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Sunday, 21 February 2010 07:31

Iranian Culture and Architecture (36)

Communications in human societies have always been very important, and there has always been a steady stream of human traffic between villages and towns in all countries.

This means that in all countries we see road and bridge construction, and all things which facilitate travel.

In Iran, too, the constant stream of caravans and travelers between major commercial cities has resulted in caravansaries being built at regular intervals along roads connecting major towns and commercial centers.

Many historians, including "James Dawn" have written about the caravansaries, castles and fortresses dotted around Iran, along the roadsides. These buildings were built for commercial or military purposes, but sadly many of them have fallen into disrepair, or gradually became derelict; perhaps because some routes were changed, or new roads built, with older roads no longer being used. Some where destroyed due to natural disasters, such as earthquakes.

Only a few of these buildings have survived to this day and restored and maintained to their former glory. Traditionally, travelers used to stop and refresh themselves at caravansaries; sometimes they stayed for a few days, awaiting the next caravan which passed by to continue their journeys. Caravanserais were equivalent to modern-day hotels or motels.

The word Caravanserai is really a concatenation of two Persian words – “caravan" (which means a group of people who travel as a group) and "sara” or “sarai" (which means house or place in Persian).Thus Caravanserai is really a place for caravans (or groups of travelers) to make a short stop and refresh themselves, and take a rest. The caravanserai, in its own right, was for many years the largest residential building in Islamic lands. The caravanserai is usually a square or rectangular building, with a prominent and large entrance, with high ceilings, and a large in-door courtyard.

All round the courtyard, there were small rooms which were used by travelers for rest. Travelers usually stayed one or more nights in the caravanserai, and all the basic amenities were available in the rooms where they stayed. Some caravanserais were two-storey buildings. In these caravanserais usually the upper floor rooms were used by guests and travelers for resting and sleeping, and the ground-floor rooms were used as storage rooms.

All caravanserais usually had a section for keeping horses, mules, and other four-legged animals. On both sides of the entrance to the caravanserai, on the inside of the building, there were usually two or more rooms. The owner of the caravanserai could usually be found in one of these rooms. The other room or rooms were for security staff or people who guarded the building. Each caravanserai normally had a well, for drinking water. In many caravanserais the well was located in the middle of the courtyard, inside the building.

Many historic sources say caravanserais were first built in Iran during the Achaemenid period. For example, Herodotus, the Greek historian, writes in his fifth book that the Achaemenid kings of Persia had built special resting places, or caravanserais, between Susa (present day Shoush) and Sardis  present day (Saard). Herodotus talks of no less than one hundred and eleven similar- looking buildings where travelers could take a rest, along the 2500 kilometer road from Susa to Sardis. Susa was the capital of Achaemenid kings. Sardis was a major city in those days. Caravans used to travel this 2500 kilometer distance in about three months.

There was obviously a need for secure resting places along this long and arduous road where travelers, merchants, and courtiers and messengers, who traveled on horseback and carried postal letters, could take a rest.

In the Parthian era, or Ashkanid era, the development of Iran's roads, and providing amenities for travelers along these roads continued.

One of the main commercial roads which was used by travelers and merchants alike was the "Silk Road”, connecting China to Turkey. The Silk Road was a major road and many caravanserais were built along it.

In the Sassanid era, the development of Iran's road network continued. Many caravanserais were built along major roads in the Sassanid era. Several of these or remnants of them can still be found today. Examples include "the Deir Gachin" caravanserai, the "Robaat Anoushirvan" caravanserai, and "Darwazeh Gach va Kenar Siah" caravanserai, which have survived down to this day.

"The Deir Gachin" caravanserai is a registered building in Iran's national heritage sites. It is pretty close to Tehran. The caravanserai has a very long history. It dates back to 1800 years ago. It was built in the Sassanid period. "The Deir Gachin" caravanserai has been called the mother of all of Iran's caravanserais. Everything which a traveler needed could be found in this caravanserai. "The Deir Gachin" caravanserai has six towers, and its architecture is traditional Iranian architecture, with four Eiwans or porches. This beautiful caravanserai is set in a huge piece of land 12000 square meters in area. It used to have 43 rooms where travelers could rest. It also had a Royal Eiwan (or porch, 18 stables for horses and other animals, and two storage depots. The caravanserai also had a windmill, lavatories, bathrooms, and a back yard. Later on, a mosque was also built on the premises. Today, "The Deir Gachin" caravanserai is a tourist attraction site, visited by many Iranian and foreign tourists.

In the Islamic period, many factors were involved in development and expansion of caravanserais, such as religious, military or economic factors.

Many old history and geography books, give us valuable information about commerce, business, travel, and caravanserais.

The famous Iranian poet and writer, Nasser Khosrow, who is justly famous for his travels, writes about many caravanserais, in which he himself had a stop-over, in his books. For example traveling a route from Naeen to Tabas, most of which is along a desert in central Iran, Nasser Khosrow writes: "We reached the caravanserai of Robaat Zobeideh. It had a huge water storage room. Without drinking water in this caravanserai we would have been unable to cross the hot desert".

The dynasties in the early Islamic period, attached great importance to constructing buildings which benefited the public, such as caravanserais. The fifth century A.H. (11th Century A.D.) was the age of flourishing Islamic arts, particularly architecture. Many caravanserais and mosques were built in this period. Most of these had two or four porches. This trend continued until the Mongol Invasion of Iran, and the destruction which followed.

Later generations of Mongol rulers of Iran, became fascinated with Iranian culture and arts. They developed commerce and business in Iran, and built many caravanserais, entrusting the security of these caravanserais to military forces. For example, Khajeh Rashid Al-din Fazlollah, who ordered the construction of many public buildings, including many caravanserais, is well-known in Iranian history.

Well dear listeners we have come to the end of our programme today. In our next programme, we shall continue with the study of Iranian architecture.



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