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An Analysis of the Anatolian Seljuk Caravanserais

Eda Velibasoglu1, Dr. Gulen Cagdas2
1Ph.D. Student, Institute Of Applied Science, Istanbul Technical University
2 Professor of Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, Istanbul Technical University, gulen@karye.mim.itu.edu.tr

An Analysis of the Anatolian Seljuk Caravanserais

The magnificent style of the Anatolian Seljuk Art was created in Anatolia in the 13th Century. The monumental architecture built of cut stone; well-balanced use of tiled mosaic inside the domes; geometric designs decorating the wooden minbars, wings of the doors and windows, give a distinct characteristic to the architecture of this period as well as a distinguished place within the history of architecture. Besides the mosques, medresses, and the funerary monuments, namely the kumbeds and the tombs, the most important structures of the Anatolian Seljuk period were the caravanserais, which are also known as the most interesting institutions of the Middle Ages. The composition of the caravanserais can be regarded as an identifiable architectural language that belongs to the Turkish-Anatolian architecture in general. These caravanserais exhibit all the architectural characteristics of different spatial organizations and stone decorations on the portals of this period. They were built on the merchant routes to guarantee a safe journey and a place to spend the night for the caravans and the travelers. The general name given to these buildings in Anatolia is Han (Inn). The Seljuk caravanserais in Anatolia are castle-like structures built of cut stone and they really have the appearance of a palace (Altun, 1990, 197-199) .

In this paper, sixty Anatolian Seljuk caravanserais will be analyzed in terms of their syntactical and formal characteristics, and geometrical patterns on their portals. The plan schemes can be grouped as four categories:

  • Caravanserais with an open courtyard;
  • Covered caravanserais;
  • Covered caravanserais with an open courtyard;
  • Caravanserais with a concentric plan.

Caravanserais with an open courtyard (OC):

This type of caravanserais were mostly used in summer. They generally had an open arcaded courtyard. These arcades consists of two rows of riwaqs, and iwans. Some of them had a covered section and some special rooms around the courtyard. They can be grouped into three sub-types according to these differences:

  • Caravanserais which had no covered section (OC1): These types of caravanserais had two rows of riwaqs and iwans around the courtyard.
  • Caravanserais which had a covered section (OC2): The covered section was in the form of a covered aisle. They had two rows of riwaqs and also some chambers in front of the covered section and at the two sides of the portal.
  • Caravanserais which had a covered section consisting of two aisles (OC3): They were similar to the type of OC2, but the chambers were at the two adjacent side of the courtyard in this type.

Covered caravanserais (C):

These caravanserais were mostly used in winter. They were covered with a vaulting system supported by piers. Their plans had different number of aisle in both directions. Some of them had a lantern in the middle of the vaulting system. This type of caravanserais can be grouped in four sub-types:

  • Caravanserais which had a single aisle (C1);
  • Caravanserais which had vaults in only one direction (C2): They generally had three or five aisles lying perpendicular to the portal wall.
  • Caravanserais in which the middle aisle was perpendicular to the portal wall and the other vaults were parallel to the portal wall (C3);
  • Caravanserais in which the vaults were both perpendicular and parallel to the portal wall (C4).

Covered caravanserais with an open courtyard (COC):

The third type which was the largest one both had an open courtyard and a covered part and showed the classical scheme of Anatolian Seljuk Caravanserais. The court was built together with the covered section called the hall (vestibule). The most remarkable features of this type are the arcaded courtyard with a vaulting system supported by piers, and the portals of the vestibule. The courtyards had one or two rows of riwaqs or both of them in different side of the courtyard and had varying number of iwans. The covered part of this type had varying number and directions of vaults lying parallel or perpendicular to the portal wall like in the covered caravanserais. These types sometimes have a central lantern with a stalactite dome over the covered section and a kiosk masjid in the courtyard rising on four piers. In some others, the masjid was above the entrance porch which was arranged in the form of a protruding portal. But the general scheme was always the same. This type of caravanserais can be grouped in four sub-types:

  • Caravanserais in which the widths of the covered and open courtyard was equal (COC1);
  • Caravanserais in which the open courtyard was wider than the covered part in one side (COC2);
  •  Caravanserais in which the open courtyard was wider than the covered part in both sides (COC3);
  • Caravanserais in which the width of the open courtyard was too larger than the width of the covered part (COC4): In this type, the main portal generally was at one side of the courtyard.

