Why Caravanserais in Turkey Are Historically and Socially Important
A recent Turkish newspaper article has recently published welcoming news that the much-admired 787-year-old Han Abad Caravanserai of Turkey, also called Cardak Han, will open for tourism after a 2-year restoration project restores it to as much of its former glory as possible.
Sitting in the Denizli region near the famous natural landmark of Pamukkale, it is the largest ancient caravansary in Aegean Turkey. Built in 1230, the unique Turkish Islamic structure has an original land registry certification, although its purpose deviated during the Turkish War of Independence from 1919 to 1923 when locals used it to store grain.
After its abandonment, it was hardly mentioned and rarely appeared in articles or books about Turkish history. However, the attempt to bring it back into the public’s eye is not the only development for the historical caravanserais in Turkey.
In 2000, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism submitted the Seljuk Caravanserais from Denizli to Dogubeyazit to UNESCO for consideration to the World Heritage list. Approximately 40 caravanserais sit in the Denizli to Dogubeyazit route running from the west of Turkey, across the Anatolian plains to the east. Some of them like Akhan, Obruk, Sultan, and Mamahatun are excellent preserved.
The United Nations Organization aims to preserve the education, scientific and cultural values of our history and they accepted the application because the caravanserais in Turkey not only played a huge part in social roles of the Seljuk era but were also a prime example of the most elegant Seljuk architecture ever built.
About the Seljuk Caravanserais in Turkey
The Anatolian Seljuks, also known as the Sultanate of Rum ruled from 1077 to 1307 and are an important part of Turkish and Islamic history. Their capital was current day Konya in the heart of central Anatolia, near the famous tourist region of Cappadocia.
Realising the strategic importance of the land they ruled, they built and supported the concept of caravanserais in Turkey as a way of increasing travel through their region and in turn, receiving income from taxes.
Crediting their origins to the nomadic lifestyle of early Turkish tribes, UNESCO cites the transition of these establishments from places of charity to fully established inns offering a variety of services to travelling groups and solo salespeople.
Everything was taken care of in these caravanserais including accommodation, food, washing facilities, treatment and care of animals, security and protection from bandits, medical aid, places to prayer as well as areas to do business.
A unique aspect is that caravansaries were strategically placed between the points that a person could travel in one day. The distance between them was called “menzil” merely meaning one day’s travel, which averaged 30 kilometres over a 6-hour period.
Including the manager, many other people worked within a caravansary including blacksmiths, tailors, cobblers, and veterinarians. Many workers from surrounding villages of an individual caravansary were exempt from paying taxes in return for their time.
Caravansaries are also sometimes referred to as Hans however they were typically built in large cities while caravansaries were in rural, remote locations, along trading routes between cities. Caravansaries also played a crucial part in the smooth running of the old silk route running from the east to Europe. While the Seljuks did not invent the concept of caravansaries, they are most notably renowned for their excellent caravansary architecture that paid immense attention to detail.
Two common architecture themes of all caravanserais in Turkey are the open courtyard, and one single entrance gate with elaborate decoration on the surrounding stones. Otherwise, constructors typically built them in a rectangular or square shape, with thick and high walls to prevent robbers and bandits from invading.
The entrance was typically large allowing animals such as camels laden down with goods to pass through. With large travelling groups, there could be upwards of seven camels to attend to, and this is where experts cannot agree.
The layout of caravansaries has made it hard to decide if there were separate quarters for the animals or whether they stayed with their owners. Previous suggestions said animals were tied up to the outside walls of the caravansary, but not everyone agrees because bandits could have stolen them or wild animals could have attacked them. Animals like camels were expensive and a crucial part of transporting goods across the countryside.
You do not have to be an expert in Seljuk architecture, to admire the social importance of caravanserais in Turkey. From security guards manning the portal entrance to cooks feeding hungry travellers, to the humble salesman transporting his spices, textiles or other items for sale, the caravansaries bought people from everywhere together.
They exchanged information, told stories, laughed and joked and discussed trends in different languages. Business deals were made and broken in the ancient caravansaries and friendships and business associations formed by people who never would have met each other in any other circumstance.
They were much more than a place to rest your head at night. These pinnacle landmark buildings enabled ancient trading routes across the world to survive and thrive. Hence, they are a profound insight into the social and cultural history of current day Turkey.
The Cappadocia region of Turkey is an ideal place to start exploring the ancient caravanserais. On the outskirts are some of the biggest and best preserved like Sultanhan, on the road to the city of Konya. Alternatively, a pleasant introduction is the smaller Saruhan caravanserai sitting on the road between Goreme and Avanos.