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Trade across Turkey in mediaeval Seljuk times was dependent on camel trains (kervan, anglicised as caravan), which stopped by night in inns known as kervansaray, literally 'caravan palaces'. These buildings provided accommodation and other amenities for the merchants and stabling for their animals. Kervansarays first appear in Central Asia in the Karahanlı (932-1212), Gazneli (963-1183) and Iranian Seljuk empires (1040-1157), and originated in a type of military fort known as ribat. In time the ribat came to be used for religious and commercial as well as military purposes, and growing in size accordingly developed into the kervansaray.

The Seljuks later formed their Anatolian empire, which survived after their eastern territories had been lost, and during the reign of the Anatolian Seljuk sultans Kılıçarslan II (1155-1192) and Alaaddin Keykubat I (1220-1237) in particular a large number of kervansarays were built and security measures along the trade routes increased. The state not only built kervansarays but compensated merchants who were attacked or robbed, so providing a kind of insurance system. As a result both domestic and international trade expanded. Foreign merchants who came to Anatolia enjoyed extensive rights and reductions on customs duties.

All merchants of whatever nationality were provided with food and beverages free of charge for three days. Their shoes were repaired and new shoes were given to the poor. Treatment was available for the sick, animals were cared for and shoed if necessary. Each kervansaray employed a physician, imam, inn keeper, superintendent of provisions, veterinary surgeon, messenger, blacksmith and cook to provide these services.

Four of the kervansarays in Turkey have tiny pavilion mosques known as köşk mescit, usually situated in the centre of their courtyards. These eye-catching features dating from the reign of Alaaddin Keykubat I symbolise royal patronage of trade. The buildings around the courtyard contained sleeping quarters, storage rooms, a bath house and lavatories. They were heated by braziers and illuminated by candles and lamps.

The kervansarays of Cappadocia in central Turkey were built of hewn volcanic stone, and their walls were thick and high so that they would be safe from raids by robbers. Decoration was concentrated on the great portals which display the finest examples of Seljuk stone carving. The portal doors were made of iron to repel intruders.

Kervansarays were built at intervals corresponding to one day’s journey, averaging 30 to 40 km. One main route led from Antalya on Mediterranean coast through Konya, Aksaray, Kayseri and Erzurum on to Tabriz and further east into Turkestan. The other led from the Black Sea coast to Amasya, Tokat, Sivas, Malatya and Diyarbakır to Iraq. One of the largest kervansarays of Cappadocia is Sultanhan in Aksaray near Konya, with an area of 4500 square metres. One of its two inscriptions tells us that it was built by the Seljuk sultan Alaaddin Keykubat I in 1229 and that its architect was Muhammed bin Havlan el Dımışkı. After being badly damaged by fire in 1278 it was renovated by the local governor Seraceddin Ahmed bin El Hasan, as the second inscription relates.

The richly carved portal of Aksaray Sultanhanı which projects from the walls, and the towers at each corner lend the building a monumental aspect. The portal is made of marble of several colours and leads into the courtyard, in the centre of which is a pavilion mosque. Along the right-hand side of the courtyard is a decorated colonnade and to the left storage rooms and chambers. To the north is an area where both animals and people were accommodated.

The next kervansaray on this route, 15 km outside Aksaray on the Nevşehir road, is photos Ağzıkarahan, which bears the same name as the village where it is situated. It is alternatively known as Hoca Mesud Kervansaray, after its founder. The first of its two inscriptions tell us that its construction was commenced in 1231 by a wealthy merchant named Hoca Mesud bin Abdullah and completed in 1239. The hall was built during this time by Alaaddin Keykubat I and the courtyard by his son Gıyaseddin Keyhusrev II (1237-1246).

With its great portals, pavilion mosque, towers and other architectural features, this kervansaray is reminiscent of the castle-like royal hans (sultanhanı). The pavilion mosque is raised upon a four arched sub-structure and stands in the middle of the courtyard, which is surrounded by colonnades and closed rooms.

