Reading the caravanserai in the twenty-first century
  • Niloofar Fanaiyan

The caravan and the caravanserai have commonly appeared in Eastern poetry as metaphors for the journey of life, the world, and the transience of that journey and place. In the 21st century, arguably defined by the dichotomy of the speed of information technology versus the hours that must still be spent in physical travel, we can begin to re-address these metaphors by searching for their contemporary equivalent, largely in the experience of the long, multi-stop international flight and the hours spent in international airports in transit.


Keywords: transit—caravan—poetry—liminality


In another time in a distant land a young man is awakened by a chant, a call to prayer, echoing through the courtyard of the caravanserai. His home is behind him and his future is vague. Soon the sound of camels being prepared for travel cuts through the early morning chill. The dash from the underground to the check-in lobby is a struggle but the flashing signs urge me onwards, just as the sounds of impending departure would have urged my ancestor to his feet.

In the twenty-first century we spend a great deal of time in travel and transit, often waiting—waiting to depart, to arrive, to continue, for others to depart or arrive or continue. Travel, or the journey, is often cast as a metaphor for life and consequently can be seen to possess attributes of liminality. Medieval Persian poetry draws on the terms ‘caravan’ and ‘caravanserai’ in order to makes use of the ‘journey’ theme, and to comment on issues such as detachment, the search for meaning, and saying goodbye. In this age, which is arguably defined by the dichotomy of speed and communication versus the hours that must still be spent in physical travel, these analogies and metaphors can take on entirely new dimensions, especially when explored in the context of the airplane and, more specifically, the airport.

Recently, Zachary Beckstead (2010) examined the reactions and emotions that are associated with the extraordinary, or the sacred, in relation to the experience of travel. In a consideration of pilgrims approaching the site of pilgrimage Beckstead asserts that there are two aspects of the experience, or catalysts, that effect the traveller’s understanding of their relationship with the world: the internal catalyst stems from internalised ‘past encounters with the world’ (2010: 391), and the external catalyst is formed by the physical environment and landscape (391). He suggests that the interdependence of these two parts, internal and external, draws both pilgrims and tourists into a ‘heightened sense of liminality’ (391). Victor Turner (1977) presents a fascinating series of definitions of what constitutes liminality. He says that the liminal may be symbolised by a tunnel as a space of transition but that space can also become a state in itself. It signifies being ‘neither this nor that’, ‘here nor there’, ‘one thing not the other’, as well as ‘both this and that’ (Turner, 1977:37). It is the weaving of the traveller’s past encounters with her physical environment, often an airport, which provides the canvas on which we can illustrate and explore the liminal, transitional, and metaphorical nature of travel. Looking back, it is also this same canvas that provided the backdrop for passages of medieval Persian poetry.

Across medieval Asia long distance travel was largely conducted in caravans that followed well-established routes and stopped at designated stations, or caravanserai. There are records of state-organised networks, or roads, dating back to the sixth century BCE (Hillenbrand 1994: 370). These routes originally functioned as a means for carrying state documents and messages as well as transporting military, however, the travellers, whether civilians or military, made regular use of caravanserais which were built primarily to serve private traffic (370). By medieval times the bulk of caravan traffic was made up of merchants, craftsmen, scholars and students, travel writers, and pilgrims (372-373). These caravanserais were often elaborate works of architecture. They had special entries, or portals, for camels and horses, storage for wagons and carts, rooms for travellers and caravan workers, space for traders and peddlers, and an open courtyard with a well of water at its centre. Larger caravanserais also had a team of servicemen including a resident porter, scouts, a scribe, a crier, and an imam (374-375). In other words, they were a village unto themselves. However, essentially, the caravanserai was a transit zone, a space which the traveller passed through whilst waiting for the next caravan to depart.

