Without such places to rest in safety and relative comfort, Ibn Battuta's famous 28-year journey across Africa and
Asia might never have taken place. Indeed, it was not until the Islamic era, beginning in the seventh century
long-distance travel became a matter of at least as much routine as risk. Essential to this change was the spread of
systems of traveler's lodgings, from Spain to China, which opened the world to innumerable merchants, pilgrims
and others who, like Ibn Battuta, were driven by sheer curiosity.
Today, the evocative ruins of sturdy, walled roadside caravanserai compounds still dot the landscape, from the deserts
of North Africa to the highlands of Iran and even as far east as the humid lowlands of Bangladesh. Other lodging
compounds, known as khans and funduqs, can still be found crammed into the old quarters of cities in
the Middle East and Central Asia, most now dilapidated and variously used as cheap housing, parking lots or commercial storage. For these buildings, official protection from decay or demolition is rare, but, despite this, a
few have been restored. No one knows for sure how many remain.
"They don't have the religious significance of a mosque, or the
political importance of a palace, so they don't merit preservation
in the same way," says Olivia Constable of the University of Notre
Dame, who is one of the few scholars to delve deeply into the historical
economy and architecture of the caravanserais and khans.
The buildings were more than just early roadside
hotels, she explains. As their name suggests, caravanserais
accommodated whole caravans en route, while khans were substantial
compounds built in towns alongside markets (suqs). Funduqs (the word
still often used today for "hotel" in Arabic) tended
to be more like boardinghouses, also often built
near markets. All three were, to varying degrees
across continents and centuries, vibrant centers
where peoples, religions and ethnicities mingled. In
particular, caravanserais were probably more like airports
today, resembling small towns in themselves, with places to sleep, eat,
shop, pray, meet and mingle while livestock rested, awaiting the next
stage of the journey. Here you might make an unexpected profit on a load
of exotic goods, trade rumors of bandits or tax collectors, or just savor tea
with your own countrymen in a distant land.
By the 19th century, steamships and trains began to render caravanserais
and khans obsolete. But for more than a millennium, they were essential
to the vibrancy, prosperity and cosmopolitan character of the medieval
world, the vertebrae that formed the spine of the storied Silk Roads.
"At each of these stations between Cairo and Gaza," Ibn Battuta
noted, "travelers alight, and outside each khan is a public watering
hole and a shop where he may buy what he requires for
himself and his beast."
Less well known is the fact that the khans were also the
centers of trade in cities. During the 15th century, there were
more than 300 khans in Cairo alone. And in mercantile hubs
like Alexandria in Egypt and Aleppo in Syria, a stranger could
usually find one staffed and run by people from his own
land, or even from his own city. Built in what might be
called an early international style, most caravanserais
and khans were remarkably similar in appearance and
design, whether you were in Morocco or India. That
generic look was probably no less comforting to tired
travelers then than a Holiday Inn logo is today.
Visitors would approach plain high walls and enter
a rectangular courtyard through a single gate, tall and
wide enough to allow loaded camels to pass through.
Just inside the gate, a scribe might jot down your name,
your hometown, the nature of your goods and the
number of your livestock. Many compounds had second
stories to lodge the human visitors, leaving the
ground floor to house goods and animals. Good ventilation, running
water, clean latrines and private rooms were among the amenities
guests could expect from a good caravanserai or khan. This simple and
efficient design proved both durable and adaptable over the centuries,
and it was itself a remarkable melding of East and West.
n the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, composed in the third
millennium bce, the hero makes a journey to obtain the elixir
of immortality. Along the way, he finds rest at an inn: It's the
first known written reference to a lodging-place for travelers. But
the true roots of the caravanserai, as part of an organized system
of trade, date to the fifth century bce, when the Persian Empire
built the 2500-kilometer road from Sardis to Susa. It necessarily
included, at regular intervals along its length, stables with feed for
horses, camels, donkeys and other beasts of burden, as well as housing
for the caravaneers who guided them. The effort required immense
organization in a vast land filled with mountains,
deserts and bandits. "Royal stations exist
along its whole length, and excellent caravanserais
… free from danger," wrote an impressed Herodotus.
In the later Greekspeaking Mediterranean world, inns called pandocheions—"
accepting all comers"—were widespread. (It was at a pandocheion
that the Good Samaritan mentioned in the Christian New
Testament left the traveler who had fallen among thieves.) Pandocheions
were a motley lot, sometimes little more than ramshackle
taverns, and often considered unsavory places.
In the Byzantine centuries that followed, Christians began
to make pilgrimages throughout that empire, and the quality and
reputation of pandocheions gradually improved. Some of the inns that
catered to pilgrims did so for free. Beginning in the seventh century, Islam picked
up both this tradition and the word: the Arabic funduq has its roots
in pandocheion, and the Umayyad caliph 'Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz in
719 instructed the governor of Samarkand to build caravanserais
throughout his lands and provide travelers with free room and board
for up to two days and two nights. Such organization and patronage
not only facilitated the flow of trade, but also helped rulers collect
taxes on it and keep an eye on strangers as well.
