Revisiting Turkey’s caravanserai hotels

Ruins of Han-el Ba’rur near Harran (PHOTOS PAT YALE)

February 12, 2012, Sunday/ 12:23:00

They may not be as well remembered today as the Ottomans, but in the period of their supremacy the Selçuks adorned towns like Kayseri, Konya and Karaman with hundreds of magnificent mosques, hamams (Turkish baths) and medreses (seminaries).

 Some of their greatest masterpieces, though, were the great caravanserais (kervansaray) that they strung out by the hundreds across the countryside. These “caravan palaces” were usually built close enough together for camel trains to travel between them in 10 or so hours. In them, the medieval equivalents of today’s travelling salesmen could find bed and board for themselves and their animals. Provided that they didn’t outstay their three days’ welcome, it came free of charge, too.

The Ottomans continued the caravanserai-building tradition and some of the finest surviving buildings date from their 16th-century Golden Age. Over the centuries the design remained fairly standard, with a grand entrance opening onto a courtyard ringed by rooms on one or two levels. Some of these rooms served as kitchens and dining rooms but most were bedrooms for the salesmen. On the ground floor there were always rooms with soaring arches where camels could be stabled. In the center of the courtyard there was usually a mescid (chapel), frequently raised on stilt-like columns.

The word “han” is sometimes used interchangeably with caravanserai, although it’s possibly best to think of the hans as the urban equivalents of the rural caravanserais. Certainly they served the same function in towns, providing places for travelers and their animals to be accommodated and store their merchandise at journey’s end. While rural caravanserais slowly lost their raison d’être, urban hans slowly evolved in design until by the 19th century only their courtyards remained to commemorate their long history.

If you draw a line across the middle of a map of Turkey from Çeşme to Diyarbakır you will find it dotted with the ruins of the caravanserais built to serve what had started out as the Royal Road, a trade route that linked the Aegean coast with Susa in Persia. Other caravanserais lined the main roads from the Balkans to Constantinople (İstanbul) and from Antalya to Trabzon.

The remains of a particularly large number of caravanserais still survive along the stretch of road once known as the Uzun Yol (Long Road) that linked Konya to Erzurum via Kayseri and Sivas. Along this route you will be able to visit the Sultan Hanı (1229), the Ağızkarahan (1243), the Tepesidelik Han (1188), the Alay Han (c. 1190), the Sarıhan (1249), the Karamustafapaşa Kervansarayı at İncesu (1683), a second Sultan Hanı near Kayseri (1230s) and the Mama Hatun Kervansarayı at Tercan (c. 1202). Other survivors include the Akhan, near Denizli (1253/4), the Han el Ba’rur near Harran (1228) and the Elaman Kervansaray, near Bitlis (1562). The excellent www.turkishhan.org has information on all the surviving Selçuk hans.

The crumbling caravanserais and hans were crying out to be found new uses, so the Sarıhan, near Avanos, now hosts nightly shows of dervish dancing, while the Kervansaray Hotel in Çeşme and the Club Caravanserai in Kuşadası are both used to host Turkish nights. The Tepesidelik Han was recently fitted out as a restaurant called, predictably enough, the Kervansaray; it remains to be seen how successful it will be.

Unfortunately, caravanserais in remote locations have proved second only to castles when it comes to heavy-handed “restoration.” A couple of years ago both the Tepesidelik and Alay Hans were romantic ruins that reminded passers-by of the distant past; in their crude new reincarnations they are more likely to make them weep. The Akhan was restored more gently, but whereas the ruins used to be accessible to visitors the restored building is now behind lock and key. Stripped of any atmosphere, the restored Elaman Kervansarayı is used for university graduation ceremonies; at other times it stands forlorn beside a ferociously busy road.

