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The Caravanserai

Muslim civilization always has been mobile. Both the Arabs and the various non-Arab conquerors from Central Asia were originally nomadic and inherited a tradition of travel. Large armies were constantly on the move. Students and scholars undertook long journeys to sit at the feet of famous masters. The wealth of cities depended upon the transport of goods. And the Faith of Islam imposed upon the Faithful the most powerful of all motives for travel -- performance of the hajj or pilgrimage.

In the harsh conditions and inhospitable countryside of most Islamic countries, travelers had a frequent need for places of rest and shelter in areas between the widely spaced cities and towns. This led to the construction of caravansaries.

Caravanserai (Merchants' Inn). The word 'caravanserai' is derived from the Persian "karwan," which signifies a company, or "caravan," of travelers in a serai (large inn). Muslim rulers often built and maintained serais on major travel routes to foster the political cohesion, trade safety, and economic growth of their kingdoms. Muslim women contributed to the rise in this particular kind of architecture. Zubayda, the wife of the great 'Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (reigned 786-803 A.D.), built serais, wells, and cisterns on the pilgrim route from Baghdad to Mecca. This route became known as the Darb Zubaydah (road of Zubaydah).

It is believed that these caravanserais, also known as "khans," were originally an enclosure protecting a well which then developed into a unique type of architectural complex. The main function of a caravanserai was to receive travelers and merchandise, and therefore space within them was provided in order to store a variety of goods to be traded. These khans consist of courtyards to stable animals, rooms to lodge the travelers ("manzil" or "funduq"), and storage areas for their goods. The khans which survive today attest to the spread of civil and mercantile architecture which developed from the first centuries of Islam onward.

In the city of Isfahan (Iran), Shah 'Abbas' caravanserai has been turned into luxury hotel.

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