Caravanserais were roadside inns built to provide accommodation, protection and shelter for travellers, their goods and animals along ancient caravan or trade routes in the Middle East and Central Asia, especially along the former Silk Road. One way to think of them is like an ancient truck stop, minus the trucks. Highway robbery was a regular event in the days that the traders travelled the Silk Road, and so the protection aspect was particularly important.
The word caravanserai is a Western take on the old Persian word which means dwelling, place or enclosed court – in Turkish, the word is kervansaray. A caravanserai is a building with a square or rectangular high-walled exterior, and with at least one entrance wide and high enough to allow a heavily loaded animal such as a camel to enter. The courtyard of a caravanserai is almost always open to the sky, and inside, built into the walls you can find lots of stalls and bays to accommodate the traders and their animals as well as services such as a Turkish bath (hamam), treasury and repair shops. They usually had a mescit (small mosque or prayer room) in the centre, often raised on a small platform. Generally the outside walls of the caravanserai were very plain, however the front portal was ornately decorated.
Caravanserais were an important source of water for both the travellers and animals, both for drinking and washing. They also stocked food for the animals and had shops where the traders could get new supplies and also services such as blacksmiths, veterinarians, shoe repairers etc. Travellers were allowed to stay for 3 days free of charge. They were usually built around 30-40km apart – the length of a one day camel trek.
Caravanserais were an integral part of the support infrastructure for commerce and information flow, especially from the 9th – 19th century. Their existence meant that traders travelling the Silk Road did not have to carry tents or other supplies with them, and so they could carry more of their goods for trading. However they were often built outside city limits, possibly because the travellers were often foreigners, so it was also way of establishing boundaries and avoiding any possible problems. They were sometimes publicly owned – so the costs of their running was a communal responsibility, and sometimes privately owned by a generous benefactor.
In Turkey, there were around 250 caravanserais built during the Seljuk period. If you draw a line across the middle of a map of Turkey from Çeşme on the Aegean Coast to Diyarbakır in Turkey’s East, you will find it dotted with the ruins of caravanserais built to serve the trade route that linked the Aegean coast of Turkey with Susa in Persia. Other caravanserais could be found along the main roads from the Balkans to Istanbul and from Antalya to Trabzon, on the Black Sea Coast.
The remains of the greatest number of caravanserais in Turkey are located along the stretch of road formerly known as the Uzun Yol (Long Road) that ran from Konya to Erzurum in Turkey’s east. The biggest, and possibly most visited of these is the Sultan Hani Caravanserai, built in 1229. With walls around 15 metres high, it is a great example of Seljuk period stone masonry. As you visit it, it is easy to imagine the comfort it provided ancient travellers after travelling across the dusty Anatolian plains.
If you are interested in learning more about Turkish caravanserais, the Turkish Han website has some great information. Many Fez Travel tours visit Sultan Han Caravanserai – check out these tours as a starting point:
- Flying Carpet Tour (15 Days)
- Spirit of Turkey Tour (14 Days)
- Traditional Escape Tour (11 Days)
- Jewels of Anatolia Tour (11 Days)
- Anatolian Highlights Tour (14 Days)