The thirteenth century poet Saadi highlights the transitory aspect of both the caravan and the caravanserai:

دل ای رفیق درین کاروانسرای مبند

که خانه ساختن آیین کاروانی نیست

Your heart, oh friend, do not bind to this caravanserai,
For the building of houses is not the practice of caravans.
        Saadi, Bustan, Ghasideh #8

Saadi admonishes the traveller to remain detached from what is merely a stopover, and reminds us that a caravan is intended to keep moving. There is the connotation that the traveller perhaps longs for stability, a reference to the traveller’s past encounters with the world. The metaphor here, it can be inferred, is that the caravan itself can be seen as an individual life that needs to constantly progress. Consequently the caravanserai can be seen as a moment, a milestone, and a transition. If the caravanserai is a liminal space, and the caravan is a liminal space, then a human life can be likened to both the stop and the journey. In other words, we always exist with one foot here and one foot there. The concept of an anthropological place, an actual ‘here’ or ‘there’, remains ambiguous, since it rests on the idea that people have of their relationship with a geographical territory, with family, and with others (Augé 1995: 56). Marc Augé (1995) suggests, ‘If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place’ (77-78). The caravanserai of Saadi’s verse was well-equipped to host visitors but those visitors, it might be imagined, were not in a position to create lasting relationships with the space of the caravanserai or to be defined by that space. When Saadi states that houses are not built by the populace of a caravan he inadvertently identifies the caravanserai, for the travellers of the time, as a non-place.

Augé argues that the anthropological place is essentially spatial in nature, defined by ‘routes, axes or paths that lead from one place to another’ (1995: 56-57). He engages in a detailed discussion of the overlapping of these elements in the construction of social spaces, the linking of these spaces with history and identity, and the temporal dimension of traversing these spaces, which leads him to an acknowledgment of the central point of human spatial construction; the human body (56-60). He states that ‘the human body itself is perceived as a portion of space with frontiers and vital centres, defences and weaknesses, armour and defects’ (60). The body is a central space in that it is ‘the site of the convergence or meeting of ancestral elements, a meeting possessing monumental value because it involves elements that existed before the ephemeral carnal envelope, and will survive it’ (62). Augé’s analogy can be extended—if the human body is a centred space, and the anthropological place is a space defined by identity, relations, and history, it is possible that the human body with its inherent ancestral elements is a self-contained place that moves through non-places. Perhaps the body is also a non-place since these ancestral elements exist before associating with the body and survive their association with it. In light of this analogy the human being travelling, waiting, and farewelling is herself both the caravan and the caravanserai, both the home and the limen, both a space that is a place and a space that is merely traversed.

I remember the day I was born, standing at the gate a new passport to my nose, the smell of the pages overwhelming and distracting from frenetic movement in the hall – as we trudged forward windows would crack and shatter in our wake, the ground shook and bounced and rolled and we did not know whether the plane took off or the earth had flung the plane to the sky. It was years before we paused on a sandy beach with warm water washing along the shore, red cliffs in the distance sharp and forbidding, tall palm trees leaning east leaning towards the place I was born – the light weight of a lead pencil in my hand, I tried to capture the ocean in shapes in colours in words, knowing I might never return. We stopped many times after the beach, no place more vivid than another, no name more musical, no zephyr more moving, but the growing warmth of the sun’s fingertips caressing the flesh of my palms caressing the lines and veins of my days, and the oscillating voice in the fading starlight chants ‘remember the day you were born’.

