What is a caravanserai? What was the purpose of the caravanserais in the past?
In the past, Iranian caravanserais were resting places for groups and people who reached this place after a long walk, put their horses in the stables of the caravanserais, and rested after drinking water and eating Iranian food.
In the past, travel was not as common as it is today, and due to the difficulties of the road, travel was limited to business trips, and the most important concern for businessmen was accommodation on the way. Iranian caravanserais were also built with the same goals.
Due to its good geographical location, Iran has always been at the center of main and communication routes. One of these important highways was the Silk Road; This road was a series of interconnected roads that connected East, West and South Asia together and to North Africa and Eastern Europe; The route that was considered the biggest and main commercial route in the world.
After the industrial revolution and the emergence of motorized transport, Persian caravanserais also lost their initial prosperity. Many of them were abandoned and gradually turned into ruins. The use of some Iranian caravanserais was also changed, and today they have turned into restaurants, traditional hotels and accommodation for tourists.
The history of Iranian caravanserais
The word “caravansera” comes from two words “caravan” which means travelers who travel in a group and “sera” which means house or place of residence.
Iranian caravanserais have a long history of several thousand years; Buildings that were built on busy roads for the purpose of rest and shelter in Islamic periods. Such buildings are remembered with beautiful and unique architecture from the banks of the Aras River to the shores of the Persian Gulf; Valuable buildings that show the art and skill of Iranian architects and have undergone significant changes in different historical periods.
The history of Iran caravanserais goes back to the pre-Islam era, especially the Achaemenid era (more than 2500 years ago). Usually, the caravanserais were located at a distance of one day’s journey from each other.
The scattered cities and villages and their distance from the main roads, the desert and dryness of the central areas of Iran were another reason for the construction of caravanserais. Traveling between different regions of the country was impossible without these stations.
Pre-Islamic Iranian Caravanserai
The first caravanserais in Iran belong to the Achaemenid and Parthian periods. Herodotus, the Greek historian, in his writings mentions 111 buildings similar to caravanserais that were built in the area between the Achaemenid capital and Sard; A distance that took 3 months to cover.
“Chaparkhaneh” were the first buildings on the road that were turned into caravanserais over time. The main function of the stable was to rest government couriers and replace tired horses with fresh ones. These buildings were mostly made with raw clay.
During the Sassanid era, due to the economic prosperity in Iran, great importance was given to the construction of roads and also the residences between the roads; For this reason, many caravanserais were built in Iran during the Sassanid period. Among the caravanserais of that era, we can mention “Darvazeh Gach Caravanserai”, “Kanar Siah”, “Dir Gachin” and “Robat Anoushirvani” along the Silk Road.
Persian caravanserai after Islam
At the time when the Arabs came to power in Iran, the country no longer had the prosperity of commerce before Islam; For this reason, road construction and buildings along the way were forgotten, and caravanserais lost their former prestige.
In the post-Islam era, the architecture of caravanserais reached its peak of prosperity and suburban caravanserais were built on the way to cities, villages, mountain passes and desert areas, and caravanserais and inner-city caravanserais were built in economic centers and markets.
During the Ghaznavid period, many caravanserais were built in Iran, especially in the eastern areas of the Silk Road. “Robat Mahi” 66 km east of Mashhad, “Robat Sharaf” palace-like mansion on the road from Mashhad to Sarkhas, and “Robat Karim” on Shahryar road are among the most beautiful caravanserais of the Ghaznavid period.
After the Mongol attack on Iran and the end of the Khwarazmshahs dynasty in the 14th and 15th centuries AD, caravanserais were built with very large buildings, but not enough precision was used in their construction.
The flourishing era of the Iranian caravanserai
The Safavid era is known as the golden age of caravanserais construction; Because during this period, trade by sea and land was very prosperous and Shah Abbas I decided to rebuild and revive the Silk Road. He believed that the prosperity of the Silk Road required the revival of caravanserais.
