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August 2021

A rock-strewn landscape gives way to a river running through a dry mountain valley
© Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

Afghanistan is going through a tumultuous period in its history right now This beautiful land has been the centre of great culture and glorious cities like Herat, Balkh and the Greek city of Ai-Khanoum. Balkh was in fact called the “Mother of all Cities.” Given its geographical positioning, it has seen its share of conquerors from the West. From the Greek forces of Alexander, to the Arabs and the British Empire of the 19th century, Afghanistan has proved to be nearly impossible to permanently conquer, earning it the nickname “Graveyard of Empires”.

About 600km to the east of the city of Mazar-e Sharif is the Wakhan Corridor. This 350km-long narrow strip of land in the region of Badakhshan, sits at the convergence of three of the world’s major mountain ranges: the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Pamirs – known as the Pamir Knot. It also borders Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. This region is culturally and geographically distinct from rest of the country. It is a remote land of small scattered rural settlements. Untouched by tourism, this region is a land of breath-taking views and as close to nature as one can get.

Source : https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/corridor-power

The Wakhi people

For more than 2,500 years, the Wakhan Corridor has been the homeland of the Wakhi people, who belong to an ancient Iranian stock. While the majority of Afghans are Sunni Muslims, the Wakhi are Ismaili Shias whose head is Aga Khan known for the Aga Khan Foundation. Instead of mosques, they have Jamat Khanas (houses of prayer that also serve as community halls for conducting village business).

The Wakhis are also found in the Xinjiang province of China, southeast Tajikistan, and Pakistan where they predominate in northern Chitral, Ishkoman Valley and Gojal, Hunza. They speak the Wakhi language, which appears to be a distant dialect of Persian.

https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/wakhan-corridor-afghanistan-forgotten-corner CBS/MALGORZATA SKOWRONSKA

They are a friendly, nature-loving community and very fond of music; the RubabDadangQufuzDuf and Surnai are used to strike melodious tunes. They also play the game of Buzkashi, a sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to mount a goat carcass in a goal. This is a popular Central Asian game. Indian readers would remember seeing it in the popular Hindi movie of the 90’s, ‘Khuda Gawah’ where Amitabh Bacchhan and Sri Devi played this game !

Integral Part of the Silk Road

For hundreds of years, the Wakhan Corridor was an important route for merchants travelling along the Silk Road, the trade route that emerged in the 1st and 2nd Centuries BC linking China with the Mediterranean. Those merchants carried Chinese silk, Persian silver, Roman gold and Afghan lapis lazuli, mined in the Badakhshan region. Travellers and pilgrims also followed in the merchants’ footsteps.

The Pamir region was renowned for its rubies and lapis lazuli. The most famous mine, Kuh-i-Lal was the source of the 170-carat Black Prince’s Ruby now in the Imperial State Crown of Britain.

The gemstone at the front of the Imperial State Crown

The ancient royal Sumerian tombs of Ur, located near the Euphrates River in lower Iraq, contained more than 6000 beautifully executed lapis lazuli statuettes of birds, deer, and rodents as well as dishes, beads, and cylinder seals. These carved artifacts undoubtedly came from material mined in northern Afghanistan.

King Tutankhamun funeral mask
King Tutankhamun’s two coffins were made of wood and covered in gold and semiprecious stones, including the royal blue stone lapis lazuli, which you can clearly see here on the funeral mask.

This is also the land through which Marco Polo passed in 1273 and before him, the Tang dynasty monk Xuanzang in the 7th century, who has described the Buddhist monasteries of this region. In the town of Ishkashim and Besh Gumbez, there are remains of a sixth-century caravanserai, an ancient motel for Silk Road travelers. It was a strategic valley to the Bactrian Greeks, who built a castle-fortress overlooking it over two thousand years ago. The Yamchun fortress, set in a virtually inaccessible rocky slope, protected by two river canyons, with 40 towers and a citadel. The fortress is locally known as the “Castle of the Fire Worshippers”, no doubt referring to a Zoroastrian temple.


