Caravanserais of the Caucasus
Image: Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock
In centuries past, before airlines, railways or decent roads, trade was a slow and dangerous business. In places like England, travellers could use horse-carts to travel from town to town, staying en route in coaching inns. In Eurasia, where distances were far greater and terrain far more inhospitable, camels were often more appropriate than horses. For safety, large groups of camels would travel together in ‘caravans.’ These, in turn, saw large numbers of traders arriving in remote spots requiring food, accommodation, and safe places to store goods and stable their animals. Thus, was born the caravanserai – a ‘saray’ (palace) for caravans, which also became places for trade in their own right – many forming the core of the towns that developed around them. The term caravanserai is now particularly associated with the genuinely palace-sized complexes found in the deserts of Iran and along the various Central Asian Silk Routes. However, caravanserais were also a feature of such trade routes across the Caucasus and became a central feature of some of the region’s major settlements.
The routing of Asia-Europe commerce varied considerably through history. Some theories suggest that from the 4th-century BC, trade used the major rivers that flowed from Central Asia into the Caspian (known as the Hyrcanian Sea), allowing fluvial trade during high water periods. Goods then crossed the Caspian and followed the Kura-Araz River system to Tbilisi and Nakhchivan, possibly once continuing as far as Amaranis Gora/Akhaltsikhe and Artaxata/Artashat, respectively. Once lower river levels made this less viable, the east-west Caucasian land route became typically less profitable than alternatives via Iran – at least during times of peace. However, during periods of antagonism between the Persian and Byzantine empires (starting most significantly in 568AD), the Caucasian routes were favoured for political reasons. In the 10th-century, one of the regional winners in this trade was the then Armenian capital of Ani – in its day one of the world’s great entrepots but now a Unesco-listed ghost city whose shattered ‘Silk Road Bridge’ recently gained 21st-century symbolic relevance as part of the Armenia-Turkey normalization talks. Routes from Persia crossed the Araz river at Khudaferin (a bridge from the 11th-century) and via a ferry just west of Julfa, where archaeological remnants of caravanserais have been found on both banks.
Most caravanserais from the medieval era have long since been lost, though it’s possible to find remnants in some remote areas on branch routes. For example, the best preserved such site in Armenia lies on the remote 2410m Vardenyats (Selim) Pass. The 1332 grey-basalt Selim Caravanserai still sits in a landscape that’s bleakly lacking other shelter even now that a modern highway passes it, so one can only imagine how tough the crossing was in past centuries. Indeed, one legend tells of a Kurdish-Armenian cross-cultural love story that ended when the boy failed to cross the pass before sundown and died of exposure on the mountain. According to tradition, that led his beau Sulema to fund the construction of a traveller’s shelter. Over the centuries, her name was masculinized to Selim, and the place is also referred these days as the as the Orbelian Caravanserai.
The restoration of Baku’s Multani Caravanserai nearing its completion. The name’s specific links with the city in today’s Pakistan are hazy, but hints that visitors from the sub-continent preferred it. Image: Courtesy
Several better preserved medieval caravanserais have survived reasonably intact in Baku’s walled old city huddled close to the Maiden Tower - Baku’s mysterious ancient landmark whose exact origins remain shrouded in myth. Facing each other lie two low-rise stone courtyard structures, each with beautifully faced stonework and niche rooms – the 14th-century Multani and 15th-century Bukhara caravanserais, while the nearby Mugham Club restaurant occupies an even more impressive two-storey caravanserai said to have 12th-century origins.
The Mugham Club, Baku, in a 12th-century caravanserai, one of many such structures in the UNESCO-listed old city. Image: Mugham Club/Facebook
By the 14th-century Chinese trade began to revert to Iranian routes. However, the Caucasian routes picked up again in the 17th-century by which stage international merchants considered Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia) as one of the world’s most international trade entrepots, and the Qala district was once again packed with caravanserais.
The once common sight of hundreds of camels drinking at the banks of the Mktvari (Kura) river became something for the history books within a few years of the coming of the railways. Image: georgiaabout.com
18th & 19th Centuries
Despite plenty of conflicts, a whole series of new caravanserais was built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as trans-Caucasus trade went through a series of boom-bust spurts. Meanwhile Sheki and Basqal became centres of silk production in their own right during this period, and with railways still years away, a home-grown Silk Route developed.