The renovation and construction of Iranian caravanserais during the Safavid era and especially Shah Abbas is one of the reasons why most caravanserais are known as Shah Abbasi caravanserais, although some renovated caravanserais were built before the Safavid era. Shah Abbasi Caravanserai in Karaj is one of the examples of Persian caravanserai built during the Safavid era. The names of about 40 caravanserais are found in a manuscript in the library of the British Museum, which were built by Shah Abbas the Great and his successors.
Architecture of Iranian caravanserais
Iranian caravanserais were usually built in a square or rectangular shape, although there are very few circular caravanserais in Iran. The entrance of the caravanserais was built very big and high so that it could be seen from far away by the passengers.
Around the courtyard of the caravanserai, there are arches on a platform, which are actually small rooms where travelers used to rest. In some cases, there were small rooms under the passenger room where passengers’ belongings were kept.
Types of Iranian caravanserais
Types of caravanserais in terms of location
Persian caravanserais are divided into two main categories in terms of location:
1. Inner city caravanserais
2. Out-of-town caravanserais
Types of Iranian caravanserais according to climate
Since most of the remaining caravanserais are related to the Safavid period and after, it is necessary to examine factors such as climate and the architectural style of the region in their classification.
Therefore, Iran’s caravanserais are classified into the following three categories in terms of location:
1. Fully covered caravanserais in mountainous areas
2. Caravans without yards on the shores of the Persian Gulf
3. Courtyard caravanserais in the central regions of Iran
The difference in the structure of caravanserais in plan and form according to the climate
1. caravanserais in temperate and humid areas
There are few caravanserais in the temperate and humid regions of Iran; Because near the sea coast due to the large population, the distance between the residential areas was small and there was no need for a caravanserai.
The existing caravanserais in the south of the Caspian Sea were built in the form of masonry with a central courtyard. This type of structure was more to protect the safety of passengers.
2. caravanserais in hot and humid areas
In the past, international communication was done by sea, but goods were transported inside the country by road, which multiplied the need for caravanserais. For this reason, many caravanserais have been built on the routes leading to the ports of the Persian Gulf and the Oman Sea during different historical periods. The caravanserais in these areas needed shade and air circulation for the comfort of passengers; For this reason, the caravanserais near the Persian Gulf and Oman did not have a central courtyard and were built as quadrangular buildings.
Caravanserai in hot and humid areas were in the form of a central cruciform room and side rooms that were built around a platform. All the rooms had access to the outside of the building; In this way, the air was circulated inside the building.
3. Caravanserai in cold and dry areas
The caravanserais in the mountainous areas did not have a central courtyard to deal with the freezing of winter, and instead, there was a large hall for the accommodation of travelers and around it corridors for keeping cattle. In order to keep the heat inside the caravanserai, the roofs were made short.
The space of the fireplace and heater in the buildings of cold and mountainous regions was larger than the caravanserais of other regions and was usually placed in the center of the building.
4. Caravanserai in hot and dry areas
The largest number of caravanserais in Iran are built in hot and dry areas; These buildings were built more beautiful, luxurious and bigger than other areas. These buildings had a central courtyard and two or four large porches in the courtyard, and the stables were built behind the passenger rooms.
Passengers’ rooms in caravanserais in hot and dry regions were usually located a few steps higher than the yard; To prevent water and mud from entering the rooms. The rooms did not have doors and were covered with cloth in summer and with rug in winter, and there was a heater in each room. The best room of these buildings was called Shahneshin, which was built in front of the entrance and above the porch.
Types of caravanserais in terms of plan shape
A few Iranian caravanserais are built in a circular shape. Circular caravanserais are very important in terms of architecture. Zainuddin, Zizeh and Tajabad caravanserais are built in a circular shape.
Polygonal caravanserais with courtyards
Iranian architects have built most of the polygonal caravanserais in an octagonal shape. Examples of polygonal caravanserais include Amin Abad, Khan Khore, Chahar Abadeh and De Beed caravansaries on the Isfahan-Shiraz road, and on the Jahrom-Lar road. Most of these structures were built in the Safavid period and are derived from the style of Isfahani architecture.
Caravans with two balconies
Some of Iran’s caravanserais have been built with the idea of schools and mosques in the form of two porches and with a square or rectangular plan. The location of the porches is one at the entrance and the other facing it. Examples of these structures are Khoshab Caravanserai, Do Kohak Caravanserai, and Maranjab Caravanserai.