This is hardly surprising as Pre-Islamic Badakhshan was Zoroastrian, worshipping fire, the sun and spirits of ancestors and at the same time practicing a distinct Badakhshani version of Buddhism. The remains of 7th-8th century Buddhist man-made caves that could have also been a Zoroastrian site in the past are also found here.

Nazif Shahrani, in his book ‘The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and
War’ , maintains that until the collapse of Mughal Empire in India, Wakhan was one of the
main routes for traders and merchants between India, China and major cities like Bactria
and Bukhara in modern-day Afghanistan and Central Asia. It was only after the development of the sea routes in the 15th century that this route went into a decline.

More Recent Events

In the late 19th Century, the Wakhan Corridor played a key role in the so-called “Great Game” between Great Britain and Russia. The Wakhan’s current boundaries were formed in 1893 to create a buffer zone to prevent both parties’ territories from touching each other – in this case, the British Raj and the Tsarist Russian empire.

In recent times, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has potential to turn it into an important trade route once again. The tip of the Wakhan Corridor in the Little Pamirs will become a crossing point for its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the port of Gwadar in Pakistan marks the beginning. China’ presence in this region is part of its larger ambition to gain a foothold in this region as well as control over the regional economy and security through building military installations and funding infrastructure projects.

The people of Wakhan have mixed emotions about the road that Chinese are building here. They recognize the economic benefits and the access to more modern amenities yet fear that their unique Wakhi culture may get eroded. Time will tell what the future has in store for this region.













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If you want to know, what is a caravanserai and what was it used for, read on..

The Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting the East and the West. As early as 500 BC, the Persian Royal Road connected the city of Susa to Smyrna (modern Izmir in Turkey). The road network developed eventually to create complex trade routes covering large land masses.

When merchants, traders or anyone else who had a reason to travel covered large distances, they needed safe resting places for the night. In response to increasing traffic on the Silk Road, caravanserais or inns were built along Silk Road where travellers could recover from the day’s journey. The caravanserais would also keep the travellers safe from bandits or harsh weather conditions. These caravanserais belong to different era – some were built as early as 3rd century BC (remains of one in Palmyra, Syria were found) and some as recently as the 19th century.

Caravanserai : Origin of the Word

As per Wikipedia, Caravanserai is the Persian compound word variant combining kārvān “Caravan” with sarāy “palace”, “building with enclosed courts”. Here, “caravan” means a group of traders, pilgrims or other travellers, engaged in long-distance travel. Caravanserais were called by different names in different regions. In Turkey, they are called Khan from Middle Persian (xan, “house”). The Arabian term Funduq was used in Morocco and North Africa or Fonda in Spanish (fundquq is the origin of the term Fonda). Another Arabic term that was used in Egypt for such buildings is Wikala which roughly means “agency”.

Caravanserais were cultural melting pots

The caravanserais often resembled forts due to their protective high walls and secure gates. The ground floor had sections for storing goods and resting place for animals. There were unfurnished rooms for residents. Some of them had a prayer room and a bathhouse. Many caravanserais had markets for the traders where they could start selling their goods.

Many prominent cities in the Medieval era were fairly cosmopolitan and had diverse communities living together. The caravanserais must have become centers of cultural exchange where people from the East and the West met briefly and exchanged ideas , stories and discussed about different religions and philosophies. It was also an opportunity to taste cuisine of a different land and observe their etiquette.

10 Interesting Caravanserais

Sultan Han in Aksaray Turkey

Sultan Han Garden
File:Sultanhani - Portal außen 2 Muquarnas.jpg
Credits :Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This structure was built in 1229, during the reign of the Seljuk Sultan Kayqubad I (1220-1237), on the route connecting Konya to Aksaray and continuing into Persia. After it was partially destroyed by a fire, it was restored and extended in 1278. It is one of the largest and most well preserved caravanserai.

