Caravanserai

Caravanserai were roadside inns where people travelling in caravans (camel trains) could rest after a day’s travel for, between the third and seventeenth centuries, hauling precious goods across Asia, North Africa and southeast Europe was something best done during daylight.

Even the name caravanserai crosses Arabia, as it is the Persian words kārvān (a group of travelers) and sara (an enclosed building) to which the Turkish suffix –yi has been added. Palmyra in Syria has one of the earliest known ones, dating from the third century. This is not surprising given what a well-traversed corner of the world Syria is.

We don’t know much about cavaranserai but we do owe them a huge debt for it’s these simple buildings we have to thank for keeping what little was left of the civilized world civilized. For travellers and their horses and camels, caravanserai functioned as a combination of service station and hotel providing water, food, and places to rest. Caravanserai also functioned as trade centres with retailers selling goods to travellers as well as purchasing from them. They also functioned as customs offices for the movement of goods for commercial purposes attracts customs and excise duties whatever the century or continent.

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Al-Muqaddasi the Arab geographer wrote in 985 CE about the hostelries, or wayfarers’ inns, in the Province of Palestine, a country that was at the time considered as part of Syria. He wrote “Taxes are not heavy in Syria, with the exception of those levied on the Caravanserais (Fanduk); Here, however, the duties are oppressive…” He is referring to the duties charged by government officials on the importation of goods and merchandise, the importers of which and their beasts of burden usually stopping to take rest in these places. Guards were stationed at every gate to ensure that taxes for these goods be paid in full, while the revenues therefrom accruing to the Fatimid kingdom of Egypt.

I haven’t read Marco Polo’s Book of the Marvels of the World [a.k.a. The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300] but, given his outbound route, caravans and caravanserai must feature largely. Some glaring omissions in M-P’s supposed observations in China suggest to some scurrilous scholars that M-P never went further than the far side of Persia but, nevertheless, his Book of Marvels was an inspiration for countless others including one Christopher Columbus. 

Caravans feature most definitely in the writings of Arab compulsive traveller Ibn Battuta. Setting out from Morocco in 1325, his first trip lasted twenty-four years before he returned but was off again within a year, returning fifteen years later, to spend three years (presumably) documenting his previous journeys before setting out on his third journey that lasted a mere six.

Sea travel carried different risks so overland travel by caravan was the preferred option. Caravanserai were safe shelters fortified against attack and were quasi-closed systems that could withstand seige for short periods, much like the castles that operated in Europe over the same period.

As trade routes developed and became more lucrative, caravanserai became more of a necessity, and their construction intensified across Central Asia from the 10th century onwards, particularly during periods of political and social stability, and continued until as late as the 19th century. This resulted in a network of caravanserai that stretched from China to the Indian subcontinent, Iran, the Caucasus, Turkey, North Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe. Many of these still stand today.*

These typical plans tell us they look a bit like forts and have thick walls, a square plan, and a single entrance only wide enough for laden camels to pass. Architecture is absent, presumably because it hadn’t been invented yet, but there wouldn’t have been much need for it even if it had been.

The walls are thick for durability as well as to withstand attack. If caravanserai give the impression of being strong and fortified, it is because they were strong and fortified. The Middle Ages everywhere were refreshingly free of semantics. We wrongly call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages but that was only in Europe. Surrounding countries were relatively outward looking. The legacy of this attitude persists. We erroneously attribute the structural and defensive geometry of the caravanserai plan is a European castle innovation but castles and caravanserai probably share a Roman ancestor.

Deserts aren’t known for their abundance of construction materials and labour so the construction of caravanserai can’t have been simple or fast. This is the relatively well-preserved Qasr Kharana in Jordan.

Materials were locally sourced. If rock was available then caravanserai were condtructed of rock and if not, then of mud brick. It made good money for someone to have them constructed, particularly given the lucrative income stream of excise duties. But at what level were they collected? Caravanserai are unlikely to have been privately funded speculative developments. History is silent.

What’s still apparent today is that construction materials were used efficiently. The square footprint has rooms around its perimeter, a large open space in the middle for animals, and intermediate spaces where owners could offload their goods and keep an eye on them. Structurally, the perimeter walls are strengthened by the walls separating the rooms. If the goal was simply to use a minimum amount of construction material to enclose a maximum area then we would expect to see more circular or octagonal plans than we do. The square plan is a beneficial trade-off  between construction efficiency and maximising the number of money-earning rooms. Supporting this theory, larger caravanserai had an additional level of rooms rather than quadruple the area of parking. The point of that space was that it had secure boundaries and the only rationalisation possible was for those boundaries. Resting camels don’t naturally form orderly rows and it was probably not worth the lost rest time to coerce them to do so for the sake of some marginal space advantage. The space had no layout and in busy times simply became more densely packed, as happens today with people and elevators.

