The Karatay Han(Caravanserai)is located 50 km east of Kayseri on the former trade route that linked Kayseri with Malatya and further south – Syria and Iraq. It was close to the Yabanlu Bazaar, which was an important international trade fair in the 13th century.
This han is perhaps the best preserved of all Anatolian hans, and is one of the most monumental examples of Seljuk architecture. It was built in 1235-41 and was named after its patron, the vizier Celaleddin Karatay. The Karatay Han(Caravanserai)is important, not only for its impressive size and decorations, but for the fact that the charter of the Karatay Foundation provides detailed information about the life of the han.
Construction of this han started during the reign of Alaeddin Keykubad and was continued during that of his son, Giyaseddin Keyhüsrev, in 1240-1241. Karatay gained considerable power during the reign of this weak sultan and must have accumulated an extensive fortune which found expression in the attention paid to the decorative elements of this han.
The han contains an inscription over both of the crown doors. Both inscriptions are carved in marble stone in Seljuk naskh calligraphy. The inscription on the entry to the covered section reads: “It is Allah the Eternal who owns all possessions. Keykubad, the son of Keyhüsrev, the most magnificent of sultans, head of all Khans, holder and governor of the umma, master of the sultans in the world, father of all conquests”. The inscription in thuluth script over the main crown door leading into the courtyard provides a precise date this time, 638 H (1240) and reads: “This building belongs to God, who is One, Eternal, and Everlasting, August and Magnificent Sultan, King of Kings, the Shadow of God on Earth, Keyhüsrev son of Keykubad, Commander of the faithful in the year 638”. That means that the covered section was built under the reign of Alaeddin Keykubad I (1219-1236). The construction of the han was probably interrupted for a few years after the death of the sultan until the project was revived for the courtyard again by Karatay under Giyaseddin Kayhüsrev II.
Karatay was one of the most powerful of all Seljuk statesmen, he was a devout Muslim and a charitable man. He was a Byzantine Christian of Greek origin who converted to Islam. He served the Seljuk empire for over 40 years (1214-1254). He also built the Karatay Medrese at Konya (1251), where he is buried. He was a friend of Celaleddin Mevlana (Rumi). Travelling monk Bar Hebraeus described him as a good and merciful man, an ascetic who abstained from the eating of flesh, and from the drinking of wine, and from women .
Legend states that Celaleddin Karatay journeyed from Kayseri to see the finished han, and was so overwhelmed by its magnificence that he suddenly turned around and sped away again, afraid that he might become filled with pride, which would deprive him of deserving merit in the eyes of God. Out of fear of this sin, he vowed never again to visit this caravanserai.
The han resembles a fortress from the outside with 6 corner towers and 12 buttresses. The entrance faces south. Decoration of the exterior walls includes rain spouts in the shape of lions and human figures. The ones with human figures used to have a bull’s head on the right side and a lion’s head on the left side. The walls are built using the rubble wall masonry technique, which consisted of filling two rows of smooth-face stones with a mixture of small pebbles and mortar. The structure has a covered section used for lodging, built first, and an open courtyard lined with service facilities. The courtyard is twice as big as the covered section.
The main crown door shows a combination of figurative, floral, vegetal and geometric patterns. A semi-circular column is located on each side of the crown door opening. The sides facing inwards are covered with figures: a lion on the right side and birds on the left side. The surface of the arch above the columns is decorated with curved branches intertwining with rumi motifs and lotus flowers, with a figurative element of ox heads and small human figures in the middle of the vines. Although the figures are in poor condition today due to erosion of the stones, they can be clearly seen in the old photographs. More human heads can be seen on the left side of the main door, where two heads are placed within the branches of vegetal decoration. A rosette is located on the surface of each spandrel of the crown door. A marble inscription plaque is set at the top of the middle of the crown door.