Khan Tuman, Damascus Syria

Sir Keppel Archibald Cameron Creswell (photographer) (1879-1974)

Khan Tuman is a village in Aleppo, North Syria. The caravanserai is by the name of the village. It was a large caravanserai built in the 12th century. It was built on the route to Mecca and Medina so that pilgrims could perform the annual Hajj. The route passed through Damascus onto what is now Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Given that this region was in the war zone for some time, it is difficult to say how much of it still remains.

Kurkcu Han, Istanbul, Turkey

File:Kurkcu han DSCF1362.jpg
Kürkçü Han‎ courtyard : Robert Prazeres

This caravanserai was founded by Mahmud Pasha, the grand vizier of Mehmet II. It was completed in 1467. From the time that it was built, it developed into a sprawling commercial complex which was the hub of international trade with shops, warehouses and lodgings for foreign merchant.

Multani Caravanserai, Baku, Azerbaijan

multani caravansarie
Photo credit : https://citytoursbaku.com/caravanserais/

This 14th century caravanserai was named after Multan which is a city in Pakistan. It housed the merchants who came from India. The building is in a square shape with lots of balconies around the courtyard. This caravanserai is currently being restored.

Rabati Malik, Uzbekistan

Rabati Malik caravanserai in Malik, in the Navoiy province (Shutterstock)
Photo credit : https://www.wanderlust.co.uk/content/top-things-to-do-in-uzbekistan/

This caravanserai was built by the Karakhanid rule Shams-al-Mulk Nasr who ruled Samarkand from 1068 to 1080. It connected Samarkand to Bukhara. The caravanserai has a very unique architectural style. Unfortunately, an earthquake damaged large parts of it in 1968. It is still very much on the travel map of Uzbekistan.

Wikala of Sultan Qaytbay, Cairo, Egypt

File:Wikala Qaytbay at bab al-nasr gate.jpg
Photo Credit : Robert Prazeres

This is an urban caravanserai built in Cairo in 1481 by Sultan al-Ashraf Abu al-Nasr Qaitbay. Its location placed it near the main entrance of the city. The Sultan was known as a great patron of architecture and had build many monuments and buildings.

Tash Rabat in Kyrgyzstan

By WikiTofu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27795731

Located amongst the high mountain of Tien- Shan at an altitude of 3000 metres, this caravanserai is pretty unique for its remote location. Travellers could progress from hereon to Kashgar and shores of Lake Issyk Kul or Ferghana Valley. It must have been a source of immense relief for travellers passing through this difficult route. The architecture of the caravanserai is unique and various accounts say that it could have been a religious site initially.

Sa’d al-Saltaneh in Qazvin near Tehran Iran

Sa'd al-Saltaneh Caravanserai -
Photo Credit : https://iranwatching.com/en/place/582

Qazvin was a prominent centre of trade on the Silk Road and was once a capital of Iran during the Safavid era. This caravanserai was built in the 19th century by ruler of Qajar dynasty Naseredin Shah. Until the First World War, it was an important trading centre. It is the largest urban indoor caravanserai with about 400 rooms and shops.

Zein-o-din Caravanserai, Yazd province, Central Iran

The Zein-o-din Caravanserai in Iran's Yazd
Photo Credit : https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2018/08/28/1812270/the-zein-o-din-caravanserai-in-iran-s-yazd

This caravanserai is dated to the 16th century and is situated on the ancient Silk Road. It was built during the reign of Shah Abbas I. The caravanserai has two circular towers. The interiors have been refurbished and now operates as an inn.

Azimganj Serai, Delhi, India

Photo Credit : https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/this-mughal-serai-will-lead-to-citys-longest-eco-heritage-trail/articleshow/68446376.cms

This caravanserai was built in 16th century in Mughal Delhi around the same time as the Humayun Tomb. It was in a bad condition for many years till the Aga Khan Trust for Culture took over its renovation and is now part of a heritage trail.

There are numerous caravanserais standing even today as reminders of the past and I think one would need to write a book to cover them all. This was my attempt to provide readers with a glimpse of some of them.


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