In their architecture, these medieval caravanserais drew variously
on the designs of square Roman forts, Persian palaces and
Central Asian family houses to produce their pragmatic, universal
design theme. Local masons could use local materials—mud brick,
fired brick or stone—to create a structure, open to the sky but protected
by high walls, that looked similar whether it was near the
Mediterranean coast or the Hindu Kush.
By the ninth and 10th centuries, caravanserais dotted the hills
of Muslim Spain, the deserts of Iran and the mountainous borders
of China. At times, they inspired poets, including Omar Khayyam,
who in the late 11th century used the caravanserai as a metaphor for
the transience of life:
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
In urban settings, the walls of the khans also ensured protection
and increased privacy as well. Some khans were simple compounds;
others were elaborate, nearly palatial, establishments, with
intricately carved columns and marble courtyards. "Merchants could
use them, rent a nearby shop and stay for the short or the
long term," says Katia Cytryn-Silverman, an archeologist at
Hebrew University who has studied khans. "And they were
often in the heart of the city."
ne of the oldest and best preserved of the ancient
urban khans lies at the center of abandoned Resafa
in central Syria. Today, it is hard to imagine that
this desolate desert spot was once an eastern anchor of the
Roman Empire, and that its tumbledown white stone walls
once dazzled in the sun, built on an economy based largely
on a prized local wool. During the Byzantine era, pilgrims visited the
nearby tomb of St. Sergius and the cathedral built to commemorate
him. The khan may date to the sixth century, but there are no written
Later, the city became a favored one under the Umayyad Dynasty
and the khan became the city's economic center. But in the 13th century,
the Mongols destroyed Resafa on their westward march, and it
was never rebuilt. Tourists now wander past the unornamented khan,
half-buried in its own rubble, on their way to see the more impressive
remains of the basilica. Yet this low-slung caravanserai, on what was
Resafa's main street, still exudes a solid and pragmatic air, as if loaded
camels might yet emerge from the arched gate and pace down the
road carrying bales of fine wool to Constantinople or Damascus.
eeping caravanserais from deterioration—and keeping the
ewers filled, the straw mattresses fresh and the feed-boxes
replenished—required organization and money. Rulers,
charitable foundations, and religious and merchant groups all ran
caravanserais, khans, funduqs and other varieties of lodgings. Constable
has found legal records in the Middle East that show that caravanserai
managers were explicitly expected to take good care of the
building and ensure clean latrines, access to water and security
When that societal support crumbled with the coming of industrialized
travel in the 19th century, the khans and caravanserais
became relics. In Cairo, most have been demolished. In the cities of
the Levant, however, particularly Lebanon and Syria, a number survive
and, in a few, a handful of modern merchants keep the buildings
and the institution alive.
In the old Phoenician port of Tripoli, in today's Lebanon,
Mohammad Amir Hassoun proudly works out of a corner office in
a 600- year-old khan not far from the city's high citadel. Long a center
of trade and later of learning—once boasting a library with 10,000
books—Tripoli derived much of its wealth from olive oil and soap. For
generations, Hassoun's family traded in traditional soaps, but in the
early 20th century, factory-made soaps drove his grandfather and
others out of the business and, with their departure, the city's Khan
Al-Saboun (Soap Khan) went into decline. Hassoun grew up knowing
nothing of soap-making; he sold gold jewelry. But after his shop
was robbed one night in 1985, his great-uncle encouraged him to
restart the family business. He now owns several shops, a small factory
and fields where he grows herbs and aromatics. Now he says he's
able to make a decent living while maintaining a family tradition and
making a local, organic and sustainable product. "Villagers
can stay on their land, and we even feed the pits
from the apricots we use to their animals," he says.
Although Hassoun shares ownership of the khan with other families, it
is still a ramshackle affair, receiving neither government
help nor charitable donations. Water drips from the roof onto rubble scattered
on the second-floor arcade. But Hassoun's success has drawn other merchants,
who now cluster in shops along the first floor—part petite renaissance and
part backward glimpse to the time when khans were "a vital part of the urban
fabric," says Constable.
n the other side of the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains,
east from the Mediterranean, the Syrian city of
Aleppo boasts dozens of khans amid the twisting and
narrow alleys that make up the city's famously labyrinthine suq.
In the large compound called Khan al-Jumruk (Customs
Khan), textile merchants move rolls of carpets and bales of
cloth in and out of the shops under the arcades, much as they have
for more than 400 years. The courtyard is large enough to contain
its own mosque. Above the entrance are finely carved details dating
from the 17th century.