The mosque is situated to the right of the entrance. It consists of a small domed square room with a mihrab decorated with stalactites and rosettes. The door to the mosque is a mini crown portal. The arch spandrels of the door are filled with circular rosettes filled with vegetal and rumi and engraved letters spelling out “Allah” interspersed in front of them. The mosque has a skylight in its ceiling. Also the foundation deed of Karatay han prescribes that in the place of oil lamps, the usual means of lighting in these buildings, that candles were to be lit all year round from sunset to the morning prayer.
On the left there are three openings leading to different rooms. Some of them may have been used as the treasury for the safekeeping of valuables. The third and last opening on the left side leads into a tomb. A tomb is unusual for a caravanserai. It is decorated with tiles and the frieze of 15 animals including a bird, a deer, a rabbit, a dog, a snake, a wolf, two feline quadrupeds, a bull and an elephant. Only three elephants are known to be represented in Seljuk art: here, on a stone from the Konya city walls, one on a glazed tile in the tepidarium of the Hunat Hatun Baths of Kayseri, and here in this frieze in the Karatay Han.
It is not known to whom belongs the empty sarcophagus located in the tomb. Some researchers have suggested that the cenotaph may belong to Celaleddin Karatay himself. The room has beautiful brickwork patterns.A blue star is painted on the vault above the sarcophagus.
Once you walk out into the courtyard, turn around and look at the rear face of the main portal. There is a stylized ribbon of two confronting dragons along the iwan arch. The dragon, a symbol for wealth and prosperity, is mentioned often in astronomy and cosmology texts of the 13th century.
On the left side of the courtyard there is an arcade with seven spaces in a row, each carried on two piers and covered with a pointed vault. This vaulted arcade was used as a depot, bazaar and stabling area for animals. Many of the stones have holes for tethering animals, and there are feeding troughs in the side aisles.
The right side of the courtyard contains seven enclosed units covered with barrel vaults. The two units on the north are windowless. It is believed that these two small rooms were reserved for dignitaries, and the room immediately to the north of them, opening onto the courtyard, would have been occupied by guards controlling entry. A group of interconnected rooms such as this are not usually seen in hans, and are believed to have been reserved for special guests, such as the sultan or other dignitaries.
The bath in the southeast corner of the courtyard consists of a square dressing room with three skylights in the dome, the caldarium covered with a stalactite dome with five skylights, remains of water pipes and a wall fountain. There are also two private cubicles and a water tank. The bath here is unusual and quite small for such a large han. It could have been reserved for special guests only and not the general visitors. In addition to this internal bath, the foundation charter states that another bath outside the han walls was made for the travelers, but it has not survived.
The crown door of the covered section has an elaborate decorative scheme. It has four borders decorated with different geometric patterns. The arch of the door opening is fitted with three rows of stalactites. A rosette with a braided decoration is set in the corners of the arch above the crown door. The inscription plaque is framed by a border of half-star motifs.
The covered section of the han was built first, before the courtyard. It consists of seven aisles extending in the east-west direction and is formed by two support rows on either side which are carried by two piers. The central nave is covered with a pointed vault. The middle section between the third and fourth piers is shaped like a dome on the interior and appears as a conical lantern dome on the exterior. The dome has small porthole window openings located in the four main directions. Lighting is provided by slit windows on the walls.
One of the most interesting elements of this han is the Foundation Deed that provides many administrative details, including the salary scale of the han’s employees, expenditures for food and heating oil, and the inventory stock. The listed staff of the han included a trustee and his assistant, a superintendent, an imam, a muezzin, a greeter, the han keeper, a cook, a veterinary, a cobbler and a stableman. It clearly sets out the services to be provided by the han to visitors, such as food and drink (1 kg of bread and 250 grams of meat per day, as well as honey halva on Friday nights), soap, medicines, provision of leather for the repair or replacement of shoes, nails for the shoeing of animals, firewood for heat and candles and oil for light…all for free. Hay and barley were to be provided to the animals. It stipulated that olive oil and wood was to be burned for heating, and that the mosque be lit by candles from sunset until the morning prayer. It also stipulated that any person who fell ill on the road or in the han was to receive medical treatment. The deed also prescribes that all comers, Muslim and non-Muslim, free or slave, man or woman, be treated equally.