Sheki’s two huge surviving caravanserais (of five that had existed in the town’s late 18th-century heyday) clearly illustrate the scale and grandeur of the architectural form. Both are well preserved, and one still serves as a basic but remarkably good value hotel (rooms from AZN30, about US$18). Brick arches surround a two-storey central courtyard with beautiful views up across tiled roofs to the wooded mountain foothills that rise directly behind.
Ganja’s Shah Abbas caravanserai in the 19th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons
In Ganja (then renamed Elizavetpol by Imperial Russia), a fine 17th-century caravanserai dating back to the times of Shah Abbas was once again highly active. It survived fairly intact, having housed the Ganja Humanitarian College in the late 20th-century before being converted into a hotel in the last few years. The once Spartan cell rooms are now comfortably modernized, incorporating glowing glass bathroom boxes within each.
Although almost all of Tbilisi’s caravanserais were destroyed in the 1795 sacking of the city by the troops of Agha Mohammad Khan, several were rebuilt during the Russian Imperial period. Tbilisi’s trade was soon back on its feet, and by the mid-19th-century, there were over a dozen caravanserais in the city.
Tbilisi's two main caravanserais huddled around the cathedral (bottom right). Image: Wikimedia Commons
The main ones were crowded around the cathedral in the heart of the old city. In pride of place was the ‘Kings Caravanserai’ later named for poet-princess Tekle.
The “King’s Caravanserai” – now hosting Tbilisi Theological Academy. There are no longer shopfronts, but the façade remains very much the same. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Today the building still stands, but the shopfronts have been removed, and the place is now used as a Theological Academy. However, hidden behind its grand two-colour façade is a tatty central courtyard which reveals the building’s original caravanserai DNA with pointed arch-shaped brickwork that rises three storeys on all sides. This video shows you around.
In pride of place, right beside the Sioni Cathedral, Tbilisi’s other main rebuild was the 1818 Artsruni Caravanserai, named for its re-founder Gevork Artsrun, who enlarged it from the ruins of a pre-1795 original to create space for 24 shops, 33 sleeping cells, and a series of workshops. Image: Wikimedia Commons
After another reworking following an 1855 fire, the place was recorded as drawing the admiration of Russian Tsar Alexander II himself. Engravings from this era certainly show a place of remarkable opulence around a domed two-storey atrium.
The Artsruni Caravanserai in its heyday. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The caravanserai got another remodelling in 1912, making the whole place into what was then considered a modern shopping centre. That explains the somewhat unexpected styling that is visible today with the wrought iron pillars in what is now home to the Tbilisi city history museum.
These days, the interior of the Artsruni Caravanserai looks rather like a Victorian prison. Image: on.ge
To get a much better sense of the place’s far older history, you will need to descend to the vaulted cellars – possible by visiting the Tbilisi Wine Museum or by dining at chef Levan Kobiashvili’s impressive Archive Restaurant.
Archive Restaurant: These are the foundations and only remnants of the original 17th-century caravanserai that was built on land gifted in 1656 by King Rostom of Kartli to the bishops of Tbilisi (along with the cathedral next door). Later the Artsruni Caravanserai was built on top. Image: რესტორანი არქივი Restaurant Archive/FB
The End of the Caravans
The morphing of caravanserais into shopping centres had started by the 1850s. Despite its name, the most famous of its era was arguably not a caravanserai at all.
The now lost Tamashev Caravanserai stood on what is now Tbilisi’s “Freedom Square.” Image: Wikimedia Commons
Tbilisi’s whopping Gabriel Tamashev Caravanserai, completed in 1851 and remarked upon by French writer Alexandre Dumas, had 266 shops – a veritable mall. Stylistically its Palladian facades by Italian architect Padua Scudieri contrasted with the Islamic motifs of Kufic calligraphy that adorned the interior.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
But it was most noted for its theatre, the biggest and most noted in the Caucasus at the time. Sadly, much was lost in a September 1874 fire. The place was entirely bulldozed in 1934 to create the space for Lenin Square - today’s Tavisuplebis Moedani/Freedom Square, where the column of the gilded St George statue now stands on the former theatre site.
Most other caravanserais were put out of business with the coming of the railways in the 1880s, a development spurred by the need to transport Azerbaijani oil to the Black Sea.
Some others did survive as shopping centres (Shusha), restaurants (Baku, Sangachal) or museums (Tbilisi), with many more remaining as fragmentary ruins or just as historical photos. Meanwhile, the word caravanserai continues to evoke ideas of exoticism for hotels and visitor attractions, while the Georgian term for a caravanserai, karvasla, is a name nowadays appropriated by a group of modern shopping malls.
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