The journeys of merchants and their caravans along the Silk Road through the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa would have been much more difficult if not for the caravanserais (also spelled caravansary) that dotted those ancient routes. Variously described as “guest houses,” “roadside inns,” and “hostels,” caravanserais were buildings designed to provide overnight housing to travelers. Merchants and their caravans were the most frequent visitors. In furnishing, safe respite for guests from near and far, caravanserais also became centers for the exchange of goods and culture.

As traffic along the Silk Road increased, so did the construction of caravanserais. They were needed as safe havens—not just from extreme climates and weather, but also from bandits who targeted caravans loaded with silks, spices, and other expensive goods. In fact, caravanserais were built at regular intervals so that merchants would not have to spend the night exposed to the dangers of the road. They appeared roughly 32-40 kilometers (20–25 miles) apart—about a day’s journey—on the busiest Silk Road routes.

The design of these buildings also reflected their protective purpose. Often built just outside the nearest town or village, they were encircled by immense walls resembling those of a fort. Caravans entered through a high, massive gate that could be secured from within at night with heavy chains. A porter stood guard just past the gate, charged with safeguarding the persons, goods, and animals inside.

The interior of a caravanserai looked more like an inn than a fortress, however. A large ground-floor courtyard ringed with storerooms and stables for camels, donkeys, and horses would often have a corner for cook fires as well. Small, unfurnished rooms for lodgers were found on the second floor. Some larger caravanserais also featured a bathhouse and prayer room.

Most of the old caravanserais still in existence today are crumbling stone ruins, of interest only to historians and tour groups. In contrast, medieval caravanserais were lively seedbeds for globalization, resembling the modern city in the variety of people, languages, goods, and customs found within their walls. Travelers from East and West—speaking many different languages—traded stories, news, merchandise, and ideas while they mingled at these trade hubs. They sampled local cuisine and observed foreign etiquette. They learned more about Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism from missionaries and scholars passing through. When they traveled on, they took much that was new and different along with them. The economic and cultural exchanges caravanserais made possible had far-reaching effects still seen today in the variety of languages, faiths, and cultures co-existing in this region of the world.

 

Caravanserai

A merchant weighs the product he is about to sell to determine the price. Merchants often gathered in large areas such as markets to sell their products. 

bandit
Noun

thief.

caravan
Noun

group of people who travel together for safety and companionship through difficult territory.

Noun

inn with a central courtyard often found in the desert that served travelers along the Silk Road in Asia and North Africa

exchange
Noun

process of trading or changing one thing for another.

fortress
Noun

protected place. Also called a fort.

merchandise
Noun

goods that are bought and sold.

merchant
Noun

person who sells goods and services.

mingle
Verb

to mix or combine with.

porter
Noun

person hired to carry baggage or supplies.

respite
Noun

temporary period of rest or relief. 

ruin
Noun

remains of a destroyed building or set of buildings.

seedbed
Noun

place of growth or improvment. 

Noun

ancient trade route through Central Asia linking China and the Mediterranean Sea.