The effect that travel, or the traveller, has on defining spaces is outlined by Augé (1995) in his summary of Michel de Certeau’s analysis of the concept of ‘space’:

Space, as frequentation of places rather than a place, stems in effect from a double movement: the traveller’s movement, of course, but also parallel movement of the landscapes which he catches only in partial glimpses, a series of ‘snapshots’ piled hurriedly into his memory and, literally, recomposed in the account he gives of them… the traveller’s space may thus be the archetype of non-place. (85-86)

A non-place comprises of two overlapping but separate aspects; ‘spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have with these spaces’ (Augé 1995: 94). Augé observes that the connection between individuals and their environment ‘in the space of non-place is established through the mediation of words, or even texts’ (1995: 94). In the environment of a caravanserai this mediation would have relied on words, both spoken and written, and specific sounds and sights that signalled warnings and instructions. At airports today there are signs informing the populace of arrival times, departing times, and boarding times. The transient relationship that these spaces have with the traveller can be seen and heard at all points throughout these spaces, but both the caravanserai and the airport are constructed and operated in a way that belies this transience. The modern airport is just as much a village as the old caravanserai, if not more so. There is food and drink, accessories, traders of all sorts, interesting architecture, art installations, musical performances, lounges (depending on your means), prayer rooms, showers, transfers to the nearest town or city, opportunities to do business (either in person or online), and simply biding time. Justine Lloyd (2003) explains that the ‘notion of the liveability of transit zones has even been recently encapsulated in the concept of dwelltime, which is now used by airport planners to plan and create such zones’ (94-95). But there are factors, related to functionality, that airport planners cannot remove; the sight of planes and people moving, the sounds of alerts and warnings, and those flashing signs that can even be viewed from a comfortable lounge seat.

There may have been a medieval equivalent of dwelltime, just as there were factors of functionality in abundance such as the cry of arrival and departure that would reverberate through the columns of the courtyard. The fourteenth century poet Hafiz warns us of the dangers of becoming too comfortable:

کاروان رفت و تو در خواب و بیابان در پیش

وه که بس بی‌خبر از غلغل چندین جرسی

The caravan has departed and you remain asleep and the desert lies before you,
Oh how is it that you remain unaware of the jingling of the many camel bells.
            Hafiz, Divan, Ghazal #455

The imagery in this passage is particularly evocative—the bells jingling as the camels slowly lope away into the desert. There is a strong connotation of missed opportunities in this line. At its most basic level the passage is a berating of the traveller, who has fallen into the trap of dwelltime and has therefore been left behind by the caravan. The sound of the jingling bells reminds one of the sighting of a plane taking off from behind long windows, the emptiness of the desert is like the empty runway. At the level of metaphor the passage is addressing travellers in the journey of life and admonishes them to remain alert or they might keep missing the ‘boarding call’. The caravan will leave at the appointed hour whether they are with it or not—similarly, life continues and opportunities come and go, whether they are grasped or ignored.

Staying still when everything else is moving around you, you try to keep your bearings on the deck of a ship in the middle of a storm, you try to sit in the midst of a bustling crowd, a gear incarnate stuck at the centre of a perpetual motion machine – it is possible to remain in the same spot for too long – the flow of your blood slows, muscles begin to twitch with forgetfulness, pauses and rests lose their meaning, and the movement of melodies flat-line – even cemeteries refuse to be static – the stones change colour, cracks appear, flowers grow, bloom, wither, fade, then grow again – and in the midst of remaining still a little white butterfly floats and flutters across your peripheral vision, then alights on the curve of your left shoulder.

            The traveller can become comfortable and lethargic but, as both Saadi and Hafiz have indicated, being stationary, either in body or in mind, is not a recommended state of being. So where and what are we when we are waiting by the water-hole or in the airport—the simplest answer is the ‘in-between’ space, the non-place, a space that is only traversed. However, in terms of the human being herself as space, the individual is in those moments both accumulating experience and discarding past encounters. In medieval times the traveller was, as far as others knew, ‘on their way’ and basically ‘nowhere’. Today it is possible to constantly track each other on a variety of devices and through a plethora of apps like Facebook (for those who are on Facebook), Viber, WhatsApp, good old email, phones on international roaming, and so on. Of course this is all in the case that the various technology and networks are working. Nevertheless, there is an expectation, a constant pull from all directions, which makes it more difficult than ever to leave one life for another. Instead of ‘moving on’ from one caravanserai to the next we now accumulate lives as we go.

