Where on earth do you find an abandoned caravanserai by the roadside – wide open for your personal inspection? Here in Iran. For Saeideh and I it’s turning into a habit.
It’s past sunset and I’m driving a 4WD in central Iran, just past Ravar toward Tabas. From the corner of an eye I see the eclipse of a lookout tower against the golden sky, sticking out from a rocky ridge, like a missile about to take off.
If there’s a lookout tower, there’s gotta be more; why else would someone build a lookout? And sure enough, just before the road turns away, I have the split-second glimpse of a fortress-like structure down in the plains below.
Without a moment’s thought, I make a sharp turn off the asphalt and plow into the dirt.
“What happened?” Saeideh screams, trying to balance herself.
“Found another caravanserai,” I say.
She’s not terribly surprised. I’ve written before about such serendipitous finds. And she knows I won’t let go. She’ll have to pry me away.
A caravanserai (also spelled caravansary, caravansaray, caravanseray and caravansara) essentially is the fortress-hotel of the pre-modern age, built to shield travelers and their pack animals from raiders. They were crucial to trade between the East and West for many centuries. On the ancient Silk Road there was one an average of every 35 km, closer on steep roads, and much closer in the hellish heat of the Persian Gulf coastal areas. The Crusaders imported the design into Europe.
They are marvels of design and construction – in particular contrast to Iran’s current disposable mentality. A modern home here is rarely habitable beyond 40 years.
About a kilometer from the road we step outside and slowly approach the entrance. I’m shooting away like the paparazzi, fascinated by both the subject and the otherworldly landscape all around us. The sharp rocky peaks remind me of the pictures transmitted from Mars.
The landscape looks particularly alien from above, on satellite photos. The caravanserai looks like a tiny square computer chip in middle of a giant field of churning lava.
“Ali, look how wisely they picked the location,” Saeideh whispers in awe.
We walked this nameless jewel – there are no signs anywhere – up and down and every which way. My guess is it’s 130 to 200 years old, built by the Qajar dynasty, with the typical square “courtyard plan”, towers on the corners, single entrance, courtyard surrounded by arcaded porticoes.
As I clicked away, Saeideh asked: “Do you wish you had the money to save all of Iran’s caravanserais?” That would take a lot of money. Close to 500 caravanserais allegedly have been documented. But even saving a single one would be a monumental task considering the bureaucratic obstacles.
When it was too dark to see much, I wanted to spread out our sleeping bags and lay out in the open, maybe make a fire. But Saeideh is too fearful of the unknown. She says with a few more companions she would feel safe enough.
We drove away with a heavy heart. I looked back one last time at the lookout tower, now nearly dissolved into the murky sky. It felt like leaving a child behind.
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