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Caravan-sarays - monuments of the Great Silk Road

Caravan-sarays - monuments of the Great Silk Road

“The years of independence were marked by the increased public interest in the distant past of our Fatherland, to the contribution that courageous ancestors of the Turkmen people made to the history of civilization,” President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov writes in the preface of the book “Turkmenistan is the Heart of the Great Silk Road”.

The most important international trade routes from China to the Middle East through Amul, Merv, Sarakhs, Abiverd, Nisa, from the countries of the Middle East to Russia through Dehistan and Kunyaurgench, to India through Zemmus, passed through the territory of Turkmenistan in antiquity and in the Middle Ages,” the author continues . “There are dozens of historical cities, large and small, on the territory of our country that can discover the greatness of the Silk Road.”

Indeed, the monuments preserved in the Turkmen land, including those that witnessed the life being in full swing along the trade routes, can still tell a lot to our contemporaries and descendants. And the beginning of 2018 year, passing under the motto “Turkmenistan is the heart of the Great Silk Road”, is the time to talk about them, in order to once again feel the connection between times and generations, the invaluable heritage of the nation and its future.

This theme is revealed in the aforementioned book of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov on the example of facts from national history, plots from ancient traditions and ancient legends, events of the modern life of the country. As the head of state emphasizes, the Turkmen people have one of the fundamental roles in the birth and active functioning of the Great Silk Road.

Reviving this ancient route today, our country, which has assumed the role of integrator in the region and on the continent, is actively developing the transport and logistics system, which serves as the foundation for establishing an international political, economic and humanitarian dialogue based on the principles of good neighborliness, mutual understanding and equal partnership, reports the State news agency of Turkmenistan.


Soon, we are waiting for important, truly historical events - the laying of the Afghan section of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, as well as the fiber-optic communication line along the same route and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan transmission line. At the same time, the commissioning ceremony of the Serhetabat-Turgundi railway, which our state is building entirely at its own expense, material, technical and human resources, will take place. All this is a milestone in the formation of the Great Silk Road in the modern format, because time does not stand still, and our country sets new areas of partnership, realizing its peacekeeping mission in practice.


Today, Turkmenistan confidently declares itself as an international tourist center, where, under the personal patronage of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, an innovative infrastructure of the industry is created, its effective model.

One of the most popular destinations is the journey along the Great Silk Road, the objects of which include monuments inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

A new quality of this historical road, which has become a phenomenon of human civilization, is embodied not only in the trade and economic relations of states, but also in their cultural dialogue, humanitarian contacts, and also in the field of sports. A great example of this can be the great success of the “Ashgabat 2017” Games, which gathered not only teams from 64 countries of Asia and Oceania, refugee athletes, but also numerous journalists, spectators and tourists from all over the world.

The continuation of the sports component of international cooperation of Turkmenistan will be initiated by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov on the rally on the Silk Road route - from Amul to Khazar this year.

Foreign participants in the rally will not only be able to join the heritage of the Turkmen people, but also see for themselves the new life that comes to these legendary places along with the fundamental socio-economic transformations, scientific, technical and industrial development of the country's regions, strengthening its position as an important transportation hub on the Great Silk Road in the modern era.


The head of state also notes the need for widespread popularization in the world, including through the mass media, of the historical and cultural heritage of the Turkmen people, who have made a significant contribution to the development of civilization.

And today, readers are offered the first material from a thematic series on the book of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the name of which was the motto of 2018 year.

During the Middle Ages, on all the routes of the Great Silk Road from the Mediterranean to China, special inns, protected by blank walls and powerful bastions, were built every 30-40 km for protecting and taking rest of the trade caravans. They were built in such a way that the caravan, having left one stop in the morning, would reach the next by nightfall. There were even special reference books indicating the location of road hotels, the most common name of which is caravan-saray. Sometimes they were included in the fortifications of military units. The city buildings of caravan-sarays did not need defense and were built near the bazaars - at the key points of the cities.

