Caravanserais: cross-roads of commerce and culture along the Silk Roads


The inland routes of the Silk Roads were dotted with caravanserais, large guest houses or hostels designed to welcome travelling merchants and their caravans as they made their way along these trade routes. Found across Silk Roads countries from Turkey to China, they provided not only a regular opportunity for merchants to eat well, rest and prepare themselves in safety for their onward journey, and also to exchange goods, trade with to local markets, and to meet other merchant travelers, and in doing so, to exchange cultures, languages and ideas. As such, caravanserais were far more than simply watering holes along the Silk Roads; they developed as crucibles for the cross-fertilization of cultures along the length of these routes.

There is relatively little known about the origins of the caravanserai. Etymologically, the word is a compound of the Persian kārvān, meaning caravan or group of travelers, and sara, a palace or enclosed building, with the addition of the Turkish suffix -yi. One of the earliest examples of such a building can be found in the oasis city of Palmyra, in Syria, which developed from the 3rd century BC as a place of refuge for travelers crossing the Syrian desert. Its spectacular ruins still stand as a monument to the intersection of trade routes from Persia, India, China and Roman Empire. As trade routes developed and became more lucrative, caravanserais became more of a necessity, and their construction seems to have 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 caravanserais that stretched from China to the Indian subcontinent, Iran, the Caucasus, Turkey, and as far as North Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe, many of which still stand today.

 Caravanserais were ideally positioned within a day’s journey of each other, so as to prevent merchants (and more particularly, their precious cargos) from spending nights exposed to the dangers of the road. On average, this resulted in a caravanserai every 30 to 40 kilometres in well-maintained areas, such as along the Great Trunk Road that ran through northern India and into Pakistan. Additionally, some had fortified walls and doubled as military strongholds or outposts, known as rabats, particularly those positioned near frontiers or borders. They also played a role in communicating both regional and international news across Central Asia, and for instance, under the Mughal emperors of the 16th century, the caravanserais of the Great Trunk Road in northern India were supplied with messenger horses, ready to pass on any important news carried by travellers.

However, perhaps the most important legacy of the caravanserai was its role as a crucible for the exchange and interaction of cultures along the length of the Silk Roads. Not only did they facilitate the movement of people and goods along these long and arduous routes, they also provided opportunities for these travellers to come together, to share stories and experiences, and ultimately, cultures, ideas and beliefs too. Languages had to be learnt in order to be able to communicate stories from the route, and local food, clothing and etiquette was combined with merchants’ own goods and customs. Moreover, religions, traditions and ideas rubbed shoulders in such places, and brought influences from along the lengths of the Silk Roads into the communities around the caravanserais.  Many were furnished with mosques as Islam spread through Central Asia in the early middle ages, and Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism were also transmitted by religious scholars travelling along these routes. The traces of such exchange are reflected in the diverse yet closely interrelated cultures that have emerged along the Silk Roads and the plurality of languages and religions that have flourished throughout this region of the world. Cities that contained caravanserais became great intellectual and cultural centres, such as Samarkand, Qazvin, Bursa, Aleppo, and Acre, and those that lay along isolated highways became local centres of civilization.

The internal structure of the caravanserai facilitated this process of interaction, not least through the provision of hamams and bazars, providing further opportunities and incentives for travellers to relate to one another. Indeed, trading began at such places too, and often the market held within the caravanserai was the first occasion for merchants to start to sell their produce. In larger caravanserais with two entrance gates, bazars would run through the centre of the entire compound. These would be supplied by the merchants who had arrived at the site, and those that were situated near cities would often feed into regional markets too. Such points of practical and commercial trade consolidated the more intangible and yet, in some ways even more profound, exchange that characterised these oases of hospitality along the Silk Roads.

The existence of this network of caravanserais along the Silk Roads thus provided a foundation for the new cultures that were to spring up alongside these routes. Scattered in their thousands across Central Asia, they not only provided safety and rest to the merchants that traversed these routes, but were of great economic, social and cultural significance to the regions in which they were based. Bringing travellers together from east and west, they facilitated an unprecedented process of exchange in culture, language, religion and customs that has become the basis of many of the cultures of Central Asia today.



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