What is a Caravanserai

A “caravanserai”, is a roadside inn built to shelter men, goods and animals along ancient caravan routes in the Muslim world. It is especially known to be linked with the trade routes along the former Silk Roads. But more than that, there was an extensive network of caravanserais built along the whole network of trade routes in the Middle East and Central Asia. This network of caravanserais supported the flow of commerce, information, pilgrimage and people across the trade routes throughout the history of the different and extended Muslim empires covering Asia, India, North Africa, and South-Eastern Europe from the 9th till the 19th century.

The word caravanserai is a Westernization of the Persian word, which combines “caravan” with “sarayi” or “serai” meaning dwelling, palace, or enclosed courts (in Turkish: kervansaray). It is also rendered as caravansarai and caravansary. “Caravan” itself has come to have a similar meaning in English, where it refers to a group or convoy of soldiers, traders, pilgrims, or other travelers engaged in long distance travel.

Many different terms are being used in different languages and countries for the same or similar buildings: akhcanya (Aa.), caravancara (Pt.), caravansary (En.), caravanserail (Fr.), caravanseray (Sp.), caravanserraglio (It.), chan (Po.), fondaco (It.), fondaci, fondouk (Fr.), funduk, funduq, fanadiq, fondouk , fondak (Ar.), han (Fa., Tr.), kairouan , qayrawan (Berb.), karawanseraj (Po.), karvansara (Am.), karwansarai (Fa.), karwansiray (Ku.), karwaser (Po.), katra (Be.), kervansaray (Tr.), khan (Fa.), pundheqa' (Aa.), samsara (Ar.), sarai , serai (Fa.), ushpiza (Aa.), wakala, wekala, wikala (Tr.).

In the most broad sense, the word “caravanserai” is used for all these different variants. In a more strict sense, as argued by OWTRAD, “caravanserais” represent Resthouses Type 3, namely dedicated structures built along trade routes providing SHORT-TERM lodging for both commercial and non-commercial travelers, and stabling for a LARGE number of their saddle/draft/pack-animals (ref.: http://www.ciolek.com/OWTRAD/trade-routes-glossary.html).

Most typically it was a building with a square or rectangular walled exterior, with a single portal wide enough to permit large or heavily laden beasts such as camels to enter. The courtyard was almost always open to the sky, and the inside walls of the enclosure were outfitted with a number of identical stalls, bays, niches, or chambers to accommodate merchants and their servants, animals, and merchandise. The courtyard could contain herds of up to hundreds of camels, horses, and mules. Caravanserais provided water for human and animal consumption, washing, and ritual ablutions. Sometimes they even had elaborate baths. They also kept fodder for animals and had shops for travelers where they could acquire new supplies. In addition, there could be shops where merchants could dispose some of their goods. Usually caravanserais were built along the trade routes every 30-40 km, one day's distance for journeys with pack animals.

Another much used term is “khan” (Fa), (pl. khanat). Khan is a word of Persian origin designating on the one hand a staging-post and lodging on the main communication routes, on the other a warehouse, later a hostelry in the more important urban centers. The appropriate term to describe the type of building which provided lodging for caravan traffic on the main trade routes is caravanserai, while the khan, with which it is often confused, is rather being applied to an establishment where commercial travelers could lodge for a period of time and where facilities were provided for the sale of their wares.

But in http://www.doaks.org/Crusades/CR10.pdf by Olivia Remie Constable, and supported by many historical references, it is mentioned that “Data on khanat in the 12th  and 13th century show the rapid growth…“ and that “…numerous khanat were founded systematically along well traveled inland rural routes, especially in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Anatolia, for the benefit of Muslim merchants, state employees, post riders and other travelers. There were also khanat in many late medieval Muslim cities, including Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Mosul, Bursa, and Isfahan.”

In OWTRAD terminology, a distinction is made between (i) the highway khan (i.e. caravanserai ) and (ii) the urban khan (i.e. lodging place, warehouse and trading post, in short a funduk ). Foreign language eqivalent/cognate terms are: chan (Po.), han (Fa., Tr.), (ref.: http://www.ciolek.com/OWTRAD/trade-routes-glossary.html). The highway khans represent Resthouses Type 3, namely, dedicated structures with SHORT-TERM lodging for both commercial and non-commercial travelers, and stabling for a LARGE number of their saddle/draft/pack-animals, thus caravanserais. Urban khans, on the other hand, are Resthouses Type 4, namely dedicated structures with LONG-TERM lodging, warehouses, and sale spaces for commercial travelers, and stabling (unlike Resthouses Type 1) for a LARGE number of their saddle/draft/pack-animals. Sometimes the urban khan would be not a structure, but a group of several specialized markets, like the Khan al-Khalili in Cairo, a collection of shops enclosed by two large gateways.

