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Basic Information

A caravanserai (from the Persian "caravan place") is essentially a large scale inn, designed as a place of rest, assembly or dispersal for caravans. Originally these were to be found along the royal roads of the Persian Empire and up the Silk Route into China, from where they spread across the Middle East and down into (particularly the North of) Africa. The archetypal design is a large building facing inwards onto a courtyard, with stabling and warehousing on the lower tiers and accommodation above. Access to and from the courtyard is primarily (or completely) through a single gateway through the building, thus providing security and shelter to the courtyard within. Less elaborate structures may be in the form of compounds with enclosed camping grounds, animal corrals and service buildings. Amenities should include, at a minimum, water and shelter - hospitality similar to an inn was normal and, in the Islamic period, it was normal for there to be a mosque present as well. Shops, with a focus on caravan outfitting, were also common and local merchants could also be reasonably expected to visit to trade with a passing caravan. In the pre-Islamic era, wine shops should be expected - afterwards coffee houses, plus any other recreational drugs tolerated in the host culture. Local revenue and customs officials should be expected to be present, as might general law enforcement and if a trade guild exists it will either run the place or have a presence here. Presumably, in remote areas, military units responsible for the security of the trade route (if such things exist) might also base out of caravanserai.

Expect these things to be set up about a day's travel apart (possibly allowing for water sources and what have you), plus at major settlements and significant obstacles (for example large river crossings). An interesting application might be where an isthmus needs to be portaged - albeit thinking more Darien than Corinth. In such places, the caravans are liable to be less about groups of merchants, and more professional haulage companies contracting to trade arriving by sea.

Persian poetry - notably Omar Khayyam - is prone to use the caravanserai as a metaphor for the mortal world: a transitional place of meetings, comings and goings where no-one is permanently at home.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • These should be a significant presence in any setting where trade caravans are expected. The bigger the trade hub, the more, and more impressive, the caravanserai - a large city might have one per gate, especially when different caravans to different places depart from each gate.
  • Where caravan-to-ship transfers are a thing, a substantially different thing may be found which is dockyard on one side and caravanserai on the other.
  • Besides the merchants themselves, expect the place to be full of people looking to travel as passengers with the caravan (or who have just arrived), mercenaries and whores.
    • The sort of place, certainly, a Conan story might start (although few of them do).
  • Probably not a great centre of trade at the start and finish of routes (where trade would take place in the markets).
    • That said, commerce in the middle of a route could be a thing: hiring guards who need replaced, selling off things that have been rendered worthless at journey's end, or buying provisions to correct for planning errors might all happen.
  • Expect also theft, extortion, espionage (both international and from bandits planning to raid the caravan route) and smuggling.
    • And also security to prevent these things - aside from any guards privately hired by the caravans themselves, few states have an interest in allowing merchants to be preyed on.
  • Presumably fees along the route are charged for the upkeep of the facility (although it might be that a monastery might operate a guest house that serves the purpose in some places, or there might be some other kind of pre-paid foundation), whereas those at the ends of trade routes, or national borders, charge custom duties - alternatively, especially in a city state based setting, the caravanserai might be a sort of freeport, with custom duties only charged when the goods are brought into the city (or some variation, such as royal duties being charged for crossing the border whilst the city charges its dues on the city gate).
  • Worth re-iterating that, around large cities in the Middle East, these things can be absolutely vast. As can the number of people and value of goods passing through them.
  • If travel collapses for any reason (plague, war, monsters…), a caravanserai becomes a liability rather than an asset. At best, it's a large building that still needs maintenance; worse outcomes include it painting a target on the city or becoming a base for criminal groups.
    • In a fall-of-Rome level collapse, the Caravanserai might actually end up as a fortress on the fringe of a more-or-less abandoned city: similar things happened to Roman circuses, amphitheatres and the like, and given that it could be reasonably expected to be built for security and have its own water it should be a prime target for occupation.
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