Caravans with four porches
Caravanserai with 4 verandas appeared from the Seljuk period onwards. An example of this building can be seen in Deir Getchin Caravanserai near the city of Qom.
Caravans with various designs
Some caravanserais do not have special plans and their designs are different. Sabzevar Caravanserai and Shah Abbasi Jolfa Caravanserai are of this category.
Materials used in the caravanserai
Stone and brick were the main materials used in the construction of caravanserais. In some parts of the building, cut stones were used, and in other parts, small uncut stones were used. The interior and exterior of the building were generally made of brick. Also, clay or clay blocks were used in some caravanserais.
The materials used in caravanserais in temperate and humid regions were strong materials such as brick, stone, lime and clay; Because these materials had enough resistance against moisture and rain.
The foundations and walls of caravanserais located in cold and mountainous areas were made of stone. These buildings had very thick walls to prevent cold air from entering the rooms.
Decorations in the caravanserai architecture
Most of the parts of the caravanserai were simple except for the head; The fronts and entrances were decorated with brickwork and carvings on stones. Brickwork and tiling are the most common decorations of Iranian caravanserais.
How was the safety of passengers in caravanserais ?
Architects and owners of caravanserais ensured the safety of life and property of travelers by using the following items.
• Use of guard towers in the four corners of the building
• In order to reach the rooms, it was necessary to pass through the entrance gates, vestibule, corridor, yard and porch.
• Using the entrance gate to control communication inside and outside the building
• Creating a space or guard room at the entrance of the building
• Making the building polygonal or circular in order to gain more control over the area
• Creating layers from outside to inside including external fence, stable, rooms and yard
Service in the caravanserai
As mentioned earlier, the Persian caravanserai was built for travelers who needed to rest during their journey.. When a person or a group entered the caravanserai, the passengers were responsible for unloading the luggage and transferring it to the caravanserai. Each traveler had to choose a room in the caravanserai and request the things they needed during their stay. Each caravanserai had a number of guards who were responsible for the property of the caravans. The guards charged passengers according to their financial status.
Water supply for the caravanserai
Considering that most Iranian caravanserais were located in desert areas, one of the important issues was the supply of water for travelers. This problem has been solved by creating aqueducts and reservoirs on the way to the caravanserai or by building a caravanserai near the river.
The most famous caravanserais in Iran
1- Zainuddin caravanserai in Yazd province
Zain al-Din Caravanserai, which is now more than 400 years old, was built in the middle of the desert on the orders of Shah Abbas Safavi and by Mohammad Sultan Yazdi, and is considered one of the caravansera of Shah Abbasi. This caravanserai is one of the few circular buildings in Iran and the Asian continent on the Silk Road. In 2006, this building was awarded the best restoration award from UNESCO and received the diploma of honor and was introduced by the famous tourist magazine “Tatler” as one of the 101 best accommodations in the world.
When we look at Zainuddin Caravanserai from the outside, it looks like a circular clay castle; While it is 12-sided from the inside. This building has five semi-circular towers that are connected to the eight-meter wall of the caravanserai. Royal rooms with high ceilings, two open and covered main courtyards, sukador rooms with decorations such as cashmere curtains, hand-woven carpets, rugs and backs are among the charms of the caravanserai. Zain-Al-Din Caravanserai is currently an ecotourism residence; But tourists can visit it as a tourist attraction. Zain Al-Din Eco Lodge with 32 rooms can accommodate 100 people.
2- Shah Abbasi Caravanserai
Shah Abbasi Caravanserai was built during the time of Shah Suleiman Safavid along the Silk Road and is one of the few Iranian caravansaries located in the city. This 3000-meter building was built using stone, brick and straw. In the courtyard of the caravanserai, there are 21 rooms for passengers to rest and five docks to store goods and replace the companions and guards of the caravans.
