The caravanserai is a witness to history and the passage of men on the mysterious roads of Persia and the travelers passing by. It is obvious that caravanserai for travelers is like water in the middle of a desert!
Whether traders, adventurers or even scholars and students, the journey is intrinsic to Persian culture. The names of the philosopher, historian, and Persian poet Nasser Khosrou and the poet Saadi resonate throughout the 2400 kilometers of the Royal Road connecting Susa to Sardinia.
The conjunction of caravanserais allowed them to be much more than mere road infrastructures. The Persians are recognized as the first creators of the postal networks, under Darius I. Caravanserais are the solid proof of trade relations between East and West on the Silk Road. The construction of caravanserais, accelerated by the arrival of Islam, allowed travelers from all over the world to meet.
Journeys used to long, very long. Travelers go on a journey for various reasons. The most important reasons were the discovery of distant regions or countries, the spirit of adventure, pilgrimages, commerce or even the need to find safer places to have a peaceful life.
It is clear that traveling, despite the constraints, makes it possible to leave one's environment, to discover other horizons and thus to communicate with other people. However, all travel requires some infrastructure and regulation to ensure the protection of travelers. Where should the travelers’ stay?
In the past, traveling was never easy. The regulations in force concerning trips alone or in groups were more or less dangerous. Traveling in groups reduced the risks, the worries and therefore the difficulties. Travelers could meet bandits, wild animals, etc ... Travel requires some essential points: have good roads, have access to water and have suitable places to stay.
Is the word "caravan" an Iranian word?
The origin of the word karawan (caravan) is Karban that means troupe of travelers. Indeed, a group of merchants met and they together formed a caravan to protect themselves from bandit attacks. Thus, the head of the caravan (Karwansalar) planned the trip, he decided on the date of departure, the stops to predict and he chose a safe route. To do this, it also took into account the number of travelers and the type of clientele. Everything was done according to a well-organized process.
Travelers and the reasons for the trip
Once the trip was decided, the jachis (the town criers) announced the date is chosen, the planned stages and the cities crossed. Thus, travelers interested in the circuit presented themselves at karawansalar to obtain a place in the caravan. It could also be pilgrims or small traders who wanted to undertake this trip.
Although traders were the dominant group, there were also other categories of travelers such as historians, researchers or students (in theology or other subjects) who joined the caravan. They traveled, despite the difficulties, to go to meet an Hakim or saga or go to study in schools.
First Iranian Travelers
We can mention the names of people like Nasser Khosrou and Saadi, who were, in fact, the first Iranian tourists. Nasser Khosrou, philosopher, historian and Persian poet (1004-1074 AD J-C), told us the story of his long journey. Starting on a simple pilgrimage to Mecca, he met other scholars and he continued his journey for 7 years. Saadi (1189-1292 AD) undertook long journeys twice, passing through countries such as Iraq, Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Central Asia, and India. He was even taken prisoner during crusades. Following these experiences, on his return, he wrote two masterpieces of Persian literature: the Golestan (The Garden of Roses) in the form of poems, whose theme is love and Bustan (The Orchard ) in prose with the theme of morality.
We must not forget the pilgrims who were the most important customers among the travelers. Their favorite destination was Mecca. But from the Safavid era, the routes to Shi'a holy cities like Karbala, Najaf, and Damascus, also saw a strong attendance by caravans.
Trip preparation and means of transport
The itinerary of the journey is already specified, the date of the declared departure, the Karwansalar then took care of the administrative steps. We often traveled with animals such as the dromedary, the horse or the mule. The horse was used instead to transmit urgent messages or by well-off people or those whose motive was urgent.
But the dromedary was used more than the other animals. It did withstand the heat and did not cause huge food costs. So, it was primarily used by caravansalars, they also used to transport women or people with difficulties to move.
The conditions of the trip combined, it only remained to develop the program. This necessitated on the part of the karawansalar a good knowledge of the places of accommodation, the caravanserais (karwans-saray), all along the way. The roads often passed through areas difficult to cross, hence the importance of stops, a particularly important aspect of the trip. It was also necessary to respect the planned duration and to ensure safety throughout the journey.
For this reason, khans (local authorities) built dwellings on the roads, at more or less regular intervals which will constitute the future karawan-saray (caravanserai), a word composed of karawan (caravan) and saray (palace, big house, courtyard ). We will talk about it in the last part.
Post houses were the oldest dwelling places in the Persian Empire. The extent of this empire required the development of a road network. The Persians are, moreover, as the first to have created the post. Darius1re (520-485 BC), the third king of the Achaemenid, established this system of communication to transport royal orders, letters, and parcels to all parts of his empire to manage administrative affairs. This system was composed of fast postmen (Chapaar) and postmen (Chaparkhan). These allowed the mail carriers or messengers to rest and change horses. They were at the origin of caravanserais.
