Caravanserais in Cyprus

Караван-сараи на Кипре
19 April 2021 DOM LiVE

In August 1571, after almost a year's siege of Famagusta and the heroic resistance of a small contingent of defenders, the fortress fell, the Ottoman Turks became new rulers of the island.

They brought important changes not only to the administrative structure of the island and to the ethnic composition of the local population, but also to architecture.

Numerous mosques, hammams, sebils (well-equipped springs with drinking water) and, of course, caravanserais, which will be discussed today, became the Turks contribution to the Cypriot construction industry of that time.

Caravanserai (or caravanseray), which literally translates as "palace for caravans", is an facility that served as a hotel for merchants and any other travelers who moved between cities. Here one could drink and feed camels, horses and donkeys, eat and rest. Such travel hotels began to be called caravanserais in Persia, and in the Ottoman Empire these facilities were called the word "han". From the Persian language (through Turkish), this word migrated to Greek, where it took the form "khani" or "khanin".

A caravanserai in the Iranian city of Kerman (photo by Saadatnasry)

Caravanserais were divided into two types: urban and rural.

Urban ones could be called "vikala" or "vakala" and usually played the role of a kind of shopping centers with hotel rooms. In rural areas, which were located far from large settlements precisely in order to provide travelers with lodging, visitors usually stayed for only one night.


Before the invention of fast vehicles allowing to cross long distances in a short time, any kind of inns were a necessity for travelers, so it is not surprising that analogs of caravanserais existed in Cyprus even before the Turks.

The contribution of the Ottomans was precisely in the fact that they brought to the island a typical plan of such an extremely important building (more on this below). In the Middle Ages, inns were called the Greek word "pandochion" (ie "space for all"), from which the Arabic word "al funduq" (hotel) comes from. The medieval chronicler Georgios Vustronios writes that in 1473 the Viscount of Nicosia decided to fight urban prostitution:

On October 21, Viscount Morapitos announced a decree according to which all prostitutes were to go to Kamilarion and Amaxargion, so that none of them was in the city quarters, and if anyone violates this decree, then she must be expelled from the country. Camilarion and Amaxargion, mentioned by the chronicler, were the largest inns in Nicosia. As we can learn from their names, caravans with camels stopped in the first inn (from the Greek word "camila" - "camel"), and travelers on carts (Greek "amaksin" - "cart") used in the second. The location of these hotels has not yet been found, but most likely they were located outside the city limits.

Ottoman innovations

Some of the caravanserais built under the Turks are now declared architectural monuments. Although, as we will see later, there are those that collapsed over time due to lack of attention and protection.

Typical plan of the caravanserai (drawing by Babak Gholizadeh)

The caravanserai was a relatively large building with a courtyard, it had a square or rectangular shape.

The walls were thick and powerful, as travelers, many of whom were carrying expensive goods, needed protection from robbers. There was only one entrance, it was usually guarded by a gatekeeper, and the portal was decorated in the tradition of Islamic art. Since the camels carrying the load entered the track palace, the gate had to be made high. At night they were locked with a thick chain.

Portal of the Sultan Han caravanserai in the Turkish city of Aksaray

The premises on the ground floor usually served as warehouses or benches, while the living rooms were located on the first floor, which was accessed by an external staircase.

A balcony ran along the inner perimeter of the building; it served for communication between rooms. The doors of the premises always went inside the caravanserai. Windows were usually only on the first floor, for security reasons they were made small and narrow. Because of this, the caravanserai became more like a fortress than a hotel, but security required similar solutions.

Fortress hotel in the middle of the desert (Zein-o-Din caravanserai in Iran)

The courtyard was always located in the open air, animals were left here, so in the courtyard there were feeders and posts, to which the animals were tied.

Also, a small mosque was often built in the courtyard, usually of an octagonal shape. There were also fountains for ritual ablutions or sebils. A hammam could work in large traveling palaces.

In Cairo, for example, city caravanserais were several stories high. The lower floors were occupied by merchants, and the upper ones were rented out to residents of the city, which created an interesting type of real estate: a hotel with premises for long-term lease.

Vikala (city caravanserai) in Cairo (photo by Saliko)

Thus, an ordinary caravanserai was a crowded and cosmopolitan place, which traders from different countries regularly passed through. They transported not only goods for sale, but also ideas, discoveries and achievements that they learned about in distant lands.

Cypriot caravanserais finally lost their popularity by the middle of the twentieth century, when movement around the island became faster and safer thanks to cars, buses and railways. The hans were replaced by small hotels, which no longer needed to be built in the form of a fortified castle.

Büyük Han

The largest caravanserai in Cyprus is located in the Turkish part of Nicosia, near the Selimiye Mosque, and is called Büyük Han (that is, “a large inn”).

It became one of the first Ottoman buildings on the island, as it was erected immediately after the conquest of the city, in 1570-72, on the basis of a medieval building that was badly damaged during the siege.

Büyük Han (photo by Daskalos06)

For the construction of Büyük Han, the governor (beylerbey) of Cyprus, Muzafer Pasha, imposed a special duty on all residents of the city in the amount of two paras (para is a Turkish coin).

