Following Caravan Trails
Strings of camels loaded with all possible kinds of goods were the primary means of international relations in antiquity and the Middle Ages, and everywhere they enjoyed patronage of rulers, as those goods saturated the markets of their countries and supported their economies. The same rulers funded the construction of caravanserais for travelers' convenience. However, their architectural appearance was largely devoid of monumental expressiveness and artistic value. All in all, they were too utilitarian and massive buildings with similar structures that could be compared with modern motels by their facelessness. Nevertheless, those that have survived to this day even in the form of ruins can tell us a lot about the time when the notorious Silk Road flourished.
Nowadays, one cannot easily see such impressive traces of past in Turkmenistan and neighboring countries. All of them are located far from modern cities and towns, away from highways and any notable checkpoints that simply do not exist in the steppe expanses and sand dunes of the Karakum desert. Caravanserais are not part of the popular tourist routes because of their inaccessibility. Only highly motivated connoisseurs of antiquity dare to go this far, hoping to find them by using local guides or a satellite navigation system.
Naturally, there were also many ancient caravanserais in the historical cities such as Kunya-Urgench, Amul, Merv, Serakhs, Nisa and many others. However, their traces disappeared under pressure of modern buildings. Likewise, most of the inns built in the desert along caravan routes were gradually abandoned and became unusable following the disruption of overland transcontinental trade in the 15th century. Only a few of them have been declared monuments and registered by the state, while the majority of them have been simply swallowed by sand, sometimes together with entire settlements. The same happened in neighboring countries, especially where the caravan traffic was quite intense until the recent past - XVII-XIX centuries, such as Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
The Arab geographers of the 9th-10th centuries, such as Ibn Khordabeh, al-Yakubi, Kudama Ibn Jafar, al-Istahri, Ibn Haukal left for posterity the description of the main directions of the caravan traffic through Central Asia. Yet, those and subsequent medieval documents mentioned only the most important routes, while the secondary ones were missing in their description.
Although the ringing of copper bells on the necks of camels has not disturbed the silence of the Karakum desert for five centuries now, one can surprisingly notice the caravan trails. These trails form a centuries-old well-trodden track, which is quite visible in the relief and deeply embedded in the landscape. Despite the fact that in some places the ancient camel trails are completely covered with sands, the visibility and large cross-sectional area of the road furrow with a narrow "bottom" and flat slopes make it possible to track them on public satellite images of the earth surface posted on the Internet by Google Earth and Bing map services. They are also clearly visible on the ground and passable by SUVs.
In the 9th-12th centuries, there grew up chains of caravanserais along these routes, many of which functioned for quite a long time, almost to the last caravan. All of them, according to al-Yakubi, were desert fortresses, in which people took refuge to protect themselves from the Turks, who often raided those places.
Large and small caravanserais were built at one day's travel distance from each other, that is, every 30-40 kilometers. Leaving one caravanserai at dawn, a caravan would reached the next one in the evening. They really resembled fortresses by their appearance. They had high blind walls, corner and gate towers in compliance with the rules of fortification. Although "roadside hotels" appeared in pre-Islamic times, their construction on a mass scale began only after the Arab conquest of Iran and Central Asia.
Initially, they were not intended for merchants and other travelers at all. They were purely military fortifications, called "ribat" or "rabat" in Arabic. There lived volunteer soldiers, called ghazi, meaning "defender of faith." After a while, when Islam took deep roots in the eastern outskirts of the Arab Caliphate, rabats became civilians. They were used by everyone who traveled through the desert as part of merchant caravans, but with a military escort to protect themselves from steppe robbers.
More than a hundred years ago, Swiss Arabist Adam Metz, referring to al-Istahri, noted: "Maintenance of inns on desert roads was funded by pious donations. Most of them existed in religious Turkestan that accounted for more than ten thousand such shelters for strangers." Wanderers were primarily pilgrims heading to Mecca and other holy places on the Arabian Peninsula, that is, Muslims who went to perform Hajj and Ziyarat from all over the Islamic world that were considered the chief reason for the pilgrimage. The Koran enjoins pilgrimage to all who have such an opportunity. However, religious and commercial activities are by no means mutually exclusive and therefore, from the early Islamic times, Muslims performing Hajj carried goods with them to cover travel expenses. In addition, a certain number of people traveled to study and practice in large cities, being the centers of madrassas and libraries that are similar to modern universities.
Thus, a significant part of Muslims was constantly on the move for commercial, religious or educational reasons. Last but not least, inns were built to serve them. That is why the most striking constructions of this kind had not only luxurious ornamental decoration but also monumental religious epigraphy. For example, this is characteristic of the main facade of the Dayakhatyn caravanserai on the eastern outskirts of the Karakum desert, near the bank of the Amu Darya river, which was erected or, most likely, only reconstructed in the era of the Great Seljuks in the center of Tahiriya rabat that emerged much earlier, at the beginning of the 9th century.
