Caravanserais: The Strongholds of the soul.


دل ای سلیم بر این کاروانسرا مبندکه خانه ساختن آیین کاروانی نیستد

“Oh innocent heart, in this Caravanserai do not lay your trust, for making a home is not the habit of wanderers”  (Sa’adi)


Caravanserai is a Persian term, referring to a closed compound used to accommodate travelers, usually merchants and pilgrims, providing them and their beasts a much needed shelter from the hostile environment. These kinds of institutes, once common around the pre-modern Islamic world, from Anatolia to the Arabian desert, from north Africa to the borders of China, played a crucial role in vast commercial and religious networks, delivering humans, materials, and ideas, throughout the Eurasian continent.


The Caravanserai networks, also known in the Middle East by the Turkish name of “Han”, were based on stone, mud brick, or fired brick structures, square or rectangular in shape, which usually had no more than two floors, surrounding an open or roof-covered central yard.

The Caravanserais were built along the major routes, usually up to thirty kilometers apart, and ensured the safe travel of traders and pilgrims, but were also used as symbols of authority and as tax stations. In some cases the actual financing for construction and maintenance of these institutes came from local benefactors, but in most cases it was provided by the ruling authority itself. As such, many of those inns, in Iran, Anatolia, and other places, were richly designed and ornamented, with elaborate Ivan portals, colourful glazed bricks, and dynastic dedication inscriptions, as worthy of a royal institute.

Sultanhani Caravansera, Seljuk. Anatolia, 13th century.

Sultanhani Caravansera, Seljuk. Anatolia, 13th century.

The architectural origin of the Caravanserai and its rise as an institute lies in the forming years of the Arabic empire. The Islamic conquest of the vast territories of North Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia formed buffer zones between the culture centers of the newly conquered lands, such as in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia in Iran, and the lands that lay beyond. These outer zones, such as in the Maghreb and Transoxania (Arabic: ma wara al nahar), were an attractive destination for Islamic fighters, known as Ghazi, who found in those regions a fertile source for holy war against the unbelievers, as well as a rich source for looted goods.

At the end of a hard day’s work of fighting and pillaging, these rough men of war found a safe haven in modest citadels, strategically build to allow them to observe and control their surroundings, but also used as places of study and spiritual contemplation.


These archaic bastions, scattered along the borders of Dar al Islam, were known as Ribats, and had eventually given their name to the Murabitun (dwellers of Ribats) dynasty which ruled North Africa and Al Nadalus until the 12th century AD, as well as to the capital of modern Morocco, known as Rabat. These names are a far echo for the expanding Islamic frontier, stretching towards the horizon by way of the sword, but also by the pen, the written word, and the scales.

With time, the Ribat forts gave home not only to fierce holy warriors, but also to wondering Sufi dervishes and Muslim merchants. These two groups found in the vast borderland, which lay far beyond the urban centers, a much desired destination for lucrative commercial and religious activity.

A gathering of Sufi dervishes. Khiva, 19th centrury.

A gathering of Sufi dervishes. Khiva, 19th centrury.


These enterprises gave weight in their own right to the spread of Islam, especially among the nomadic Turkic groups that roamed the sea of grass that stretched across northern Eurasia.

These Ribats, with their commercial and religious functions, eventually became the model for the later Caravanserai networks, although earlier sources of influence, such as the Sassanid fortifications and postal stations, as well as the Roman Castrum forts, also gave their architectural weight to the design.

Caravanserai- A general plan.

Caravanserai- A general plan.

Deyr Gachin Caravanserai, A Safavid secondary use of a Sassanian fort. Iran.

Deyr Gachin Caravanserai, A Safavid secondary use of a Sassanian fort. Iran.

The first Caravanserais to be built in the manner we recognize today were probably constructed under the Karakhanids (840–1212) and the Ghaznavids (977–1186), Two Turkic dynasties that ruled the borderlands of Transoxania and Afghanistan. From these realms the style continued to develop under the mighty Turkic empire of the great Seljuks (1037–1194), which propagated it far and wide in Iran, Anatolia, and throughout the Middle East.