A narratival voice drones through the halls,
isolated instances of inflection
poke the soft cushions of her brain,
just as her neighbour’s head
nods forward and chin bounces off chest.
Her phone vibrates with four Viber messages
as the Wi-Fi finally connects:
            I miss you already :-(
            Have a safe trip! Xoxo
            We need to talk… call me when you get there.
            Where are you?

At times the experiences that are accumulated can seem repetitive to the extent that the traveller is not sure when or where change will occur. She is caught in a cycle of similar past encounters and similar landscapes.

The fraying bag strap digs into her
left shoulder. She stands at the gate,
it’s well past midnight on a summer’s eve.
Thrown back into an old familiar world –
the clicking, ticking, clicking
of little wheels over white tiles,
the smell of leather and metal and twenty
discordant perfumes,
a hectic, in-between space –
time seems to stop and run away at the same time.
It’s a waiting game in a nameless place –
what is she waiting for?

Parallel to the external signs that mediate between travellers and their space, and cause them to pause in their journey or urge them to continue onwards, there are internal signs that take the form of longing and questioning. Beckstead (2010) draws on Boesch’s terminology of Fernweh and Heimweh in his discussion of the opposite forces that war within the traveller;

Strategies for heightening the sense of tourism and pilgrimages, especially with the use of new media (e.g., cameras, phones, computers, navigational systems, etc.), can also bring the comforts (and even news) from ‘home’ too close and eliminate the boundaries between the liminal and mundane. Thus the striving for the distant (Fernweh) can be destroyed by the opposite of longing for the near and familiar (Heimweh). (388)

The poet Shahriar, composing early in the twentieth century, but still writing in the classical style, made overt use of the caravan metaphor in addressing the issue of longing and the search for answers:

کاروان آمد و دلخواه به همراهش نیست

با دل این قصه نگویم که به دلخواهش نیست

کاروان آمد و از یوسف من نیست خبر

این چه راهیست که بیرون شدن از چاهش نیست

The caravan has arrived and my beloved is not amongst the travellers,
I will not tell my heart this tale for my heart cannot bear it.
The caravan has arrived and there is no news of my ‘Joseph’,
What path has it taken that found no way out of the well?
            Shahriar, Ghazal, #26

The metaphor of this passage converts the caravan into the bearer of the desired one and the caravanserai into a meeting place. There is an expectation that the journey will bear fruit and that the end of the journey will provide answers. The meaning underlying this verse relies on the reference to the story of the prophet Joseph who was a favourite son, who was consequently thrown down a well by his jealous brothers, and whose father did not stop searching for him. Shahriar is presenting the concept of the eternal search for the beloved, the quest for the Holy Grail, the elusive perfection that we are always looking for. The traveller searches for it at the beginning of a journey and at the end of a journey. Perhaps they are investing their expectations in the wrong places. Perhaps it is the journey itself that requires their attention. Subsequently there is also the idea that a different route might have been taken, a better path followed, a more productive journey undertaken. There is a note of regret mingled with conjecture.

… how long will she stand there, waiting – I’ve seen that look before – the slightly wider eyes, the pursed lips, the tilt of the head, as she stares past the sparse forest of pillars, the river of people winding their way from the cavern of customs, the increasing light casting notes of confusion on the pale resin-coated floor, the flow of the river fluctuates as planes land intermittently, the gates swing wider, the gears in the clock tick faster, the fading pallor of her skin the cold artificial air weariness in her limbs many colours many thoughts through her mind through her body through her waiting – she is still standing there, waiting…

            The human being as both place and non-place embodies the dichotomy of the liminal and mundane, the longing for elusive ideals and the realisation of that longing. In Shahriar’s verse the caravanserai is point of arrival, the site where the human being manifests both longing and disappointment, the site where questions are asked and answers are sometimes denied, a non-place. For Saadi the caravanserai is a point of departure, he calls out to the caravan driver:

ای ساربان آهسته رو کآرام جانم می‌رود

وآن دل که با خود داشتم با دلستانم می‌رود

Oh caravan driver go gently for the ‘serenity of my life’ goes with you,
And the heart that was mine goes with the ‘monarch of my heart’.
            Saadi, Bustan, Ghazal #268

Points of departure often feature the process of saying goodbye, of well-wishing, and of appeals to proceed carefully. There is an implication in the above verse of the inevitability of movement and loss, where the metaphor casts the caravan driver as the hand of fate. A caravan may be many individuals travelling together, or it may be a single unit, and a single body, or one person with layers of experiences. In this age when individuals accumulate associations and lives, the human being as a place carries their hope and desire with them through the non-place of travel and transit. Although we go through life in the company of others, in the end each of us travel our own path, and traverse different phases in our own time. Life, just life, can also be seen as one big caravanserai—temporary and transient. Once we are on the plane there is a disconnection, of sorts. Even in the twenty-first century, so far, it is not easy to contact people to and from mid-flight. Although it is possible to physically leave a place, or a phase of life, we carry the experiences and memories of that place with us, let alone the online connections that remain.

We parted at the threshold with Khodahafiz—a heartfelt prayer that God would keep us till we next meet—the crowds rushed around us as though around an island in the rapids, elbows and luggage alternately brushing and jarring on their way. You said you would miss ‘our long conversations’ and I said ‘over tea’, I said I would miss ‘our long walks’ and you said ‘on the hills behind the city’. Now I gaze out an oval frame at the sun-drenched hills, clusters of lilac wild-flowers dotting the verdure, and it is as though you are sitting beside me as the cart squeezes through the isles, as the smell of bergamot gets confused with cardamom, as a trickle of cold air from the vents reminds me of a sea-breeze, as the oval frame takes the place of your kitchen window, as the warmth of the sunlight replaces the warmth of your smile, and the closing of eyes marks a heartfelt prayer—Khodahafiz.

Beckstead suggests that ‘we build our worlds in the movement between “home” and “far away”’ (2010: 391). As an entity constantly in development the individual builds the ‘world’ of her being by moving through non-places. These non-places are characterised by prompts that mediate between space and traveller, the battle with dwelltime, the site of arrival, the site of longing, and the site of departure. All of these characteristics play on both the traveller’s past experiences and her reaction to the immediate environment. Saadi’s admonishment to remain detached from the caravanserai, or the non-place, becomes more poignant when we consider the possibility that it is in the movement, or the searching, that we make our world. Augé concludes that ‘individual wanderings, in today’s reality as in yesterday’s myths, still carry expectation, if not hope’ (1995: 117). So what happens when the traveller is prompted by a sign, either external or internal, and arises to make the journey or take the next step? Perhaps,

You run down the corridors,
along the travelators,
your mind is mist-laden with the lingering effects of sleep
as you dodge the caravan of seven
with their fourteen items of luggage.
You run past Gate twelve—
eleven gates to go.
The words on the screens alternate, Departures, Arrivals, Departures,
Your nostrils twitch at the smell of coffee
but you dare not pause this time.
You run through a pseudo-lobby,
slide past the American Express stand,
and halt before a tide of people moving in different phases.
You study the face waiting at the counter—
It is…



Works cited: 


Augé, M 1995 Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity (J. Howe, Trans.), London: Verso

Beckstead, Z 2010 ‘Liminality in Acculturation and Pilgrimage: When Movement Becomes Meaningful’, Culture & Psychology, 16 (3)

Hillenbrand, R 1994 Islamic Architecture: Form, function and meaning, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Lloyd, J 2003 ‘Airport Technology, Travel, and Consumption’, Space and Culture 6 (2)

Turner, V 1977 ‘Variations on a Theme of Liminality’ in Moore, S & Myerhoff, B (eds) Secular Ritual, Assen: Van Gorcum