The ability to choose the right place for construction, taking into account the specifics of the relief and surrounding landscape, the exact proportions and details of the building - all this makes up the art that turns a utilitarian object into a piece of architecture. All the masterpieces of architecture from antiquity to the present day seem to have such qualities. Dayakhatyn can be safely placed in their ranks, because it fully meets the above conditions. The remaining sections of the facades, ceilings and arches masterly built of brick clearly demonstrate the highest level of skill of architects of the Seljuk period. It was they who knew how to lay out complex geometric ornaments and lapidary inscriptions with simple bricks, creating impeccable compositions on the facades. Dayakhatyn features a variety of curly and embossed masonry that create a plastically expressive surface.
Initially, Dayakhatyn was not an ordinary hotel for all caravans passing by. An outstanding appearance and interior decoration that was considered luxurious at that time, as well as features of the internal layout prove that it was the steppe residence of the Sultans from the Seljukid dynasty. Crown-bearing persons, along with their courtiers used to stop there for rest during hunting or military campaigns, protecting the eastern frontier of their great empire.
In the XV or XVI centuries, Dayakhatyn, by then partially destroyed, underwent some reconstruction. The new owners completely rebuilt its entrance. There was built a high arched portal that cannot be confused with the filigree Seljuk masonry. The new one lacked elegance, as it was built of larger bricks and completely devoid of any decor. Everything points to the fact that caravans from distant countries stopped coming to this place following the collapse of the centralized state of the Timurids and the prolonged anarchy that resulted in the decay of local economy and degradation of the art of architecture.
Dayakhatyn survived owing to its remoteness from the inhabited places. It managed to escape the fate of other monuments of that age located in the then capital city of Merv that were plundered piece by piece. Nevertheless, it was affected by time. Yet, such conditions allowed architects-restorers to create a reconstruction hypothesis of its former appearance in three-dimensional graphics and begin restoration of lost parts of the building, as well as elements of the architectural decor.
Unlike Dayakhatyn, which is safe now in restorers' hands, dozens of other monuments deep in the Karakum desert literally melt away under winds and rains. Perhaps the most impressive of them are located on a stretch of the caravan route between the modern cities of Bayramali and Turkmenabat. It is there that the walls and towers of the Central Asian largest caravanserai of Akcha-Kala still stand. Its majestic silhouette pops up instantaneously when a car comes over a high hill and travelers have a great view of the plain with a lonely building looking like a mirage. Similarly, in the past, weary travelers probably gained momentum, impatiently pushing their camels, being eager to get to a place offering a hospitable overnight stay.
No one knows where the folk names of those places come from. Translated from Turkmen, Akcha-Kala means "Whitish Fortress" - not white (Ak) but whitish (Akcha). Most probably, this is some kind of metaphor. There is nothing white there. The structure is made entirely of raw clay bricks with the same yellow-gray color inherent in the surrounding ground. There is no mention of this station in the road maps of the 9th-10th centuries, as it emerged already in the Seljuk time, in the second half of the 11th century. Unlike most Central Asian caravanserais with one courtyard, like Dayakhatyn, there are two courtyards situated one after the other on a common long axis. The first courtyard was the household estate with warehouses and stalls for livestock, while the second one was residential. This division into the household and clean areas is quite rational and designed to create maximum comfort for guests.
There is a solid, slightly advanced portal with a lancet entrance arch and smooth massif of the base in the center of the main facade of Akcha-Kala. The blind walls on the left and right are decorated with large semicircular corrugations. The corrugation of walls is a very archaic technique, known in the architecture of the East long before antiquity. Initially, it was probably associated with the fortification and structural stability of the outer walls, but in the Middle Ages it was used as a purely decorative one, and, with certain exceptions, only in two historical areas, such as Merv oasis and Khorezm.
A slightly smaller copy of Akcha-Kala is located 23 kilometers away. This is the same two-part caravanserai of the XI-XII centuries now called Kunya-Kala (literally Old Fortress). It is much swollen, as it was built of lower quality clay. It is not known if it had corrugations on its facades, as the remains of walls became so thin that they no longer can say anything about their former design. However, there remained one more corrugated structure, yet of a different type, five kilometers from Akcha-Kala. In the Arabic travel guides, this place is known as at-Tahmalaj, whose ruins tower above the ground in the middle of a large takyr. A very compact two-story building on a high platform with chamfered edges almost joins a large courtyard from the outside. All four facades feature closed semi-cylinders. The lower tier has not been excavated yet, and the upper one looks unusual. It has the same square chambers overlapped by sloping domes. In the plan view, they form a grid with nine cells. It doesn't look very much like a dwelling, but more like a warehouse. At the same time, this small castle looks very monumental from the outside.
The pioneer of this and many other Karakum monuments, Academician Galina Pugachenkova reasonably believed that at-Tahmalaj was the earliest form of the caravanserai. In the absence of large stations built according to the "courtyard surrounded by premises" scheme, travelers stayed for rest in such small castles.
Public interest in such fragments of the distant past that seem to have been forgotten forever has grown markedly in recent years. On the one hand, this is due to a large-scale research project in which Turkmen specialists cooperate with their British colleagues as part of the work on preparation of an interstate dossier on inclusion of certain sections of the Silk Road in the UNESCO World Heritage List. On the other hand, a four-year state program on archaeological excavations in the main fortifications located along caravan routes is being implemented in Turkmenistan. All this inspires hope that our heritage will remain with us and, perhaps, ignite new discoveries.