Rabat-i Malik Caravanserai, Karakhanid, 11th century . Uzbekistan.

Rabat-i Malik Caravanserai, Karakhanid, 11th century . Uzbekistan.

Rabat-i sharaf, on the road from Merv to Nishapur. Seljuk, 12th century.

Rabat-i sharaf, on the road from Merv to Nishapur. Seljuk, 12th century.

The heydays of the Caravanserai networks, at least in the Eastern, Persianate part of the Islamic civilization, lasted throughout the time of the Seljuk Empire, when after the destruction period of the Mongol invasions, started a time of considerable revival and expansion of the system, under the Safavids of Iran, and to some extent by the Ottoman Turks.



With the break of European commercial domination, especially through the maritime trade route to China, central Eurasia had fallen into economic crisis, caused by the dwindling flow of goods through its ancient trade routes. In consequence, the once-bustling shelters for voyagers and wanderers had fallen into disuse. With no revenues to enable well-needed maintenance, they fell into ruin, their elegant arches crumbling, and only the owls finding a resting place within their desolate walls.

Today, some Caravanserais had been partly restored as Archeological and tourist sites, with fine examples that can be seen in Turkish Anatolia, Armenia, Iran, Uzbekistan, and as far as the Kyrgyz-Chinese border. Some old Caravanserai were even restored and brought back to life as boutique hotels, and though these renovations usually give a rather extravagant appearance in contrast to the Caravanserai’s rustic image, it can still be regarded as homage to this once-central institute.

Shaki Caravanserai, Azerbaijan, 19th century.

Shaki Caravanserai, Azerbaijan, 19th century.

In literature, the road-Inn, the Caravanserai, was held (when not portrayed as a flea-infested, dubious place) to be a place of refuge, a source for warmth and comfort in a hostile and inhospitable land, and figuratively, as the search of one’s soul for salvation. This theme can perhaps be seen as a far echo for the Ribat fort, and their housing of bands of rag-wearing Sufis, searching for the presence of the divine, far beyond the borders of the known world.

The famous blind Aşık (minstrel) Veysel (1894-1973), born in Anatolia at the end of 19th century, compared life to a Han (The Turkish word for Caravanserai) with two doors. Perhaps he borrowed this deterministic image from his own grim life experience, which included turning blind by smallpox, the death of his parents at a young age, and his departure for a life of destitute wandering accompanied by his lute (Bağlama), and perhaps he had meant that life has only two certainties, the two doors, which are birth and death.


Uzun ince bir yoldayım

Uzun ince bir yoldayim
Gidiyorum gündüz gece
Bilmiyorum ne haldeyim
Gidiyorum gündüz gece

Dünyaya geldiğim anda
Yürüdum ayni zamanda
Iki kapılı bir handa
Gidiyorum gündüz gece

Uykuda dahi yuruyom
Kalmaya sebeb ariyom
Gidenleri hep goruyom
Gidiyorum gündüz gece

Kirkdokuz yil bu yollarda
Ovada dağda cöllerde
Düşmüşüm gürbet ellerde
Gidiyorum gündüz gece

Saşar Veysel işbu hale
Gah ağlayan gahi güle
Yetişmek için menzile
Gidiyorum gündüz gece

I am on a long and narrow road

On a long and narrow road
Walking all day and all night
Unaware of the condition I am in
Walking day and night

From the moment I was born
I started walking right away
In an inn with two gates
Walking day and night

Walking even in my sleep
Seeking a reason for staying
Eyeing those who are leaving
Walking day and night

Forty-nine years on these roads
On the plains, mountains, and deserts
Stuck in these foreign lands
Walking day and night

Veysel is bewildered to this situation
It makes him cry some, smile some
Trying to reach a destination
Walking day and night

Tash rabat, 15th century, Kyrgyzstan.

Tash rabat, 15th century, Kyrgyzstan.




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