At the beginning of the Qajar period, the caravanserai of Shah Abbasi was turned into a military fortress; At the end of the Qajar rule, it was used as a school; During the Pahlavi period, it was the grain warehouse of the Ministry of Agriculture and currently, it is used as a handicrafts museum, a traditional restaurant and a canteen.
3- Khanat caravanserai in Tehran province
Khanat Caravanserai, which dates back to the reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, is located in District 12 of Tehran. The use of this caravanserai has changed and now it is used as a traditional shop and cafe.
4- Maranjab Caravanserai
This caravanserai is located in “Bande Rig desert”. caravanserai between a lake and a sand dunes that looks like a painting from a distance. Maranjab Caravanserai was built by Shah Abbas as a rest area for travelers and a headquarters for guards on the busy route from Isfahan to Mashhad. This square building has an area of 3,500 square meters and has 29 rooms.
Maranjab Caravanserai is currently used as a guest house.
5-” TT” caravanserai in Gilan province
TT Caravanserai is located on a high and green hill, and at first glance, it reminds the viewer of European medieval castles. River stones and bricks, along with plaster and mortar, are the materials used in the construction of the caravanserai. This building was built in the Safavid era.
6- Bahram Palace Caravanserai in Semnan province
“Qasr Bahram Caravanserai” or “Robat Siyahkoh” is located in Garmsar National Park and dates back to the Sassanid period. It is said that this building was built by the 15th Sasanian king or “Bahram Gur” and was rebuilt by Shah Abbas Safavi.
Qasr Bahram Caravanserai has a remarkable architecture and stone structure. Unlike other caravanserais in Iran, clay was not used in the construction of this building and it was completely made of stone. The water supply system is another unique feature of the building; The water of this building is supplied from the black spring 5.7 km from the caravanserai and is transported to the central courtyard of the caravanserai through a waterway carved out of boulders.
7- Ain al-Rashid caravanserai in Semnan province
Ain ol-Rashid Caravanserai is located a short distance from Bahram Palace, in the middle of the Salt Lake and the Great Desert. This building has two large courtyards. The principles of Iranian architecture during the Safavid period can be clearly seen in Ain ol-Rashid Caravanserai. There are two halls on both sides of the entrance porch, each of which is connected to the yard with five doors.
8- Dir Gachin caravanserai in Qom province
“Dir Gachin” Caravanserai is one of the largest and oldest caravansary in Iran, which was built in the Sassanid period.
This caravanserai has an area of 12,000 hectares and today it is one of the sights of Qom province. This 1,750-year-old building was built during the reign of Ardeshir Sassanid and is known as the mother of Iran’s caravanserais. In the past, Dir Gachin Caravanserai was used as the headquarters of the royal forces and a way station.
9- Caravanserai of Shah Abbasi Deh Namak in Semnan province
The caravanserai of Shah Abbasi Deh Namak belongs to the Safavid era, and its main parts are the main entrance with four porches, 24 rooms on the sides and a royal residence. Deh Namak Caravanserai has a square plan.
Shah Abbasi Deh Namak Caravanserai is active today as an ecotourism resort; A residence with an infrastructure of 3,500 square meters and 26 rooms. In this residence, you can observe the stars with a telescope.
10- Moshir al-Molk caravanserai in Bushehr province
Moshir al-Molk Caravanserai or “Dezh Borazjan ” or “Borazjan Fortress” has an area of 7,000 square meters and 4,200 square meters of buildings. This structure was built in the Qajar era. The architectural style of this caravanserai is similar to the buildings of the Zandiyeh period, and the materials used in it include stone, mortar, and large and small boulders.
The Moshir al-Molk caravanserai has been used as a prison, a residence and the headquarters of the guards in different periods.
Visiting the Iranian caravanserai during the travel period can be an attractive and unique experience for tourists in knowing Iranian history, art and architecture. Persian caravanserais are a symbol of the compatibility of buildings with the climate, because each caravanserais in each region is built using the materials of that region and in accordance with the culture and architecture of that region.
In recent years, many of these caravanserais have been renovated and turned into accommodation for tourists. In most of them, facilities such as piped water, heating and cooling systems, beds, bathrooms and toilets have replaced the old facilities to provide comfort and convenience to tourists from all over the world.