But the most obvious new use for those caravanserais that survived largely intact was to turn them into hotels, which means that you can now stay in Ottoman-era caravanserais (although, alas, not Selçuk ones) everywhere from Edirne to Diyarbakır. Appealing as the idea is, these conversions have not always been entirely successful. Windowless rooms designed for hardened travelers don’t always lend themselves to the addition of private bathrooms, and the central courtyards tend to be a recipe for disturbance. In that sense some of the newer hans make better hotels. Still, there aren’t that many places in the world where you can stay in buildings dating back to the 16th century, a real treat for romantics.

Otel Büyük Kervansaray

The very oldest caravanserai that is still accepting visitors today is the Great Caravanserai in Diyarbakır (Tel.: 0 [412] 228 96 06). Also known as the Deliler Hanı (Han of the Madmen), this was built between 1521 and 1527 to serve both travelers on the Silk Road and pilgrims en route to Mecca. Rooms are a bit poky but with two huge courtyards, a restaurant and a pool, this is a place where you can holiday in style, albeit in a part of town just a stone’s throw from the great basalt walls, where wondering around after dark might not be wise. In its heyday the caravanserai had stabling for 800 camels. Today’s guests must make do with kitsch statues of lions by the entrance.

Çeşme Kervansaray Hotel

Built in 1528 and so virtually contemporary with the Büyük Kervansaray, the Çeşme Kervansaray (Tel.: 0 [232] 712 71 77) sits rather oddly in what is now a seaside resort-cum-port town. The building has a certain grandeur to it. Unfortunately, though, it hasn’t been restored to meet modern expectations. You may prefer to patronize it for its Turkish night events rather than staying.

Hotel Rüstempaşa Kervansaray

If you’re visiting Edirne to wonder at the great Ottoman architect Sinan’s masterpiece, the Selimiye Cami (mosque), how could you resist the opportunity to spend the night in another of his buildings, the Rüstempaşa Kervansaray (Tel.: 0 [284] 212 61 19) which he built between 1560 and 1561 for Süleyman the Magnificent’s grand vizier, Rüstem Paşa? Again, it would be a mistake to expect the latest in mod cons, and some might find the rooms a little claustrophobic, but being right in the heart of the historic action should make up for that.

Club Caravanserai

As with the Çeşme hotel, the Club Caravanserai (Tel.: 0 [256] 614 41 15, www.kusadasihotelcaravanserai.com) seems a tad incongruous in what is now the mega-resort of Kuşadası. Built in 1618, its bulk makes an unmissable sight facing the harbor and it does manage a little better when it comes to decent décor in the bedrooms. Just don’t plan on an early night when the Turkish night entertainment is in full swing.

Cinci Han

Many years in the restoration, the Cinci Han (Tel.: 0 [370] 712 06 80, www.cincihan.com) comes as a surprise in the heart of Safranbolu, where people generally expect to stay in converted Ottoman houses. Built in 1640 as part of a complex that includes a hamam (Turkish bath) that is also still in business, the Cinci Han has an elongated courtyard which makes a peaceful refuge. Most of the rooms are comfortable, if a little small. The same is certainly not true of the hotel’s most prized asset, the Han Odası, a spectacularly large and beautifully decorated suite on the upper floor.

Divan Çukurhan

Newly opened next door to the Çengelhan Rahmi M. Koç Museum in the historic Hisar (Castle) part of Ankara, the Divan Çukurhan (Tel.: 0 [312] 306 64 00, www.divan.com.tr) dates back to the end of the 16th or the early 17th century, when the old caravanserai-han model was starting to evolve into something less fortress-like and more like a hotel. Built in a half-timbered style that is quite a novelty, it’s the one caravanserai hotel where luxury and mod cons come absolutely guaranteed in keeping with the Divan brand name.

Dülgeroğlu Hotel

Finally, the Dülgeroğlu Hotel (Tel.: 0 [276] 227 37 73, www.oteldulgeroglu.com), in undervisited Uşak, was designed by a French architect so that it gives off a vague whiff of Paris. By 1898 the hans had almost forgotten their origins as glorified stables-cum-warehouses, and from the outside the Dülgeroğlu looks like any other grand late 19th-century building. Step inside and the central courtyard is a real giveaway. The rooms are high-ceilinged, light and extremely comfortable.

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