Caravanserai: a place where cultures meet

The word caravanserai is a persian word, combining “caravan” with “sarayi” or “serai”, meaning palace, dwelling or enclosed court. Caravan also in english refers to a group or convoy of traders, soldiers, pilgrims engaged in a long distance travel.

A caravanserai is a roadside inn, built to shelter men, goods and animals along ancient caravan routes, mainly in the Muslim world, and especially known to be linked to the Silk Road trade routes. But more than that, there was an extensive network of caravanserais built along the whole area of trade routes in the Middle East and Central Asia, each one built every 30-40 kilometers, one day’distance for journeys with pack animals.This network supported the flow of commerce, information, pilgrimage and people throughout the history of the different and extended muslim empires covering Asia, India, North Africa and Southern Europe from the 9th till the 19th century. The construction of several thousands of caravanserais then spanned a period of ten centuries, forming  together a major phenomenon in the history of that part of the world from an economic, architectural, social and cultural point of view.

In Cairo (Egypt) till some 200 years ago there were more than 300 caravanserais in use. After the safavide era (XVI-XVII century) more than 100 caravanserais were used in the bazar of Isfahan. They had long been a feature of iranian architecture, probably designed in a central bureau during Safavid period and Shah Abbas the Great.

Tipically a caravanserai is a building with a square or rectangular (rarely circular) walled exterior, with a single portal wide enough to permit large beats or largely laden beasts such as camels to enter. The courtyard could contain herds of up to hundreds of camels, horses and mules. Water was provided for human and animal consumption, washing, and ritual ablutions. Sometimes they even had elaborate baths. They also kept fodder for animals and had shops for travelers where they could acquire new supplies. In addition, there could be shops where merchants could dispose some of their goods.