4.4.9 Caravanserais, khāns, funduqs and ribats

For an overview of these building types and terms see Hillenbrand (1994, 331-76). There is much debate on terminology, not just today but in the use of terms by ancient geographers, who may have been sensitive to regional vocabulary (Hillenbrand 1994, 331-34). For the purpose of this article, I will generally use the term caravanserai.

The basic form of a caravanserai (Kiani 1970, 16-17; Petersen 1994, 51-2) was a large square or rectangular enclosure with a central courtyard (occasionally double courtyards) surrounded by cells or galleries, on one or two levels. In the case of two-storey structures, this enabled storage and loading to be on the same level as the courtyard, and kept dust away from the individual units on the first floor, which could be hired by the traveller, often with larger rooms in the corners of the courtyard for use by wealthy or important people. The complex normally had a single entrance, sometimes with a domed entrance iwan.

Seljuk caravanserais have a very specific style: relatively symmetrical, with four iwans, one on each side of a courtyard, a plan that can be traced back to that of Khorasan houses (Yavuz 1997, 83). The difference from such a house, even elite houses, however, is the scale of courtyard space.

Seljuk caravanserais might also resemble earlier 'Abbasid desert palaces, with a square plan with semi-circular towers at the corners and wall intervals: e.g. the 11th-century caravanserai at Daya Khatyn, Turkmenistan (Michell 1995, 260; Mamedov and Muradov 1998, 58, 103). When a second courtyard was present (in rural caravanserais) these were often slightly smaller than the first (e.g. the Aksaray Sultan Han (Yavuz 1997, fig. 16)): this possibly indicates a separation between stores, markets and stabling (the larger courtyard) and accommodation (the smaller) (Saoud 2003, 10).

Information on urban caravanserai, however, is very scarce, especially for the earlier Islamic periods. It is likely that they fulfilled a wider range of roles than the rurally located way-stations, especially in terms of markets and opportunities for resale. Urban space is also potentially more restricted, so we might expect problems with scale, and possibly diversity (perhaps reflecting the functional zonation of suqs).

So features we might hope to identify in the aerial imagery include:

  1. large central courtyards;
  2. the Seljuk four iwan layout might be discernible through the identification of larger rooms in the middle of each building range around the courtyard;
  3. complexes with double courtyards, particularly in suburban/rural contexts, might be indicative, as might the second building range/courtyard being smaller than the first;
  4. overall, therefore, we might expect to see some differences between possible caravanserais in urban and suburban areas.


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