The transmission of the royal messages was regular. "Nothing could prevent the transmission of messages, not the hot, the cold, or the dark night," says Darius 1st. Herodotus confirms that nothing was faster than the Persian messengers were. For him, having 111 post offices along the Royal Route (2400 km from Susa to Sardinia), all in good condition, ensuring a high level of security and the assurance that dispatches would arrive in one piece.
Today, there are only a few ruins that are very difficult to identify. In Meybod, in the province of Yazd, a caravanserai dating from the 19th century has been restored. It is the most remarkable prototype of post relay in Iran; it became the museum of the Post Office. It was inscribed in 2000 on the list on the national heritage list. It was a place of archiving of the deposits and letters of the State. Its architecture is characterized by fortifications surrounded by watchtowers.
At the time of the Parthians, the development of trade relations between East and West on the Silk Road was a period of development of caravanserais. Under the Sassanids, the construction of these road inns grew. The caravanserai of Deir-e Gachin on the road between Rey and Isfahan is a good example. It was restored at the time of the Safavids in the 17th century and then under the Qajar dynasty in the 19th century.
The arrival of Islam will accelerate the construction of caravanserais. Robat-e Sharaf's caravanserai in northeastern Iran dates back to the Seljuk era. However, the golden age of caravanserai construction is the Safavid era. The idea of developing internal and external trade required a developed road system. Trade at that time was very prosperous. Thus the Safavid kings, especially Shah Abbas I, renovated the old caravanserais and built many new ones.
The caravanserai Abassi at Meybod is the most important and sumptuous example. Located on the main road from Yazd to Isfahan, there is a cistern, a post house, a cooler and especially the passage of a Qanat.
The caravanserai was one of the buildings on the travelers' road. Its role exceeded that of a simple place to lodge. Travelers from all over the world gathered there, not only to exchange their goods but also their opinions and thoughts. In fact, it was a media whose role was to spread the news. This was also a road fortress to secure the goods of travelers day and night. The caravan leader (the karwansalar) had to make sure that the travelers arrived before sunset.
Architecture and size are the two classification criteria for these buildings. Thus, we can distinguish three types of urban caravanserais and on the roads.
Being on the road of travelers, the caravanserais played a role going beyond the simple lodging: places of meetings, they allowed the exchange of the ideas as well as that of the goods. Remnants of another time, they testify to the passage of men.
Sabat is the simplest kind. It offered a few facilities for travelers and suited for shortstops. It was located outside the cities and especially on the main roads of the routes chosen by the caravans, it was built at 20 m on the side of the roads. It was a building covered with a simple plan which was used to rest. Sometimes there was also a cistern next door. Many are destroyed and there is almost nothing left. The word Sabat is composed of two parts: "sa" which means in Persian Asayesh (comfort) and "bat" meaning the building.
The Rabat is the second type of caravanserai. He was out of the cities. The architectural plan consisted of a central courtyard surrounded by a series of rooms. Often there was a cistern or a pond. It was a place of accommodation for one or two nights.
The caravanserai of the third type was inside and outside a city. The one who was inside the city and in the bazaar complex was named Khan or Saray like that of Sâray-e Ganjali khan in Kerman or that of Sâray-e Yazir in Qazvin. The caravanserai plan could be square or rectangular. His grand portal was imposing. Around the central courtyard, terraces gave access to small rooms for the accommodation of travelers. The iwans on the four sides of the courtyard gave the facades a symmetrical aspect. In the caravanserais built with two floors, the lower chambers were intended to store goods and the upper ones were used to house travelers. The animals were parked in the stables or in the four corners of the yard. They were then tied to iron rings in the central courtyard.
A cistern located in the center of the yard or a well gave access to the water. Most caravanserais of the Safavid era were built with four iwans: one for the temporary meeting of travelers, the one opposite the entrance was the place reserved for caravan leaders (karwansalar), another served as a place for prayer (mosque) and the last allowed the travelers to meet.
The structure and architecture of the caravanserais reflected the dominant architecture of the area where they were. For example, mountain caravanserais were fully covered and closed. However, those in the Persian Gulf did not have a central court. Nevertheless, the most beautiful caravanserais possessed one, square or rectangular, or even circular, with two or four iwans. The materials used were stone and brick, but the interior and exterior facades were often covered with brick or rammed earth.
For most caravanserais, the exterior facade and the entrance door were decorated. We can mention the caravanserai of Robat-e Sharaf. It is one of the oldest and most beautiful caravanserais, a true masterpiece of Iranian architecture. Dating from the Seljuk period (12th century), this building is on the Silk Road, 45 km from Sarakhs. It has four iwans and two courtyards, one square and the other rectangular.