerous excavation projects of individual hans have been undertaken over the past few years. The government publishing offices of cities in Turkey famous during the Seljuk era, such as Malatya, Tokat, Aksaray, and notably Konya and Kayseri, have undertaken the publication of serious monographies of their history over the past 15 years, and these publications have added much local information to the study of hans. The catalogue raisonnées of Seljuk monuments compiled by the Konya photographers Ibrahim Divarci and Ahmet Kuş are particularly noteworthy iconographic documentation.

Doctoral theses are now being written on individual hans, papers are presented at Turkish and international conferences, and state-sponsored archaeological research is going full force on sites such as the Alanya and Alay Hans. A landmark exhibit in 2016 held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Court and Cosmos, was a breakthrough for Seljuk studies in the West, as was the exhibit in the TIEM (Turkish and Islamic Works Museum) in Istanbul in 2015 for Turkey. Seljuk carpets and ceramics are now the object of research and publications. Indeed, the long-overlooked era of the Seljuks, always overshadowed by the Ottoman era, is now an established field of academic study. The Seljuks and their art and architecture are now on the map of the world’s attention.

This modest website, created in 2001, seeks to honor all the scholars on this long road, by synthesizing their research into an easily-accessible and general interest publication that will serve scholars, the general public, and the cultural tourism initiatives now being developed by the Turkish government. I hope that this site respects their groundbreaking work and will encourage a non-academic audience to discover the heritage of the Seljuk Turks and this remarkable moment of architectural history.

The trade trail of the Seljuk han is a long one. Starting with the Neolithic site of Alaca, the Yabun Pazar, the Hittites and the Romans, to the opening of the world’s most technologically-advanced airport in Istanbul in October, 2018, Anatolia has always been a vibrant center of trade. The Seljuk Han is a lasting testament to this ongoing endeavor.




©2001-2019, Katharine Branning; All Rights Reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced in any form without written consent from the author.