This additional collection angered the inhabitants of the island and ultimately led to the overthrow of Muzafer Pasha and his execution. The caravanserai, however, was completed. The speed of its construction and the fact that the Turks identified a hotel for travelers as a priority project indicates that facilitating trade travel and pilgrimage was one of the main tasks of the new owners of the island. Abbot Giovanni Mariti, who visited Cyprus in the middle of the 18th century, wrote that Büyük Han was called the “Alan inn,” since merchants from Turkish Alanya mainly stayed there.

Büyük Han inside (photo by Guldal Aydinili)

Büyük Han is a large building, built in a square, with two floors and, of course, an open courtyard.

The balcony is decorated with pointed arches with criss-crossing vaults, which clearly reflects the influence of Gothic architecture. In the center of the courtyard there is a small mosque with a dome, but without a minaret. The main and only entrance to the caravanserai is located from the east. In the best times, it was a high gate decorated with marble. The main caravanserai of Cyprus has 68 rooms, some of which still have fireplaces.

The roof of Büyük Han is literally dotted with stone chimneys about 1.5 meters high with a pretty conical top. Since it is not completely clear how well the building, on the basis of which the Turks built Büyük Han, was preserved, it may well be that the pipes belonged to it, since it was not typical for caravanserais to make chimneys. Perhaps the same explains the presence of architectural Gothic elements - they remained from the previous building. When Cyprus came under the control of the British, they set up a prison in Büyük Han, which was located here until 1893.

Courtyard with a mosque

Other caravanserais of Nicosia

It is known that in the 19th century there were at least five caravanserais in Nicosia. Only two of them have survived: Kumarcılar Han and Khani-Tou-Simeou.

Kumarcılar Han, which, unfortunately, has not been restored, has survived to our time in a dilapidated state. It is much smaller than Büyük Khan, but looks very much like it. The name comes from the word "kumarcı" - "card player", since, probably, the main gambling establishment of Nicosia was located here.

The main difference from Büyük Khan is that the balcony of the first floor was covered with a wooden roof resting on thick stone columns. The entrance to this caravanserai, which dates back to the 17th century, was a decorated arch that had belonged to a medieval building before the Turkish invasion.

Kumarcılar Khan (photo by Matthias Kabel)

On Ermou Street (on the Greek part of Nicosia) there is "Simeon's inn" or, in Greek, hani-tou-Simeu. It has also not been restored and is slowly deteriorating.

Ibrahim's caravanserai

The second after Büyük Khan in terms of the degree of preservation can be safely called the caravanserai in Paphos, the so-called “khani-tou-Ibraim”, which was restored in 2019. Now there is a cultural center here.

Hani-Tou-Ibraim (Photo by Explore Paphos)

It was built in the 1860s and was one of the city's three inns.

Its first owner was the Greek Cypriot Dimitris Khadtziseimenis, then the caravanserai became the property of the Turkish Cypriot Mustafa Ahmed-Rashid. Ibrahim's caravanserai worked until the 1920s, then it housed workshops. In the 1960s, during the intercommunal clashes, Pano-Paphos (upper Paphos) was abandoned by the Turkish Cypriots, since then the caravanserai was abandoned until 2019.

According to its plan, it does not differ from all other caravanserais: on the ground floor, there were stalls for animals, and rooms for guests on the first floor. There was also a smithy where horses could be shod, a coffee shop, a kitchen and a trading shop were located.

Today, Ibrahim's inn is once again a destination for travelers. (Photo by Explore Paphos)

Caravanserais of the rest parts of the island

  • In Limassol: several caravanserais were located in the area of ​​the current streets of Agiou Andreou and Eleftherias, but none of them have survived to this day. Only the inn opposite the Limassol Castle has survived; today it houses a restaurant.
  • In Larnaca: there are the ruins of a caravanserai in the village of Mari, the so-called "Han Piyale Paşa". They were cpnstructed for travelers heading to Larnaca from Limassol and back, and in later times the workers of the quarry in Kalavasos spent the night here, who carried the rocks they mined to the port of Vasiliko.
  • Management of the caravanserai was not specifically a Turkish occupation, such travel hotels were often owned by Greek Cypriots. In the village of Pentageia (northwestern coast of Cyprus), there was a large caravanserai of Hatzikyriakis, where merchants of all stripes and pilgrims, heading from the west of the island to the Kykkos monastery, stayed.
  • In the village of Paramytha, on the road from Limassol to Troodos, there is a preserved caravanserai, which has been restored today and is again open to visitors. Unlike the classical traveling palaces, which resemble castles, this one is built with the letter P, as it is open on one side.
  • The "khani-tou-Mestana" caravanserai, built in the second half of the 19th century, has survived and was recently restored in the municipality of Athienou. It was used by those traveling from Larnaca to Nicosia and back.

The restored caravanserai in Afiena no longer looks like a fortress hotel (photo from the website of the municipality)

The era of caravanserais is irrevocably a thing of the past, today all of them are either destroyed or re-constructed for other needs.

Those that have survived to this day remind of the traditions of oriental hospitality and protection of travelers, remaining an important and distinctive monument of Islamic architecture.

Read more:

  • First acquaintance with Larnaca (link)
  • Where to live in Limassol? Coastline vs mountains (link)
  • Paphos Real Estate Market Overview (link)
  • Paphos vs. Limassol. All the pros and cons (link)
  • All about life and housing in Mackenzie, Larnaca (link)
  • Venetian Nicosia, the ideal Renaissance city (link)
  • Skala neighborhood in Larnaca (link)
Source: DOM LiVE
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