Desert climates typically have large diurnal temperature ranges. In the tenth century, it was Bagdhad that was the hub of the intellectual and commercial world but here’s the climatic data for Basra a bit south. There’s an almost constant diurnal spread of 20°C but the thermal mass of thick walls will work to lessen it.

Another example of vernacular intelligence is the closed courtyard with only a single narrow entrance opening. This will work to ensure a pool of cool night air remains trapped in that courtyard for as long as possible into the day. The internal space of caravanserai have no trees for shade but the inner ring of sheltered areas for the storage of goods will keep more of that internal volume shaded for longer.

It may be coincidence but both these next examples have their entrances facing south. Now, Persian villa orientation and planning acknowledged seasonal changes in the incident angle of sunlight with some rooms optimized for summer and others winter but it’s difficult to imagine well-lit rooms attracting a premium in caravanserai. If caravanserai entrances are indeed characteristically on the south side, then I’m guessing it’s because the side having the first and last light facilitated late arrivals and early departures.

This seems reasonable because caravanserai existed to prevent merchants and their goods from being exposed to the dangers of the road at night. A south-facing entrance would be a selling point if caravanserai were spaced at a day’s journey along important routes. Getting to the next stop on time meant getting there safely and this was important, particularly if transporting valuable cargo such as silk from China, gold from Saudia Arabia, frankincense from Yemen, and myrrh from Oman.

As well as reminding me Christmas is coming, this is also starting to feel quite close to home. Caravanserai can’t have been that rare if they were spaced a day’s camel trek apart across Africa, Arabia and Asia. Turns out there’s the remains of one within 3 km of me.

Jumeirah Archaeological Site in Dubai is the 10th century remains of a caravan station that existed since the 6th century as part of a trade route linking Oman with Iraq. The station developed into mixed-use complex of residential units, marketplace, mosque and caravanserai.

Unlike with castles, the primary and lasting value of caravanserai comes from them having been open to receiving the world outside. Castles may have projected political and military power but caravanserai were the ports, the airports and the communications infrastructure of their time, sustaining not only commerce and the movement of goods and people across Eastern Europe, Asia and North Africa but of knowledge in the form of books and news and communications in the form of conversations and stories.

More important and lasting was the role of caravanserai as places for cultural, intellectual and social exchange. [What and where are their equivalents today?] In Europe, castles gradually lost their defensive function as the Renaissance began but let’s remember it’s only because of caravanserai that there was a Renaissance in the first place, let alone that upstart Renaissance affectation known as architecture.

Castles closed to the outside world were refuges against barbarism but, all throughout the Middle Ages, caravanserai had been an open and civilizing force countering the forces of barbarism.

Renaissance architecture may symbolize a more civilized Europe but merely represented existing power structures lowering their defenses when it was safe to do so. By updating the representation of existing power structures architecture may represent the progress of civilization but it can never be a civilizing force.

The incentive and the credit for Europe being dragged back into civilization belongs to open buildings such as caravanserai. 

Even if we still haven’t learned this most important lesson of the caravanserai, we should still pay them some respect for they are under-represented in global histories of architecture. As well as enabling the continuation of civilization and all that, they did what they did very well and for a period of about fifteen hundred years 300–1800 plus or minus a century or two.

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The following text I paraphrase from the publisher’s page for this book with photography and text by Tom Schutyser, an introduction by Andrew Lawler, and contributions by Reza Aslan, Rachid al-Daif, Robert Fisk, Dominique Moïsi and Paul Salem. [I’m excitedly awaiting my copy.] 

“Caravanserai were vital nodes in what was in effect the first globalized overland network and trading system. Thousands were built and successfully operated. They survived empires, caliphates and wars until the demise of the caravan trade. Those that have not vanished or become ruins, survive as hotels, museums, shops, storage space, living quarters, or military outposts. In the tumultuous state of relations between the Western and Muslim worlds today, caravanserai are evidence of ancient multicultural exchange and trade and inspire the quest to find such new platforms of multicultural dialogue for the future.”

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This is the Zein-o-din Caravanserai a two-day camel ride (60km) south of Yazd, Iran. Built in the 16th century just prior to the Silk Road no longer being the major trade route between Europe and Asia, it was recently restored and, though it once more functions as a hotel, we must remember hotels today aren’t what they used to be.

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Further: 

The UNESCO website on caravanserai

PS: The book arrived and is fab. The header image is one of Tom Schutyser’s.

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