Caravanserai – Staging Posts of the Desert

12 August 2012

There were once thousands of caravanserai, staging posts for the weary traveller, dotted throughout Asia, North Africa and the South-Eastern parts of Europe.  The Silk Road, an important and extensive trans-continental network of routes, was dotted with them.  Many still survive, but more, like the one in the Lut desert of Iran (above) are abandoned and slowly turning to dust.

Modern methods of transportation have meant that the caravanserai, where they are not fortunate enough to be restored and made in to hotels, slowly but surely rejoin the sand of the desert.  However, you can still see the rising columns in the Lut example, above, which one day perhaps looked something more like the interior of the one to be found in Meybod (also in Iran, below).

The caravanserai of old was a rectangular building with a walled exterior. These squat buildings had a single door.  The doors were wide enough to permit large animals (camels for example) to gain access – as the whole point of the building was to provide shelter and protection to these beasts of burden and their often precious cargoes. Some of them were simply magnificent.

From the inside of this restored caravanserai in Seki, Azerbaijan, you can see the single portal through which the animals and their owners would enter.  Although this is an unusual entrance for a caravanserai as the primary courtyard is enclosed, you can see where the stalls once were, now replaced with shops.

Venture further in, however, and you are in to the traditional courtyard, open to the sky. These caravanserai must have been the equivalent of finding an oasis – the trappings of civilization in a single place for the no doubt weary travelers.  The bays that you can see would be rented out to the merchants and would be sufficient to hold their merchandise, animals and their servants too.

Although they looked formidable and perhaps unfriendly from the outside, they must have been a welcome sight for the honest traveler, in need of hot food and water. The above caravanserai in Maranjab, Dasht-e Kavir in Iran and shows the generally flat nature of the caravanserai, although the entrances, as we shall see, could be very grand.

As well as being staging posts, the caravanserai often served as a kind of prototype mall.  Although the caravanserai in Tunisia (above) is selling modern reproductions, it gives us an idea, perhaps, of what it may have looked like hundreds of years ago.  There would often be shops where the traders could offload some of their goods.  Translators were often hired to help with the haggling.  What was more, many of them had their own libraries so that those who were literate could tuck themselves up with a good book which otherwise would have been too heavy to transport along the arduous route.

Many of the caravanserai date back more than a thousand years. The one above is an old old caravanserai in Ibb province, Yemen - on the path of Queen Arwa.  She ruled over Yemen for 79 years, starting in 440 AH (Anno Hegirae) or 1062 AD – a few years before the Norman invasion of England.

You can see how the plan comes alive in reality in this well preserved caravanserai in Shaki, Azerbaijan.

However, there are so many caravanserai that have been abandoned and left to their own devices.  This one, Seljuk caravanserai in Shafi Abad, Kerman region, Iran is still a sight to behold but has been left to molder.  Some, however, will never be seen again.  The magnificent caravanserai of Bam (below), again in Iran is no more. The magnificent and ancient city made of mud brick was decimated by an earthquake in 2003.

As airports today follow a general plan, so did caravanserai (see the plan above).  This meant that however far you journeyed you would not need to speak the local language in order to recognise the familiar shape of a place of shelter (not so much branding, perhaps, but still the golden arches as it were of yesteryear). Plus, when you have, through trial and error, discovered the perfect architecture for one kind of building, the idea naturally spreads.

So the magnificent caravanserai in Anatolia, Turkey, is immediately recognisable in terms of its function.

Travel to Acre (now in Israel) and you get a very similar building, despite the distance between them.  The Khan al-Umdan caravanserai is situated at the heart of the old harbour and was built in 1784.

Many caravanserais had elaborate doorways, such as this stunning example in Cappadocia in Turkey.  Although building materials differed, a great many caravanserais were made in black and white marble, which also helped to make them instantly recognisable to the traveller.

The word itself is a compound, coming from two Persian words.  The first, 'kārvān means caravan and the second, sara meant a palace or a building with sheltering fortifications.  As you can see from the caravanserai in Zein-o-Din, Iran – many of them were sturdy enough to last centuries.  These were seriously fortified buildings.  However, within, one could find respite and peace.


Think, in this batter'd Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

Stanza 17, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam


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