The Caravanserai of the Silk Road

A life of nomadism became possible when we humans domesticated beasts of burden. They carried and shared our heavy load as we charted unchartered terrains.

From camels, to horses, to oxen; we humans relied on our hardworking animal companions to join us as we made the journey from city to city. While they do not have mouths with which to tell their stories, the early tale of the journey of wealth belongs to them. They were the world’s first hard workers.

Animal husbandry became a preferred way of life in Mesopotamia because it allowed humans to not only profit from their labours, but also to find new markets to trade, to barter and to create more.

At the heart of this story, then, is the Caravanserai.

The Caravanserai

The caravanserai was not only a stop or a resting place. It was a meeting place. During the heyday of the Silk Road, caravanserais supported the flow of commerce, information and people across three continents. It was a land-based–as opposed to a sea or even air-based–network of roads that connected the capital cities of that era.

Like all long-distance voyages, it was a dangerous one. To profit and accommodate from this inflow and outflow of travellers, caravanserais were built at regular intervals so that merchants would not have to spend the night exposed to the dangers of the road. From bandits to bad weather, no long-distance voyage has ever been easy or free of the unscrupulous. While many caravanserai were located along rural roads in the countryside, urban caravanserais were common in cities.

The design of these buildings also reflected their protective purpose. A caravanserai was a building with walled and fortified exterior. The entrance had to be wide enough to allow for beasts of burden to enter. The open-air courtyard allowed visitors to greet the sky, and the inside walls of the enclosure were outfitted with animal stalls, bays, niches and chambers to accommodate merchants, their servants, their animals as well as their merchandise.

Merchants who spoke a myriad of different languages exchanged languages, cultures, gossip, merchandise and ideas when they crossed paths at these caravanserai. Even after they departed, they carried much that was new and different within them. The economic and cultural exchanges that took place at these historic caravanserais made globalisation possible.

In its heyday, medieval caravanserais were lively melting plots for trade, commerce and religion. They were no different to the modern city in the diversity of people, languages, goods, and customs found within their stone walls.

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