Caravanserais with a concentric plan (CP):

This type was designed with a different architectural concept. Instead of the separately planned the covered part and the courtyard, the covered quarters and the courtyard were interposed on a concentric plan. In other words, covered part of the caravanserai surround the divided chambers which were around the courtyard. The whole building was covered by a vaulting system (Tukel, 1976). The caravanserais with a concentric plan had the most advanced plan types. This type can be grouped in two sub-types according to the location of the courtyard:

  • Caravanserais which their courtyard were at one side of the building (CP1);
  • Caravanserais which their courtyard were in the center of the building (CP2).

The Geometrical Patterns on the Portals
The Anatolian Seljuk portals which were rectangular blocks of masonry averaging about 8 meters in heights, 4 meters in breadth, and 2 meters in depth show a magnificent stonework (Ogel, 1987, p. 157). They were in the form of a niche or an iwan and mostly filled with stalactites. A great variety of ornaments with figures decorate these structures together with a very rich variety of geometric and floral motifs (Altun, p. 200).

As Schmitt stated, the Islamic ornaments follow strict grammatical rules to form an architectural language (Schmitt, 1988, p. 95). The generation process of these figures typically starts with a symmetric arrangement of simple basic shapes, such as squares, diamonds, circles, etc., which overlap each other to form repetitive patterns (Yessios, 1987, p. 176). Then relacing and / or interlacing operations may be applied. In many examples, it can be seen that the visual and mathematical forms in nature in relation to those in Islamic decoration and the use of that geometry in their buildings (Ozsariyildiz, p. 25). The configurations of a decagonal star and interlaced squares are frequently used both within a small scale patterns and as architectural plans for minarets or tomb towers (Albarn et. al., p. 34). The Islamic patterns can be generated by using binary operations such as reflection, repetition, rotation, and scaling.


Albarn, K., Smith, J.M., Steele, S. And D. Walker, (1974), The Language of Pattern, Thames and Hudson, London, UK.

Altun, A., (1990), An Outline of Turkish Architecture in the Middle Ages, Archeology and Art Publications, Istanbul, Turkey.

Binan, C.S., (1990), A Research on the Conservation Criteria of the Anatolian Caravanserais in the 13th Century, Istanbul Technical University, Institute Of Applied Science. (in Turkish)

Cagdas, G., Velibasoglu, E., (1995a), "A Hypermedia-Based System for Analyzing an Architectural Language", 8th International Conference on System Research, Informatics and Cybernetics, Advanced in Cooperative Computer-Assisted Environmental Design Systems Proceedings, Baden-Baden, August 1995, pp. 21-32.

Cagdas, G., Velibasoglu, E., (1995b), "A Shape Grammar Analysis of an Architectural Language and Presentation it in Computer Environment", CAD+, July 1995, pp. 21-25. (in Turkish)

Ogel, S., (1987), Anatolian Seljuk Stone Ornamentation, Turk Tarih Kurumu Print House, Ankara, Turkey. (in Turkish)

Ozsariyildiz, S., (1991), Conceptual Design by means of Islamic-Geometric-Patterns within a CAAD-Environment, Ph.D. Thesis, TU Delft, The Netherlands.

Schmitt, G., (1988), Microcomputer Aided Design for Architects and Designers, John Wiley & Sons, New York, USA.

Tukel, A.Y., (1976), "Concentrically Planned Seljuk Hans in Anatolia", M.E.T.U., Journal of the Faculty of Architecture, 2/2, pp. 18-204.

Velibasoglu, E., (1995), A Shape Grammar Analysis of an Architectural Language and Presentation in Computer Environment, MS Thesis, Institute of Applied Sciences, Istanbul Technical University (in Turkish).

Yessios, C., (1987), "A Fractal Studio, ACADIA" 87 Proceedings, ed: B.J. Novitski, pp. 169-181.



External Links
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