Today, the tangles of electrical wires, the glare of fluorescent
lights and the echoing rumbles of Korean-made trucks small
enough to pass through the narrow alleys are all reminders of the
ways khans adapt to their times. On the second floor, a cloth merchant
named Ali Khour walks from his small curtain shop down
the hall to a corner room with high ceilings. Here, he says, visiting
merchants of old spent their evenings talking, drinking sweet tea
or coffee and playing chess and backgammon.
As he prepares coffee on a small stove at his desk,
Khour tells how he journeys on the modern Silk Road—
a flight to Dubai—to buy the Chinese textiles favored by
his customers. The khan, he says, is in disrepair, and
he's not sure how much longer he'll be able to hold out
in the face of global competition.
Another short walk from Khour's shop lives
another tenacious holdout, Madame Jenny Poche.
Diminutive and elegant at 71, dressed in black and
smoking a long cigarette, she speaks in Frenchaccented
English. She gestures for me to be seated in
her drawing room. A liveried servant hands out coffee
in small china cups. We might be in an 18th-century townhouse
in Brussels. Madame Poche explains that her family's life in
the khan began in the early 19th century when her great-grandfather—
a crystal merchant from Bohemia—arrived to seek his fortune.
That put him near the end of a tradition that began in 1539, when
the khan was built as a home for Venetian travelers, who used it as a
base for their trade throughout the Middle East.
The vibrant days when foreign traders lived in Aleppo's old city
are forgotten by all save a handful of such people as Madame Poche.
But scholars are gradually discovering that khans, and especially
the ones for foreigners (fondacos), formed a practical cornerstone for
more than a millennium of relations between Europe and the Middle
East. Two centuries before Ibn Battuta slept on the rooftop in
the Nile Delta, Benjamin of Tudela marveled at the multicultural
feel of Alexandria: "Merchants come thither from all the Christian
kingdoms," he wrote, mentioning lands as far away as Norway
When they arrived, they went to a khan set aside for their
countrymen. These compounds allowed foreigners to speak
their own tongue, eat their own foods and practice their
own religion. Over time, some Islamic governments in the
region insisted that Christian merchants reside exclusively in
these khans—which were often locked at night. This made it
possible both to keep a watchful eye on the foreigners and ensure
Ibn Jubayr, who visited the Mediterranean port of Acre
during the Crusader era, noted that at the entrance to one khan
are stone benches, spread with carpets, where are the Christian
clerks of the customs with their ebony inkstands ornamented
with gold. They write Arabic, which they also
speak…. The merchants deposited their baggage there and
lodged in the upper story. The baggage of any who had no
merchandise was also examined in case it contained concealed
(and dutiable) merchandise, after which the owner
was permitted to go his way and seek lodging where he
would. All this was done with civility and respect, and
without harshness and unfairness.
Even at the height of the Crusades, Venetian and other European
merchants continued a lucrative trade with their Muslim counterparts,
often selling timber and iron and buying silks and spices. In the
Khan al-Jumruk and many other khans, there are hints of European
influence in the architecture—a curved stairway here, a neoclassical
nlike Aleppo, Damascus started smartening up its suq back
in the 19th century and kept going. But if you look closely
behind the façades on the old Roman main street—now
called Straight Street—you will encounter the medieval city, in both
restored and faded splendors.
The most impressive restoration is the Khan As'ad Pasha, a massive,
multi-domed building dating from 1751 that was restored in
1990. It is constructed around an expansive courtyard with high
ablaq columns—built in alternating layers of black and white stone—
and a circular fountain at its center; the courtyard was open to the
sky but is today covered with a modern glass skylight that helps illuminate
an art gallery.
More typical of the remaining urban khans in Damascus is Khan
al-Zeit (Olive Oil Khan), just a few alleys away. This 500-year-old
khan is small, even intimate, with a graceful arcade and an enormous
tree shading its fountain. Today it hosts stores selling women's
clothes. Here, the bustle of the Damascus suq recedes as birds chirp
in the branches above the sunny stone courtyard.
Until a half-century or so ago, camels and horses were stabled in
an area behind it, says Maher Almisski, who owns a nearby shop.
He is proud to show off the khan, but he adds that the shop owners
worry that one day it may be turned into a single commercial space,
forcing them to move out.
Even as urban khans around the Middle East are demolished,
left to decay or turned into boutique hotels or historical monuments,
Constable says that scholars and governments may be waking
to their importance. Caravanserais "helped forge that world" that
preserved classical learning, tied East with West and
made the medieval Middle East a dynamic, wealthy, multicultural
region. The loaded camels may be gone, but the weathered
walls still testify to that long era's bold and roving spirit.
Andrew F. Lawler
([email protected]) is a free-lance writer living in Maine.
He is a contributing editor of Science and Archaeology magazines, and a frequent writer for
Smithsonian, Discover and other publications.
([email protected]) is a documentary photographer
specializing in architecture and history. His coverage of caravanserais has been shown
in galleries in Beiteddine and Beirut, Lebanon; Portland, Oregon and Paris.