When I was a teenager, my parents moved us—lock, stock and barrel—from Pennsylvania to Southern California. We made our way across the country packed in our station wagon, checking into a motel each night and seeing the sights by day. When we were hungry, we stopped at a diner or supermarket along the way. All we had to worry about were boisterous bikers, a wrong turn here and there, and getting caught smuggling our parakeet, hamsters and cat into the motel each night.
About a hundred years earlier, eager settlers made the same trip via another kind of wagon—a wagon train. They had it a little tougher than we did. No convenience stores and plenty of danger from marauders or the whims of Mother Nature.
Now let’s go back a little further—to the 10th century AD. There were no cars, busses, trains or planes back then, so travelers—mostly merchants carrying the riches of Persia and China to the markets of Europe, and vice versa, along the Silk Road—made their way across the landscape of central Asia in camel caravans. Safety in numbers, right? But there were plenty of highwaymen lying in wait in the dark of night to rob and kill.
a hallway off the central courtyard
Fortunately, the sultans of Turkey had a bright idea. They knew the best way to encourage commerce (and the taxes, political power and prestige the label of “trading dynasty” brought with it) was to protect the merchants, so they built a series of caravanserai (essentially parking garages for camel caravans) along the trading routes—each one a day’s journey from the last.
These caravanserais were like stone forts or castles, with a large entry portal to accommodate the animals and whatever they were carrying, and an iron gate. There was no roof over the central courtyard, which often held a small mosque. Interior rooms included a great hall, bathhouse (Turkish-bath kind), bathrooms and places to sleep. Ovens were embedded in the ground to keep the place warm, and candles and lamps provided light. A manager oversaw operations.
Elaborately chiseled entrance to the Great Hall
Not only would these government-run caravanserais provide a nighttime safe haven for travelers, their camels, horses, donkeys and cargoes, they also offered services such as doctor, imam (prayer leader), veterinarian, messenger, blacksmith, shoe repair and cook. Travelers could stay for three days, and all services were free during that time. It was a win-win situation for both travelers and government.
When Europeans found new ways to China, the Silk Road declined in importance, and after the 15th and 16th centuries, most caravanserais were never used again. Many are in ruins, but some are well preserved and a treat to visit and explore.