The horror of what can only be considered nascent civil war in Syria, the frustration of the international community’s impotence, the loss, for Londoners, of Marie Colvin, one of the greatest foreign correspondents of our age – everything conspires to conceal, through the smoke of war, the age, wealth and plurality of Syria’s culture. The administration, now understandably reviled, has a good record in respect of the country’s ancient monuments. We publish this account, written in happier days, of the caravanserais – or inns – which provided hospitality for traders and travellers over many centuries. Many of these, particularly the Mamluk and Ottoman ones, have been carefully restored and could be a real asset for tourism. Syria has always been a gateway to Mediterranean Europe for the east, and vice versa. It is vital, during conflict, to fear what might be lost and look forward to what it is worth straining every available international instrument to save.
– Grey Gowrie, March 2012
Even in the eleventh century the astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam, in his Rubaiyat, talks of caravanserais as ‘battered’. So, what was I likely to find now, ten centuries later, on one of the busiest pilgrim routes in the world; the well-trodden path crossing Syria from north to south? Undeterred throughout the centuries the great and the good have continued this often charitable tradition of restoring as well as building anew these vital links for both Muslim and Christian merchants, pilgrims and travellers as they marched towards their goals of Mecca and Jerusalem from all corners of the earth. These caravanserais/khans/kanes/hans/kawalasias/funduks, call them what you will, as indeed do most travellers who, throughout the centuries, have stayed in or ridden past these spectacular buildings, are the precursors of our present-day hotels. Without them, then as now, travelwould have been a nightmare. From the earliest times the needs of the merchant were paramount. Luxury would vary enormously. Those built by the Selcuk, Mamluk or Ottoman sultans, grand viziers or other high officials in Syria and Turkey were luxurious beyond the wildest dreams. The word itself – caravanserai, meaning caravan-palace – conjures up every imaginable form of eastern promise awaiting the exhausted, dusty and often very frightened merchant or traveller. Yet, he could be reassured to know that in the remotest areas, between cities and large towns, often at a distance of just twenty-five miles apart, he would be sure to find a safe haven rising like a mirage in the shimmering distance. In the cities themselves the traveller would be spoilt for choice.
At last I am about to see the final stages of this pilgrim route, lined with caravanserais, which wound its way from Turkey into northern Syria, then south through Syria’s major cities of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and then Damascus. Over the years my husband and I have tracked down numerous caravanserais throughout Turkey, never knowing in what condition we would find them as most of my information comes from very early travellers. Flying in to Damascus at midnight, our very first caravanserai on our first visit to Syria would have to be the great Khan Assad Pasha in the depths of the city’s meandering souq area. Had I not been looking for it – in the Souq al-Bzorieh – we could easily have walked past it, as, despite its superb stalactite entrance, only a small sign on the outside, mostly in Arabic, notes that this is a khan. From the dark, vaulted, crowd-jostling souq street we step into brilliant sunshine pouring down from the central dome onto the fountain-filled court, with its soaring pillars. The characteristic, somewhat overpowering, Syrian ablaq effect of alternating black basalt and white limestone is used throughout the caravanserai’s awe-inspiring arches and galleries. Recently restored to its original splendour, it is easy to see how it inspired early Christian and Muslim travellers. Despite his grizzly end, the patron of this khan, the Ottoman vali or governor of Damascus, As’ad Pasha al-Azaem, was determined, in 1752, to build ‘the greatest of all Khans of that time … as an important stopping-point in Damascus for travellers on the Silk Road and the pilgrims to Meccah …’
Who better than the French poet Lamartine to express the sheer wonder of what he saw in the early 1800s?
I have discovered the most beautiful Khan in the east … With its colossal dome and arcades it reminds one of St. Peter’s in Rome … behind these pillars are shops and stairs leading to the upper floors where the merchant’s quarters are … where he stores his precious goods and records. Night and day caretakers guard the caravanserai.
As for the gigantic wooden double entrance doors of the khan, Lamartine was impressed enough to call them ‘an architectural masterpiece … unparalleled in the world …’ Towering over the individual these heavy wooden doors, reinforced with sheets of iron, have an all-over artistic design created by handmade nails hammered into the metal facing. At nightfall they would be pushed shut, bolted and chained. Yet the latecomer would not be locked out; for him a very small khokha door, or sally port, was cut into the lower part of the right-hand main door which the bekci or khan custodian would unlock for the benighted wayfarer.
A few minutes’ walk takes us to Straight Street, the Via Recta of the Romans, regarded by Mark Twain as ‘straighter than a corkscrew, but not as straight as a rainbow’. Now the commercial heart of Damascus Old City, from here on caravanserais abound – it is just a question of finding them. We have one more day to do so before catching our train to Aleppo the following morning. We are not disappointed. Altogether we find five more caravanserais in varying states of repair: three of them – Khan Jakmak, Khan al-Zeit and Khan al-Dikkeh – belonged to the earlier Mamluk period (1260-1516), an Islamic dynasty overthrown by the Ottomans under Sultan Selim I in 1516. Khan Jakmak, with its court filled with flowering magnolia grandiflora, had lost much of its Mamluk splendour during a fire of 1925. Its upper floor domes were destroyed. These domes are all in situ in the nearby Khan al-Zeit, once the depot for the olive oil trade. Having no information on this khan, its amazing condition – fine wrought ironwork covering the artisans’ shops surrounding the court, original paved black and white courtyard – comes as a complete surprise; so often parts of caravanserais have been lopped off to make way for blocks of flats or road improvement. A surprising sight meets us on the upper floor: monopolising one of the long, arcaded galleries was an extraordinary makeshift Heath
Robinson contraption where strands of black cord, held taut by metal tables weighted down with boulders, are stretched along the length of the sunlit gallery. Before our eyes the weaver is spinning by hand black goats’ hair around the cord, creating the most professional handcrafted black headbands, the iqals, worn by Arab men to hold their headcloths in place. Carefully stacked in a pile behind him lie dozens of these exquisite, finely woven headbands, waiting to be shipped on their way.
