Caravanserais and Bazaars: Images of the Silk Road

Nowhere and altogether vast.
Silently they move
across miles and miles
of golden sands –
the sun, the wind and
the ghostly shadows of beasts and men.

By any measure, the ancient Silk Road that linked China with the West, crossing thousands of miles of empty desert, was a monumental tribute to the spirit of man. Certain indelible images of the Silk Road spring to mind, notably men and beasts trekking through deserts and oasis to trade camel-loads of precious goods such as spices, and medicinal herbs, exotic fruits, precious stones, and of course, the prized fabric for which the Silk Road got its name.

In ancient times (before maritime routes were opened in the 14th century), goods moved slowly, across vast desert terrains and over formidable mountain ranges. Journeys across most parts of Central Asia – the heart of the Silk Road – were difficult, beset by bandits or dangerous animals, not to mention extremes of weather. So, any form of respite is welcome. A series of overnight pit-stops known as caravanserais was established to provide lodging, food, water and security for weary travellers and to promote and protect the trade that enriched their kingdoms. The word caravenserais comes from the Persian karvan, meaning a company travelling together, and sara, a living place. Caravanserais were roadside inns where travellers could eat, sleep and recover from the day’s journeys, with their animals secured and fed and their precious goods safeguarded. Ideally, they should be spaced a day apart, but due to the extreme terrains of Central Asia, there were few inns and when one is found, you can imagine the relief of the tired travellers.

“Caravanserai at Mylasa Turkey” oil on Canvas, 1845, Yale Centre for British Art, Hartford, Connecticut, US.

Ganjali Khan Caravanserai (16th century), Kerman, Iran.

Remains of a 12th century caravansaerai at Qasr al-Hayr a-Sharqi, Syria.

Unlike caravanserais, bazaars or markets were not established at regular intervals in the wild but were naturally found in towns and oases where large numbers of people reside, places like Chang-an (modern day Xian), Dunhuang, Kashgar and Yarkland in China, Kabul (Afghanistan), Samarkand and Bukhara (Uzbekistan), Damascus and Aleppo (Syria), Isfahan (Iran) and so on. The very best bazaars were at Chang-an in the east, Kashgar and Samarkand in the centre, and Baghdad, Damascus and Aleppo in the west. In contrast to the simplicity of the caravanserais, bazaars were very “happening” places, functioning as markets where people could meet to trade goods, be entertained and layover, sometimes over weeks and even months. Anyone who have been to the famous bazaar of Instanbul would have a good idea of the vibrant atmosphere of an ancient bazaar.

19th century sketch of the main bazaar in Kabul.

The bustling Grand Bazaar at Kashgar, an old caravan town in Xinjiang, Western China.

A colorful display of spices and herbs in Kashgar’s Grand Bazaar.

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