The carved decoration of Ağzıkarahan is notable for the absence of the human figures, animals and floral motifs typical of the period. The hamam or bath house is a rectangular building standing apart to the south. This kervansaray was badly damaged during fighting between the Karamanlı forces and a Turkish lord named Memreş, and two of the towers were destroyed. They were rebuilt at the beginning of the 14th century by Kerimeddin Gazan Han. Ağzıkarahan is followed by Tepesidelikhan (also known as Öresinhan) 17 km away. This kervansaray has a covered courtyard and since its inscription is missing, it is not known exactly when it was built or by whom. Researchers agree however, that it probably dates from the third quarter of the 13th century. The portal and part of the dome are in ruins, but the spaces roofed by cradle vaults and supported by symmetrically placed groups of three columns around the pendentive dome are striking in appearance.

A further 12 km on, and 35 km from Nevşehir, is Alayhan, one of the first built by the sultans, but now divided in two by the present Aksaray-Nevşehir road. This building may be what in written sources is referred to as the Kılıçarslan II Kervansaray. Royal kervansarays generally consisted of one open and one covered section. Unfortunately the open section of this kervansaray has been completely destroyed, leaving only part of the covered section consisting of three bays roofed by seven vaults. The portal is decorated with geometric motifs and seven rows of mukarnas (stalactite) carving, and features a carved lion with a single head and double body.

We next come to Saruhan Kervansaray in the province of Nevşehir on the road between Aksaray and Kayseri. It stands 5 km southeast of Avanos and 6 km north of Ürgüp in the Damsa Valley. Saruhan covers an area of 2000 square metres and was built during the reign of İzzettin Keykavus II (1249-1254), perhaps by him, in 1249. It is constructed of smoothly hewn yellow, pink and beige stone. Two contrasting colours of stone are used to decorative effect on the arches of the main outer portal and inner portal.Restoration of this kervansaray, parts of which were in ruins, was completed in 1991. This was the last kervansaray to be built by the Seljuk sultans.

Another important kervansaray is Kayseri Sultanhanı in the village of Tuzhisar 45 km from Kayseri on the Sivas Road. The inscription on its hall portal tells us that it was built between 1232 and 1236 by Alaaddin Keykubat I. This kervansaray covers an area of 3900 square metres and its plan is similar to that of Aksaray Sultanhanı. The portal in the north wall is flanked by semicircular towers with square bases. Although the partially ruined portal is typical of classical Seljuk portals, the towers enhance its grandeur. A hall with high arches leads into the square courtyard, in the centre of which is a pavilion mosque raised on arches. On the northwest side of the courtyard is a domed hamam in five sections which is entered via a door at the northwest corner of the arcade to the right. This kervansaray was restored in 1951.

Perhaps the best preserved of all Cappadocian kervansarays is Karatayhan built by Celaleddin Karatay on the old Kayseri-Malatya road, part of the main trade route into Syria. Construction commenced during the reign of Alaaddin Keykubat and was completed during that of his son Gıyaseddin Keyhusrev in 1240/1241. The inscription opens with the words, 'This building belongs to God, who is One, Eternal, and Everlasting'. Celaleddin Karatay came from Kayseri to see the finished building, and was so overwhelmed by its magnificence that he sped away again, afraid that he would be carried away by pride in his own accomplishment. The endowment deed of Karatayhan tells us that it was built to serve both commercial and social functions. The ornately carved portal which dominates the south wall measures 46 by 80 metres, and projects both beyond and above the wall. The decoration includes floriate and figurative as well as geometric motifs, which distinguishes it from other kervansarays. An eyvan (open-fronted vaulted hall) with pointed vault leads from the portal into the courtyard. The eyvan is flanked by a mosque, rooms for personnel, and a tomb which some researchers suggest may belong to Celaleddin Karatay. Along the eastern side of the courtyard are a series of long narrow chambers with pointed vaults opening directly onto the courtyard, while an arcade runs down the western side.

Like the towns and villages through which the trade roads passed, the vicinity of the kervansarays used to turn into small commercial centres. This was true of Karatayhan, which in the 13th century stood at a junction of roads leading from Syria, Iraq, eastern Anatolia and Iran to Kayseri and Sivas.

The Kervansarays of Cappadocia
by Murat Ertuğrul Gülyaz, Archaeologist in the Nevşehir Museum
Skylife 12/99
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