The Caravanserai, Middle East

A resting in the desert


These were the hotels of the desert, where the caravans arrived after a long, slow-paced journey under a scorching sun. Pilgrims, merchants, cultured travellers, sitting uncomfortably on the backs of the camels, all following a precise path from one big city of the Orient to another. A path that was unchanged for centuries.

Sad Al-Saltaneh, one of the best Persia’s urban caravanserai and the largest indoor inn in the world

Sad Al-Saltaneh, one of the best Persia’s urban caravanserai and the largest indoor inn in the world

The first to invent the caravanserai, of which many are found today in the East as isolated structures immersed in a barren and arid landscape, were the ancient Persians. They are concrete evidence of a world that no longer exists, narrated only by Arab and European writers, or painted by artists who were seeking exoticism as a source of inspiration.

Caravanserai of Qazvin by Eugène Flandin in Persia

Caravanserai of Qazvin by Eugène Flandin in Persia

I have visited some caravanserai in Syria and Anatolia. My first feeling, facing these sort of inns, was melancholy. Soon after, curiosity started to invade my mind and, as I was observing their structure, I realized that the way they were built was well-suited for their purpose. The ground floor was intended for storage, while upstairs were tiny rooms for travellers, arranged like cells with an “opening” to the inner courtyard, which was reserved for the camels. And, as I was looking at this yard, which is now clean and deserted, I started to fantasize about the past.

Entrance gate to the Sultanhani caravanserai in Turkey

Entrance gate to the Sultanhani caravanserai in Turkey

A caravan coming in from the desert after having crossed it in a tempest of sand and wind, with impoverished stocks of water and food and the travellers exhausted from the journey.  Immediately, a mixed crowd of vendors enters, following the newcomers. Arabs wearing thick, striped robes wrapped firmly around their bodies; Turks in colourful clothes; Ethiopian slaves and well-dressed scribes with their inkpots hanging from their belts. All these people walking through with their camels turn, in my imagination, the tranquil courtyard of today into a lively and colourful bazaar.

Zei-o-din caravanserai in Yazd, Iran

Zei-o-din caravanserai in Yazd, Iran

Barbara Athanassiadis