Travel back in time with Istanbul's ancient hans

These Ottoman-era merchant inns tell stories of a golden past

Buyuk Yeni Han, an old merchant inn in Istanbul, is the second-largest surviving han in the city. Photo: Anne Pinto-Rodrigues
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At first glance, the salmon-coloured building of Zincirli Han inside Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar appears relatively modern when compared to its surroundings. But pay closer attention and the signs of an ancient structure become apparent.

The depression in the marble steps from centuries of use, the central open-air courtyard with cobbled flooring and a marble fountain, the arched corridors and doors – all point to a building from a bygone era.

The two-storey Zincirli Han was once a bustling Turkish merchant inn dating to the early 18th century. Today, it is home to a tea house, carpet store, jewellery shop, other businesses, workshops and several cats.

Zincirli Han is also a favourite hangout of Aysenur Altan, an Istanbul local and creator of the popular YouTube channel Turkish Food Travel.

“After the crowds and chaos of Grand Bazaar, Zincirli Han is a secret, quiet place to sit and relax,” says Altan. “I order tea from the teahouse, find a nice spot to sit on the upper level and watch the cats."

The history of these complexes – known as hans in Turkish and caravanserais across the region – is about five centuries old.

With the start of the construction of Istanbul’s covered market in 1455 (what has become today's Grand Bazaar), the Ottoman rulers and officials of the time built many inns around the market.

These provided visiting professionals a place to stay, but the hans also served as a warehouse for merchants' goods, an office space for traders and a workshop for craftsmen.

The layout of a han was typically rectangular or square, with a central open-air courtyard with a fountain and trees, and a building consisting of two or three storeys.

The ground level was used for storing goods, as well as a rest area for the transport animals, mainly horses, donkeys and camels. The rooms on the first and second storeys were used as accommodation, offices and workshops.

They were built in the rich Ottoman architectural traditions prevalent at the time. Some of these features – such as the arched corridors, doors and windows, as well as the dome-shaped ceilings – can still be seen today, although several of these historic inns have now been renovated.

They are either occupied in their original construction or after renovation, like in the case of Zincirli Han.

Zincir in Turkish means chain and so, back in the day, Zincirli Han may have been involved with the metal chains trade, as many hans were focused on a particular trade or craft and derived their name from it.

“Hans provide a glimpse into how trade and commerce was conducted during Ottoman times,” says Altan.

Lisa Morrow, author of Istanbul 50 Unsung Places, is fascinated by these merchant inns.

“When you enter the courtyard of one, you walk into a world separate from the streets outside," Morrow says.

Right outside the Spice Bazaar is Beta Yeni Han, where it is believed coffee was first processed and traded in Istanbul. Its foundations were laid in the early 17th century and even today the coffee shop has a roasting oven from Ottoman times.

It has also been renovated, retaining its character and ancient structure, and reopened for business in 2019 with nearly a dozen establishments, including a teahouse, spice store and chocolate shop.

Less than a 10-minute walk from Beta Yeni Han is Kurkcu Han. It's easy to mistake this for another local market, as it has a handful of small shops at ground level selling a wide range of household items, home furnishings and clothes.

But this two-storey han, while extensively renovated, is the oldest surviving one in the city, with its original construction completed in 1467.

Nowadays, Kurkcu Han is famous for being a knitters' paradise, with a wide variety of yarn and other craft paraphernalia sold cheaply here.

The largest surviving han in Istanbul is Buyuk Valide Han. Founded in 1651, it is said to have consisted of nearly 400 rooms at the end of the 18th century.

Although today it is in poor shape, it retains its original architecture and some of its ground-floor rooms are used as shops, while the upper level is used for workshops by craftsmen.

Buyuk Valide Han is known for having some of the best views of Istanbul, which can be accessed either from its rooftop or from the balcony of the tiny cafe that operates from one of the first-storey rooms.

It has also made a starring appearance in the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall, in which it appeared in a dramatic motorcycle chase scene.

In the same vicinity is Buyuk Yeni Han, the second-largest surviving han in the city, completed in 1764. It is one of Morrow’s favourite hans.

“It doesn’t look like much, but it contains such a wealth of artistry,” she says. “This is where copper and silversmiths produce gloriously decorative yet practical items.”

While there has been a rise in interest in hans, there are also concerns about their conditions.

“Some are in a really bad shape,” Altan says. “Even after the authorities step in, renovations can be complicated and take a lot of time."

No matter what shape they're in, though, entering one of these ancient inns still creates the feeling of travelling back in time.

“I feel like I’m wandering through history,” says Altan.

Morrow agrees: “They are treasuries filled with skill, tradition and continuity."

Updated: February 29, 2024, 11:26 AM