Peaceful abode for travellers

Relishing the past

Fascinating:  An old ‘khan’ named Bayuk Han in Nicosia, Cyprus. PHOTO BY AUTHOR

So, travel was a major component of a Muslim’s life. Moreover, the pilgrimage of Haj made travel compulsory to those who could afford. A group of merchants, pilgrims, or travellers journeying together in deserts or in other hostile regions was thus a common scene in Muslim-dominated regions of the world. During these travels, they needed frequent places of rest and shelter. These ancient desert caravans consisted of large contingents — smaller ones included 20 or more camels while the major ones required up to 3,000 camels. This resulted in inns called caravanserais (which were later called khans) along the main routes. In these places of stay, people and animals would be safe for the night and they could be sure of food and lodging.

Until the 19th century there were three main caravans to Makkah. The Egyptian caravan set out from Cairo, crossed the Sinai Peninsula, and then followed the coastal plain of western Arabia to Makkah, a journey which took 35 to 40 days. It comprised of pilgrims from North Africa who joined the caravan in Cairo. The other great caravan assembled in Damascus, Syria, and moved south, reaching Makkah in about 30 days. The third major caravan crossed the Peninsula from Baghdad.

Among the ancient caravanserais are the sultan hans erected outside Konya by Aladdin Kayqubad in the early 13th century though caravanserais existed much before that.

These caravanserais were built at a distance of 30-40 km from one another, to be covered in 8-10 hours on foot. Regardless of their religion, language or race, travellers were accommodated and catered to for three days in these caravanserais.

It is interesting to note the observation of the famous Muslim traveller, Ibn Battuta, on a caravanserai he stayed in: “At each of these stations between Cairo and Gaza, there is a hostelry which they call a khan, where travellers alight, and outside each khan is a public watering hole and a shop where he may buy what he requires for himself and his beast.”

Ibn Battuta’s observation perfectly sums up the idea of a classic Islamic caravanserai.
An Islamic caravanserai presents to a traveller a square or rectangular walled exterior with a single portal wide enough to permit large or heavily laden beasts to enter. Open to the sky, the courtyard consisted of stalls, bays and niches or chambers to accommodate merchants and their servants, their animals and their merchandise. While some caravanserais had minimum facilities for washing and ablution, others had elaborate baths. Later caravanserais had special rooms, bakeries, mills, etc, that they came to resemble small villages.

Among the earliest surviving caravanserais are the Qasr Al Hayr East and West, built by Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid in 728, and located in the Syrian desert, and the Chah-I-Siyah, near Isfahan in Iran, built in the latter part of the 8th century.

On my recent visit to the Turkish side of Cyprus, one of the most fascinating places I visited was an old khan by the name Bayuk Han in the old city of Nicosia. One of the most important architectural works of the Ottoman period, Buyuk Han is located in the traditional market centre within the city walls. The old rooms of the inn are now occupied by shops, all of which surround the small octagonal masjid that sits at the centre of the courtyard. The khan was built by the first Ottoman governor of Cyprus, Muzzafer Pasha, in 1572.

Caravanserais indeed served as important junctions for travellers to rest.

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