Caravan-sarays appeared on the territory of Turkmenistan in the pre-Islamic period. The ruins of the trade fortresses of the Sasanis and, perhaps, Parthian time remained: their main function was, apparently, defensive, but they were already adapted to receive and service merchant caravans.

But the massive construction of buildings of this type began only in the Muslim era - from the first years of Islamization of Central Asia in the second half of the 7th century. Military fortresses were erected here, which the Arabs called “rabat” or “ribat”. There were distributed groups of warriors "gazi" - "fighters for the faith." Later there merchants with their caravans and other travelers began to take refuge – rabats received the additional function of the inns. This led to a confusion of terms, and from the 9th century caravan-sarays were often called rabatami. By that time, the original meaning of this word was already forgotten.

In Turkmenistan and neighboring countries, until the 11th century, the caravan-sarays often served as a traditional residential castle-koshk, surrounded by a well-protected courtyard. By the end of the XI century, the most characteristic type of inn was formed for this region. The planning scheme of rectangular or square, but always symmetrical structures, includes a courtyard, encircled around the perimeter of the premises for guests, warehouses, sheds for pack animals and fodder.

In addition to the monumental caravan-sarays, similar in type buildings of the 11th-12th centuries were castles-dwellings and border fortresses erected in various places of Central Asia on large trade routes.

The heyday of the construction of caravan-sarays - rabat in Dehistan, Khorasan and Khorezm came during the reign of the sultans from the Great Seljuk dynasty and the Anushteginids and replaced them Khorezmshahs, that is, in the XI – XIII centuries. According to the testimony of travelers and geographers of the time, there were several thousand such buildings. Not all of them were monumental, but those that were built by the state and embodied its prestige surprised the contemporaries with the magnificence of architecture, the richness of design and comfort. As early as the 8th century, one of the last omayyad governors of Khorasan, Asad ibn Abdullah, was noted for building caravan-sarays hotels in the steppes: "A wanderer comes there from the east, another comes from the west, and they do not find a lack there."

The construction of large caravan-sarays on important trade routes was the prerogative of state power, it was the responsibility of the “ideal” ruler and showed his concern for the prosperity of the country. The good fame of a sultan, khan or emir was directly proportional to the number and magnificence of the caravan-sarays erected by his order: the traveler, after an exhausting journey, enters the shady and elegant yard of the caravan-sarays surrounded by arcades, should feel like a personal guest of the pious ruler who cares about him safety and comfort.

That is why the architecture of large “royal” caravan-sarays was far from prudent utilitarian. They became really “caravan palaces”, striking luxury of decoration and size, for decoration and equipment of which the government spared no expense. Yes, their device differed little from the real palaces, vivid examples of which are the two famous caravan-sarays, erected during the Great Seljuks: Dayahatyn on the way from Amul to Gurgandzh and Rabati-Sharaf on the way from Sarakhs to Nishapur.

Long-distance caravan-sarays were massive fortifications with thick walls and strong gates. Here, in addition to rooms for travelers, there were shops and stalls for camels, horses and cattle, workshops, swimming pools. On the territory of the caravan-sarays, detachments of soldiers who defended them and inhabitants from the attack of robbers served.

In addition, they were trading posts where goods could be sold or exchanged. For entertainment guests played musicians. Often you could buy here the intoxicating drinks made from grapes grown on the hills of Andalusia, Jerez and Champagne. The choice of burgundy, chios, cypriot and falernian wines was also rich, and merchants from distant countries were especially interested in them. For the Muslims from the side of the gate a prayer room was always arranged. Some caravan-sarays in the courtyard had small mosques. Services on the caravan routes were provided free of charge. Only in the cities the travelers paid for the night.

