Denoting a variety of commercial, residential, and pilgrimage structures in the Islamic world, caravanserais reflect the importance of trade routes in the history of the Islamic lands of the Near East. Caravanserais served as staging posts on major roads between towns, or as secure commercial storage with residential facilities within towns. Terminology varies in different contexts and related buildings include khans, wakalas, fundugs, and ribaṭs. The involvement of central governments in the construction of many of these caravanserais has led to a degree of stylistic uniformity in their design.
The commercial routes of the pre-Islamic world may have given rise to caravanserailike architecture, but it is in the Islamic period that the provision of facilities for travelers led to a significant body of architecture. The early Islamic geographers often refer to way stations as manzil, which may be presumed to have been buildings. Khans have also been identified at the Umayyad sites of Qaṣr al-Ḥayr al-Gharbi (724–727 CE) and Qaṣr al-Ḥayr ash-Sharqi (728–729) in Syria and the location of other Umayyad desert sites suggests that some may have encompassed a caravanserai role.
In the late eighth century, the ῾Abbasid caliphs developed the Darb Zubaydah, the road from Iraq to Mecca, building quṣur (enclosures, palaces), and mazil at staging posts. There are numerous settlements on the road, and excavations at ar-Rabadha east of Medina show a major eighth-ninth century settlement with several secure courtyard buildings with storage facilities. The presence of lusterware and other early ῾Abbasid glazed pottery points to a luxurious level of provisioning of the way stations.
The Seljuks were munificent builders of caravanserais, reflecting their interest in maintaining commerce and security along the extensive road system under their control. The Ribaṭ-i Malik (c. 1068–1080), southeast of Bukhara in central Asia is the earliest extant Seljuk caravanserai. It has a courtyard enclosure preceded by a great portal of a type found in contemporary mosques, and its lavish brick decoration is in keeping with the finest architectural decoration of the period. Another early Seljuk caravanserai is the twelfth-century Ribaṭ-i Sharaf in northeastern Iran that also has monumental portals, iwans and chambers around the courtyards, in a manner reminiscent of Seljuk mosques.
The tradition of the caravanserai is continued in later times in Iran, Central Asia, and the Near East. The Timurids, Ottomans, and Safavids were all involved in maintaining and improving commercial facilities along the roads. Examples of royal or aristocratic foundations on major roads include the series of twelfth–thirteenth-century Seljuk khans along the Anatolian road system; a group of fifteenth-century caravanserais associated with a Timurid official, ῾Ali Shir Navai, concentrated in northeastern Iran; and the seventeenth-century Mader-i Shah caravanserai near Isfahan, built by Shah ῾Abbas II.
Related to such caravanserais are urban khans or wakalas, which constituted the distribution points for goods, as well as the collection point for customs duties. In many cases, these urban depots specialized in particular commodities, such as oil or soap. This situation is well demonstrated in Damascus and Aleppo, where a number of khans still survive within the extensive market areas.
At Jerusalem, commercial caravanserais were established to support religious foundations in the Mamluk period. The Khan as-Sultan, or al-Wakala at Jerusalem, built under Sultan Barquq (1386–1387) has a covered market hall: in a neighboring two-story courtyard structure, the lower floors were for storage and the selling of goods to local merchants, the courtyard was for animals, and the upper rooms accommodated visiting merchants. Such urban wakalas have parallels in Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, the Hijaz, and North Africa.
A quite different type of caravanserai occurs in Mamluk and Ottoman times, to guard pilgrim roads in desert regions. On the Red Sea coast of Arabia, fortications at ῾Aqaba, al-Muwayliḥ, al-Azlam, and al-Zurayb reflect attempts to protect the coastal route from Egypt to the Hijaz. In the sixteenth century, the Ottomans also built a series of fortified caravanserais through Syria to the Hijaz to garrison the pilgrim road and disperse payments to tribal leaders during the hajj march. Such structures are more more closely related to the caravanserai's security role than its commercial purpose.
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G. R. D. King