Another term is “funduk” (Ar.) (pl. fanadiq) which is a North African and/or Mediterranean variant name for caravanserai or a khan. In OWTRAD terminology, funduks (like related to them fondacos , and loggias) represent Resthouses Type 1, namely, dedicated structures with LONG-TERM lodging, warehouses, and sale spaces for commercial travelers, and stabling for a SMALL number of their saddle/draft/pack-animals. Foreign language equivalent/cognate terms are funduq, fondouk, fondak, fondaco (It.), fondouk (Fr.).

In the same text http://www.doaks.org/Crusades/CR10.pdf by Olivia Remie Constable, explaining about the differences between funduq/fanadiq, fundaco/fondaci, and khan/khanat it is mentioned the urban fanadiq and fondaci were usually located near the heart of a city’s commercial district, unlike the khanat which were more often found on the outskirts of the city center and along the trade routes.  The fundaco originated from the funduq but was dedicated to lodging a particular community of foreign merchants and their goods, with certain negotiated rights and restrictions (including ovens, churches, the use of bathhouses on designated days, permission to consume wine, tax privileges, and a nocturnal curfew). It arrived with the European merchants from the western Mediterranean at the times of increased power of the European nations. At the same time it allowed the Muslim rulers more oversight, regulation and segregation of the foreign traders and communities in their cities.

This text is very interesting about the differences, origins and evolution of the terms funduq, fondaci and khan in Medieval times. But there is no explanation about the caravanserai. As if only the end of the text were to give a clue: The “system of inland routes was differentiated by language, religion, and function from the maritime trading system of the eastern Mediterranean, which was now dominated by Western Christian merchants. By means of the strictly regulated urban fondaci, these foreign traders had access to certain Muslim markets but not, generally, to the Muslim inland network that gained renewed importance during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This vital network of Muslim communication and trade depended on the caravan routes and khanat linking Syria and Egypt, the Red Sea, the Hijaz, the Persian Gulf, and points east. Differences in the terminology and function of institutions for trade and travel in the Near East —including the shifting usage of funduq, fondaco, and khan —reflected these new foreign and Muslim commercial interests and routes” in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Is it only in later centuries thereafter then that the term caravanserai appeared for the establishments along the trade routes and the term khan remained determining the urban establishments? No reference material was found on the start of the use of the term of caravanserai.

A last building that is often referred to as caravanserai is the “Ribat”, or rabat, robat, rebat (Ar.) - a "fortified rest house on a land route", fort, or a fortified caravanserai. However, in North Africa, the word ribat also means a monastic fortress, or to use an euphemism, "a theological boarding college for volunteer fighters" [i.e. jihadis], (ref.: http://www.ciolek.com/OWTRAD/trade-routes-glossary.html).

From www.britannica.com:

“Caravansary also spelled "caravanserai" in the Middle East and parts of North Africa and Central Asia, a public building used for sheltering caravans and other travelers. The caravansary is usually constructed outside the walls of a town or village. The structure is quadrangular in form and is enclosed by a massive wall that has small windows near the top and only a few narrow air holes near the bottom. A heavy-doored gateway, high and wide enough to admit loaded camels, is usually the sole entrance; it can be secured from within by massive iron chains, which are drawn across it at night.

Inside, the ground floor consists of a central court surrounded by a cloisterlike arcade, which is in turn surrounded by cellular storerooms. The ground floor is connected by broad, open, stone stairways to a second story that is ringed by a somewhat lighter arcade, which gives access to many small rooms. The ground floor is used for storing the bales of merchandise or stabling the camels, and meals are cooked in the corner of the quadrangle; upstairs rooms are for lodging. The central court is paved with flagstones and is usually large enough to contain 300 or 400 crouching camels or tethered mules. The court is open to the sky and has a well with a fountain basin in its centre. Neither food nor provender are supplied in a caravansary, but a porter appointed by the municipal authority is always present, lodged just within the gate. He and his assistants guard the building and the goods and persons within it and have the right to maintain order there. The caravansary is always kept open for all arrivals from early dawn until late in the evening. Some caravansaries are of modest architectural merit, with well-hewn, massive walls and impressive proportions. Their gates are often decorated with intricate carving, as is the prayer niche within.

Khans are often confused with caravansaries, but these places are analogous to inns and hotels, where not only lodging but food and other comforts may be had for payment. Khans are generally located within the town or village precincts, provide more elaborate lodgings, and are much smaller than caravansaries.”

Thus, in a strict sense, along the trade routes, what initially for centuries were called khan, the highway khan, have become to be called caravanserai. But no reference material was found that would indicate as from when the term caravanserai became of common use. The term khan would then have evolved into defining what is the urban establishment where commercial travelers could lodge for a period of time and where additional services and facilities were provided for the sale of their wares.

But as mentioned above, the word caravanserai is often used today in the most broad sense for all these different variants. At the same time the other terms khan, han, funduq, wikala are used intermittently, causing confusion.