Traces of old, well-worn for many centuries tracts are well traced in the KaraKum. Several chains of wells stretched across the desert, whose names are partially preserved on modern maps of Turkmenistan. There were especially many of them along the routes from Nisa and Merv to the north and northeast - to Gurgandzh and Khiva. The monumental caravan-saray near the Tumshukly-Guy well, among the high barchans fixed by thickets of saxaul, survived better than others in this area. It is located 150 kilometers from the Sultan-kala - the Seljuk part of Merv.

This is a typical monument of that era, entirely built of clay bricks, but with facades decorated in the form of slender semi-columns, closely pressed together. The so-called corrugated walls were the original reception of the architects of Merv and Khorezm - nowhere else in the Asian countries they could be met. The exception was a unique monument of the XI-XII centuries - Rabati-Malik, located in the desert between Bukhara and Samarkand.

The corners of the caravan-saray near Tumshukly are flanked by round bastions, and one of them is much more powerful than the others. Even today, having lost its upper part, it rises to 10 meters and is a signal tower, intended to be a landmark for caravans. At night, a fire was burning on its top, helping the caravans not to go astray. As a rule, all the stations erected in the desert were supplied with such lighthouses, but in later times, when the caravan trade had come to naught, these buildings were abandoned, people began to mistake them for minarets. So, the popular name Minara was fixed to this caravan-saray. 

A road 210 kilometers long between Amul and Merv connected two large oasis on the left bank of the Amu Darya and in the delta of the Murghab River, but passed through the Karakum sands and takyr. There were no other alternative routes and any noticeable settlements on this important part of the Great Silk Road, however, there were a sufficient number of caravan-sarays and smaller stations at the wells for rest and overnight. All of them are now destroyed, part is completely dispelled or buried by sand, but the track itself has been preserved and is well visible almost throughout the entire route.

The reconnaissance of this area and a field archeological and topographical study along the road were first carried out in 1952-1953 by the South Turkmenistan Archeological Complex Expedition (STACE) under the guidance of Academician Mikhail Masson. The results of this work are reflected in his fundamental work “Medieval Trade Routes from Merv to Khorezm and Maverannahr”. Since then, the revealed monuments by specialists have not been visited anymore and for many years have fallen out of their sight.

Only 60 years later, it was possible to “reopen” these objects by joint efforts of the National Administration for the Preservation, Study and Restoration of Historical and Cultural Monuments under the Ministry of Culture of Turkmenistan and the Institute of Archeology of the University College (UCL).The exact geographical coordinates of the lost monuments were established, their photographing was carried out, the necessary measurements were made.

The chain of discounts is traced on the terrain in full accordance with the instructions of the medieval Arab road builders, among whom the point at-Tahmaladzh with the ruins of a caravan-saray, similar to the castle-kyoshk, stands out. It is located in the middle of a vast takyr. This is a square earthen building with corrugated facades on a high platform with nine domed rooms of the upper floor. Not far, just 5 kilometers away, rises the largest caravan-saray of the 11th century in Central Asia, known as Akcha-Kala.

The only entrance to it was decorated in the form of a monumental portal, and the main facade was entirely decorated with semicircular corrugations. At the corners - square bastions. This comfortable "hotel" has two courtyards. The first, more extensive, is surrounded by two rows of galleries intended for animals and goods. To the left and right of the entrance were spacious domed common areas.

The second smaller courtyard with vaulted aivans, open galleries and hujrah living rooms - behind them. There was a special prayer room with a mihrab. Most of the numerous rooms and halls had vaulted ceilings. This once luxurious caravanserai is a completely unique monument for Central Asia. Academician Galina Pugachenkova, who studied in detail the majestic ruins of Akcha-Kala, dated it to the 11th century.

In addition, Dayahatyn caravan-saray stands out - most famous today thanks to publications in scientific works and the mass media. It is located far from inhabited places - in the desert zone on the left bank of the Amu Darya, on the way from Amul to Gurgandzh. Its architecture in its constructive and stylistic features is a remarkable example of the skill of the Seljuk era architects.

Dayahatyn has been preserved much better than other similar structures and is now the object of restoration works by Turkmen specialists.

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