We’ve all been to the gas (or petrol) station. They’re so common, and so similar in appearance, that usually the only time we pay attention to them is when the tank in the car is desperately low and there’s no one in sight. Before the days of the car, however, the distance one could travel in a day wasn’t defined in relation to the amount of gasoline in your car or the speed limit, but by by the capabilities of pack animals, whether horses, donkeys, camels, or even people.
To serve their needs, rulers in the mediaeval Middle East built caravanserais, structures where travellers could bring their possessions behind walls, sleep, pray, and eat. As you might expect, they also became places where trade occurred, since merchants stopped over for the night often took out their wares and made the most of their time there.
Because they were used across a wide area for many centuries, caravanserais come in all shapes and sizes, but usually possess a few basic features. These include walls, necessary if the caravanserai was going to offer safety for travellers and their goods, as well as a courtyard to house the animals. In more sophisticated caravanserais, private sleeping rooms, covered stables for animals, dedicated prayer rooms, and other facilities were also on offer.
Often, these services would be free. Since caravanserais were built by rulers to encourage trade (and also boost revenue from taxes,) providing them at no cost was in the interests of the state.
A prime example of a caravanserai is the Sultan Han (Sultan Caravanserai) built by the Seljuk Sultan Alaettin Keykubad I in the 1220s. Not only is it the largest Seljuk caravanseria in Turkey, but it was also endowed with a beautiful monumental entryway after a fire in the 1270s. It may seem odd to endow such a functional building with such detailed carving, but caravanserais in many ways symbolised the rule of the benevolent ruler. Their role in guaranteeing safety and prosperity, as well as their visibility, means that they were often highly decorated–at least at the front where it counted.
It’s only once you see the interior of the caravanserai, however, that you appreciate the scale of the commerce it was designed to accommodate. Situated along one of the Silk Routes that took luxury goods from the Far East to the Mediterranean, the Sultan Han needed space for even the biggest camel trains. For that reason, it has not only a large courtyard, but also a large, arched space where livestock could shelter in inclement weather.
Today, the calm empty space feels more like a religious building than a highway-stop, but in its heyday it would have been filled with the wealth of a continent, full of colour, noise, and camels.