Rüstem Pasha Caravanserai is located in the historical centre of Edirne, on the mainland route between Asia Minor and Europe. Even after losing the status of the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Edirne continued to be the critical military and commercial centre of the Empire’s European provinces. In the 1560s, the Grand Vezir Rüstem Pasha commissioned the eminent architect Mimar Sinan to build a caravanserai in Edirne for the travellers and merchants to stay. Even today, the caravanserai still serves as a hotel, although its adaptation to modern standards has been questioned by visitors and architects alike.
Before we take a closer look at the building, let us introduce Rüstem Pasha, its sponsor. Born in the area of modern Croatia, he was taken to Istanbul as a small boy, in the devshirme practice. Like many other Christian-born boys, he was converted to Islam and trained at the palace school. He raised through the ranks of the courtiers, advancing to the position of the chief supervisor of the sultan’s stables and the stirrup holder when the sultan got on the horse. These posts made it necessary for him to accompany the Sultan during his travels, so Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent knew Rüstem a long time before he appointed him the tutor of his sons.
Despite being a generous sponsor of many public buildings throughout the Ottoman Empire, Rüstem Pasha is remembered as an unpleasant or even loathsome character. His contemporaries called him Kehle-i-ikbâl (the Fortunate Louse) because he had been found to be infected with lice the day before he married Mihrimah, Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s favourite daughter. He was lucky indeed as the earlier suspicions had stated that he had been a leper. These rumours were spread by his enemies who wanted to prevent Rüstem Pasha from marrying the princes. When the court doctors examined him and found lice, they cleared him of the leprosy accusation. According to medical knowledge of these days, lice kept away from the lepers. Thus, on the 26th of November 1539, at the age of seventeen, Mihrimah was married to Rüstem, who then held the post of the Governor of Diyarbakır. From this moment he was known as Damat Rüstem Pasha, the epithet damat meaning “son-in-law” to the Ottoman dynasty. He was soon promoted to the position of the Second Vezir by his new father-in-law, the sultan. After five years, he became the Grand Vezir, the position he was to hold twice.
If this story does not make you unsympathetic to Rüstem Pasha, there’s more to his career. He was one of those lucky husbands that are on friendly terms with their mothers-in-law. Rüstem was maybe even too friendly to his, the infamous Roxelana, also known as Hürrem Sultan. She was the favourite and later the legal wife of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and they had six children together. Unfortunately for Roxelana, Suleyman also had an older son – Mustafa – with another wife, called Mahidevran. This fact did not sit well with Roxelana who wanted to see one of her sons on the Ottoman throne. Although there is no proof of Hürrem or Mihrimah’s direct involvement in the plot, it is widely believed that they cooperated with Rüstem to eliminate Mustafa to ensure the throne to Hürrem’s son and Mihrimah’s full-brother, Bayezid.
The occasion arose in spring 1553 when Sultan Suleyman started a military campaign against Persia,at that time ruled by the Safavid dynasty. When he was still stationed in Central Anatolia, Rüstem Pasha managed to convince him that Mustafa was plotting together with the Janissaries and the Safavids to kill his father. At the same time, Rüstem suggested Mustafa join his father’s army. Mustafa assembled his forces to join his father’s. Suleyman saw this as a confirmation of the plot and ordered the execution of his son. When Mustafa entered his father’s tent to meet him, Suleyman’s guards attacked Mustafa and killed him using a bow-string. This execution caused a great discontent among the Janissaries, so Rüstem paid for his participation in the plot and lost the post of the Grand Vezir. He regained it two years later and then held it until his death in 1561. Surprisingly for such a controversial figure, he died of natural causes, after a long illness. He was buried in Sehzade Mosque, because his dream project, the Rüstem Paşa Mosque, was not yet built. His wife, Mihrimah, who flourished as a patroness of the arts, completed the construction of the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, as a memorial of Rüstem Pasha.
As the Grand Vezir, Rüstem Pasha became fabulously wealthy. At the time of his death, his personal property included 815 plots of land, 476 mills, 1700 slaves, 2,900 war horses, 1,106 camels, and 800 Qur’ans. On his lands, he ordered the construction of bridges, roads, bazaars, granaries, baths, hospices, caravanserais, convents, schools and various other public institutions. Many of these monumental architectural projects were executed by Mimar Sinan, even before he reached the pinnacle of his career as the most prominent architect of the Ottoman Empire. One of these commisions was the erection of a caravanserai in Edirne, now known as Rüstem Pasha Caravanserai, around the year 1554.
Sinan created a design where the building surrounded a grand rectangular courtyard with a marble basin in the centre. The second, smaller courtyard of irregular shape was added later, and the name of its architect remains unknown. This smaller yard was initially used as camel stables and a soup kitchen. The front facade of the building had an arcade with a row of shops. More than 100 rooms awaited the visitors.
The walls of the caravanserai were erected of alternating courses of cut stones and bricks. The lower level of the building is supported by circular arches and covered with vaults while the upper level is supported by the pointed arches and domed. A small mosque, located in the larger courtyard, was destroyed during the Ottoman – Russian War of 1877-1878. The destruction, which began during this war, was aggravated by the Bulgarian occupation of Edirne in the years 1912-13. As a result, many walls, vaults and domes collapsed.
The restoration project of Rüstem Pasha Caravanserai was initiated and sponsored by the Department of Pious Foundations. The work began in 1960, and in 1964 the conversion to a hotel was agreed upon. The work was completed in 1972. As a result, there are 35 rooms with cradle vault behind the lower floor porches and 38 rooms behind the domed gallery on the upper floor. The rooms on the lower side have shops in front, facing the street, while the upper rooms extend over these shops.
In 1980, the restored caravanserai was granted the Aga Khan Award (AKA) for Architecture. It is an architectural prize that wants, as it mission statement expalains: “to identify and reward architectural concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of Islamic societies in the fields of contemporary design, social housing, community development and improvement, restoration, reuse and area conservation, as well as landscape design and improvement of the environment.”
In the case of Rüstem Pasha Caravanserai, the jury of the AKA commended the restoration of an important monument but also criticised the failure of its re-use. It was decided that although the renovation represents a high standard of conception and performance, the hotel conversion proved impractical: “While in its execution the work measures up to the established principles and techniques of restoration, the decision to convert the building into a modern hotel has proved unrealistic. This type of hotel with its sophisticated services requires spatial and technical flexibility which a traditional building does not possess. Despite these shortcomings, the attempt to rehabilitate a historical monument is commendable and points to an important direction if there is to be a positive policy in architectural conservation.”
Among numerous problems arising from the conversion, limiting the access to the historical monument to tourists was mentioned. Moreover, the hotel was criticised as an uneconomical and impractical idea. For instance, Edirne has cold winters and the rooms open to the central courtyard that makes them difficult to heat. Windows are too small to provide sufficient light to rooms, and some corner rooms have no windows at all. Judging by the comments left by the guests of Kervansaray Hotel, the opinion of AKA jury was entirely justified. Many visitors complained of small, basic and dirty rooms. Finally, in 2017, the hotel was closed for restoration, and its future remains uncertain.