We catch our 6.50am Damascus to Aleppo train the next morning not as one might expect from Hejaz station, the wonderful 1917 Ottoman relic in the heart of the city, but from Khaddam, five kilometres outside the city. First-class tickets – less than ten pounds each – take us, in relative air-conditioned comfort, the three hundred and fifty kilometres to Aleppo. There, the ubiquitous bruised and battered yellow taxi is ready and waiting to hurl its passengers at frenzied speed to the Christian quarter, where church bells mingle with the muezzin’s call to prayer. In ‘the most charming part of Aleppo’, with its warren of narrow, stone-flagged lanes and ‘walls like canyons’, we hope to find our family-run hotel.
During the eighteenth century there where more than sixty caravanserais in Aleppo, the city which vies with Damascus as being the oldest in the world. With only a few days to find as many of the city’s caravanserais as possible, we are taken later to Bab Antakya, one of the last thirteenth- century gateways into the old walled city. Behind it we hope to find these early relics of Aleppo’s thriving international trade. Sure enough, after much foot-slogging through the city’s seven-kilometre, stone-flagged bazaars, we find eight splendid khans – six from the Ottoman period and two from the earlier Mamluk dynasty. The most famous of all Aleppo’s caravanserais has always been Gumruk Khan. Its domed mosque in the court centre was built in 1574 by Turkey’s greatest statesman in the time of Selim II, the grand vizier Sokollu Mehmet Pasha. The ‘magnificent Bassa’ was also one of the empire’s most prolific builders, responsible for some of the most lavish Ottoman caravanserais from Belgrade to Syria and beyond. When the French linguist and scholar Monsieur de Thevenot arrived in the ‘City of Aleppo’ in 1664, he alighted at the ‘Great Han to lodge with Monsieur Bertet’. There, he found his fellow lodgers were ‘the Consuls of England, France and many Merchants’. A recent musket shot through Gumruk Khan’s great iron doors had left ‘a hole quite through’, despite being ‘half a foot thick’. Considerably larger and more luxurious than any of the earlier Mamluk caravanserais, Gumruk Khan was out to surpass them all, an aim it achieved together with the later, equally illustrious Ottoman Vezir Khan (1682), also in the Old City.
My favourite caravanserai, without a doubt, is the very last one we found. Not far from the seventeenth-century Vezir Khan, the Khan al-Sabun (or Soap Khan) was commissioned by the fifteenth-century Mamluk governor Azdemir. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest examples of Mamluk architecture in Aleppo. There is something magical about this caravanserai, although not its condition, which is ruinous. It is possibly the gravity-defying stone staircase sweeping up from the court below, unsupported, only to be stopped in its tracks by a bricked-up, strikingly ornate ivan. At one time this was the elegant entrance to a large domed reception room or a qa’a where vezirs and pashas could entertain guests and merchants. Fantailed pigeons are feeding in the shade of the court’s trailing vines, avoiding the sweltering May sunshine.
After eight caravanserais it is a relief to head for Baron’s Hotel. This curious early twentieth-century anachronism in the heart of Aleppo is still an obligatory stopping-off place for all in search of nostalgia. What we find there is even more surprising: our very own Syrian driver. Still reigning supreme after forty-eight years is Madame Lucine; in a nearby room a patrician and equally respected hotel fixture, of similar vintage, is about to make our lives much easier: Mr. Walid. With almost perfect English, he can provide us not only with an air-conditioned car, but also a reliable driver. Any question I put to Mr. Walid is answered with a charming ‘No problem!’
The impossible is about to happen. I would be able to see a string of caravanserais – we tracked down five eventually – on the Hajj route from Aleppo to Damascus. This would have been out of the question on our own as the areas were remote and all road signs in Arabic. At the appointed time the following day Mr. Walid is waiting for us near our hotel with our driver, Jihad, to whom also any question is answered with ‘No problem’. For the next three days Jihad drives us through almost the whole of Syria, from Aleppo in the north to Damascus in the south: to Marqab and Krakdes Chevaliers crusader castles in the west, then the caravan city of Palmyra in the east with its first-century AD caravanserai, now a pile of dust. Each caravanserai we come across is an achievement: Khan Tuman (twelfth-century), despite numerous restorations by the Ottomans, is now a ruined court with some skeletal arches; the formidable Al-Restan khan appears to have been submerged beneath a towering dam; Khan Shaykhun is engulfed by village houses and shops; yet another – the fourteenth- century Khan al-Sobol, north of Hama – is being painstakingly restored at enormous expense; finally, the restored seventeenth-century Ottoman caravanserai – the largest in Syria – at Ma’arrat al-Nu’man is now home to the most exquisite collection of Roman mosaics rescued from the surrounding area.
Jihad’s patience was legendary. He never complained when our caravanserai hunt took us down yet another dusty, pot-holed backwater. In the remotest areas he would pull up at a wonderful Syrian restaurant where we could all cool off with the local iced lemon and mint drink and smoke an elegant shisha pipe. Even last-minute shopping was solved when Jihad pulled up at the Baghdad café, an Aladdin’s cave on a desolate desert road midway between Palmyra and Damascus. Ten centuries after Omar Khayyam it is reassuring to note that though some caravanserais may be ‘battered’ there are many magnificent ones waiting to be discovered.