The English word Caravanserai, comes from a Turkish original, Kervansaray, which means “caravan-palace”. Strangely, the Turks call such a place a “khan”, not to be confused with the Mongol word “khan’ that means ‘king’.
A kervansaray would be a place like a big walled castle for merchants. In fact, archaeologists sometimes find it tricky to tell the two apart — as at Aqaba in Jordan, when it may be that the site shifted between kervansaray and Ottoman army fortress. A kervansaray would have big stables and storerooms for the animals and goods, and a bathhouse, kitchens, prayer hall, etc. But the centre would be a courtyard — for people to talk, gossip, tell stories, etc.
Rulers who wanted a good reputation — and the money that could be got from encouraging trade, which could be taxed — would build new kervansarays, or sponsor older ones. So a network of these buildings gradually grew, following the main trading routes from Anatolia through Iran into Central Asia. These were secure stopovers, guarded and locked at night. A merchant inside would be safe from robbers and wolves. They were fortified motels.
But it wouldn’t just be merchants either. There were people who were just interested in travel — like Ibn Battuta in the 14th century, or Evliya Chelebi in the 17th century, who left accounts of their travels. Or pilgrims — Christians heading to Jerusalem from Central Asia, or Muslims heading to Mecca, or — when it was safe — Buddhists heading between China, Tibet and India. Or missionaries — like the Franciscan friars sent out to China, Central Asia and India in the later 13th,early 14th centuries (John of Montecorvino was made Archbishop of Khanbalig (“King’s Town” = Peking) in the early 14th century). Or government agents — like the Chinese officials sent out to help run Persia in the C13/14, such as Bolad Chiensang, who told the great Persian minister and historian Rashiduddin about Chinese history and science, or the others who persuaded the Persian ruler in the 1280s to introduce paper money (the economy collapsed overnight). Or it might be scholars looking to study with experts across the region; or storytellers, artists, or slaves.
- This post is from a lovely email story that our dear friend Dr. Angus Stewart shared with us, as we were planning the Caravan.