The indispensable Ottoman han

The indispensable Ottoman han

Niki Gamm ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
The indispensable Ottoman han

The Sismanoglio Megaro Han is part of the Greek consulate and a portion of it is used for exhibitions.

What is a han? An Ottoman Turkish building that combined an urban hotel, stable, storage depot and wholesale selling point is more a descriptor than a definition. Before the Ottomans had hans, the Seljuk Turks built many and before the Seljuks, the Persians. But it should be pointed out that the Seljuks were much more interested in erecting caravanserai (caravan palaces), which served the many commercial caravans going between cities, than hans. They were located approximately one day’s journey between each, or 30-40 kilometers. This clearly was a reflection of the much larger economy under Ottoman control and the growth of trade in the Mediterranean.

There is hardly any difference between a han and a caravanserai except for the first being urban and the later being situated on the roads and highways between urban settlements. Their structures were practically the same. As a building, the han had very high, thick walls with one or possibly two entrances, the better to guard against any external attack by enemy soldiers or brigands. The corners of the walls would have watch towers and they would have been seen as fortresses more than hotels and markets. They were made of stone and were either square or rectangular. And in the center there would be an open courtyard that generally contained a fountain for performing the ritual ablutions required in Islam and a very small mosque.

The latter in Bursa’s İpek (Silk) Han is two stories and octagonal in shape. The upper floor is used as the prayer room and is reached by a wooden staircase on the outside.

The han usually rose two stories and sometimes three, the upper floors reached by staircases from the courtyard. The ground floor was used to house animals such as camels, horses and mules that would have carried merchandise. It also had a large kitchen. The first floor would contain small rooms in which a merchant would store his goods and sleep. These rooms would have fireplaces for winter weather. 
The origins of the han have been traced back to the ribat, soldierly outposts along the coast of North Africa, stationed there some time after the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Before that in the Near East, there is little evidence of any similar building, although that may be because they have not yet been excavated or any findings published. In any case, it is much more exciting and rewarding to go after palaces and temples. Some attribute the first of the han-type buildings to the Achaemenid kings who ruled Persia from 550 to 330 B.C. Later, there were areas including buildings that were deemed emporia among the ancient Greeks and later the Romans. These were places where merchants could settle and sell their wares. 

A paper by Dimitroukas Ioannis, “Byzantine Roads in Asia Minor,” gives well-documented and detailed information on the road system that includes the routes taken by the important caravan trade from the coast as far east as Erzurum and south through Cilicia, including trade with Arabs. While the author gives details on routes and mentions several cities that served as emporia, he says nothing about the type of housing that would be available along the route. 

The first Ottoman han built in Bursa 
A number of caravanserai remain in Anatolia from the Seljuk period and a number of them have been restored so that one gets a sense of the scale of these monumental buildings with their enormous pillars and vaults. But as Ulya Vogt-Goknil points out in her book “Living Architecture: Ottoman,” when it came to the Ottomans, they were much more interested in the functional aspects of architecture, so the han became smaller in size and more suitable for cities in which these buildings had to fit in with other buildings.

The first Ottoman hans were those built in Bursa when the city was the capital of the Ottoman state. They were named after the commodity that was sold within and were probably under the guild that was involved. So we see the Cocoon Han, Silk Han, Rice Han and so forth. The Emir Han, which still exists, is the oldest and was built by Orhan Gazi sometime after he gained control of Bursa in 1321. It had 16 rooms with windows upstairs and a small stable with 36 storerooms on the ground floor.
The hans of Istanbul were much larger and generally built with three or even four stories. While their interior shapes were also square or rectangular, they had to account for the fact that many of them were built on hillsides in the Old City. There are today some 70 hans left in the city, twelve of which are in the old city. One can find them mostly in the area between the Covered Bazaar and Eminönü and as far west as Tahtakale. While the Covered Bazaar originally started out in the 15th century as the İç Bedestan, the fortified building in which people kept their valuables, it has grown much larger thanks to the addition of many hans that sprang up in the vicinity. As more and more of these hans were erected, they became attached to each other, although retaining their original names, and are now considered one building, the Covered Bazaar. But only the Kurkcu Han remains from the Fatih period. It should be noted that this area was also the commercial area under the Late Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. A second commercial area sprang up in the vicinity of the Fatih Mosque complex.

Few of the hans remained 
It’s not so surprising that few of the hans remain from the Ottoman period as the Old City has experienced so many fires and earthquakes. Although modern buildings have replaced almost all of the old hans, one can still see small imitations of the splendid old hans. 

Of course there are other hans around the city, especially in the Beyoğlu area. These were built in the period following the destructive fire in 1870 and are still operating today. 

For example, the Sismanoglio Megaro Han is now part of the Greek consulate and a portion of it is used for exhibitions such as the one that has just opened with photographs of Istanbul’s old hans. One of the guests at the exhibition opening was heard saying how beautiful it was that a Greek han, Sismanoglio Megaro, was the venue for an exhibition of photos of Istanbul hans. Another commented on the parallel between the people working in the old hans, who were struggling to make a living, and the hans, which struggle to stay alive today.

If one thinks about it, the modern shopping center is rather like a han, with its stores and depots lining a courtyard; just think of the Ataköy Galleria or the Cevahir Center. The old hans served their purpose but they’re still with us. It’s just that they’ve changed their form slightly.