Miscellaneous

Cultural Heritage on the Cusp of Silk Roads: Caravanserai Kharbooza in Islamabad

Historically, the caravanserais supported the flow of commerce, information, and people across the Silk Road networks of trade routes connecting Asia, North Africa, and southeastern Europe. Many thousands of caravanserais were built across the world, over the millennium, from the 9th to the 19th centuries, in the wake of spread and stability of Muslim rule in vast territories across continents, leading to the growth of land trade between the Orient and the West.
The term caravanserai is borrowed from the Persian compound karwan (caravan) saray (courtyard/house) which translates as the lodging for caravans. As a traveler’s inn of the Orient, there are several other terms for the caravanserai prevalent in different regions of the world, such as Funduk in North Africa, Tash Rabat in Central Asia, and Wakala in Turkey. However, the Persian caravanserai remains to be the popular term worldwide.



A caravan refers to a group of people traveling together for security and mutual assistance, for the purpose of trade. Generally, camels and mules carried the heavy loads. The wealthy people rode on the horsebacks and less fortunate were forced to walk on foot. The caravans were the principal means of transportation of merchandize, which covered long distances on the Silk Road networks across Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe. The caravans often carried luxurious and lucrative goods, such as silk, jewelry, carpets, gems, jades, oil and perfumes. Not only did the caravans require considerable investments but were also a lucrative target for bandits against whom the only security was in the number of people traveling together.


Largely located far away from the urban centers, caravanserais were the local centers of civilizations in the remote areas of deserts and mountains. An unprecedented exchange of culture, language, religion, and customs took place in caravanserais, which created the common heritage of plural Asian identity. Caravanserais played a major role in the economic, social and cultural life of the region. As trading and intellectual posts, they bore testimony to the history and cultural diversity of the Silk Roads.


For the ancient travelers, the often fortified settlements of caravanserai provided the night time shelter and security. The caravanserais were built on either state expanse or endowed by philanthropists, therefore, the food, accommodation and services were provided free of cost. The caravanserais were meticulously planned to provide all the amenities for the boarding and lodging of the travelers with their animals and luggage. The facilities provided to the travelers included hot and cold water, together with the bedstead, food, grain and fodder for draft animals.
Caravanserais were established by religious foundations on pilgrim routes or by merchants’ guilds, as well as by the rulers and kings on commercial routes. There were revenue free lands attached to the caravanserai to provide for madad-e-ma’ash (the administrative salaries and other expenditures) of the serai.

Sher Shah Suri inspecting the
maintainance of GTR

Sarai Kharbooza

Mosque of Sarai KharboozaThe living quarters of Sarai Kharbooza


The caravanserais were strategically constructed at regular intervals according to the condition of terrain. On levelled terrains, caravanserais were built after every 30 to 40 km, which represented a day’s caravan journey called manzil (destination) in Turkish. In mountainous regions, where the distance between two caravanserais was determined by the steepness of the road, the interval could be as small as 10-20 km.
A caravanserai, in essence, consisted of a grand gateway with a square or rectangular walled exterior, an open to sky courtyard and rooms provided on the inner sides of the walled enclosure called the khanas (living quarters) to accommodate merchants and their servants, animals, and merchandise.  Each living quarter was provided with a covered verandah at the front protecting it from sun and rain and served as a source of light and ventilation. In many caravanserais, there were special enclosures, set in the corner bastions and referred to as Khana-e-Padshahi (King’s House or Government House) that used to be reserved for government officials.

The administrative staff of caravanserai included the Shiqdar (the caravanserai’s caretaker), the Nigahban (the guard in charge), the room attendants and a number of Chowkidars (the watchmen). Also included in the establishment was the Imam (head of prayer congregation) and Muezzin (the caller for the prayer) of the mosque. There also used to be a physician on staff roll as well as cooks as permanent settlers within the caravanserai to provide for the food and healthcare requirements, in addition to other service providers. There were both Muslim and non-Muslim servants to attend to people from all faiths.
The open to sky courtyard of caravanserai was used as a marketplace for the traveling merchants and for the locals who were allowed to trade at the caravanserais. The internal structure of caravanserais further facilitated the process of physical interaction of people from different religions and regions, speaking different languages and practicing different customs through the provision of shared spaces. The caravanserais facilitated not only the movement of goods and people but also the provision of opportunities for sharing ideas and beliefs, languages and cultures, clothing and etiquette, as well as news and information.

In the Indian subcontinent, the Grand Trunk Road (GTR), originally built by the emperor Chandragupta Maurya in 3rd Century BCE, as a major caravan route from Peshawar to Patna, was improved upon by King Suri in the 16th Century. Sher Shah Suri ordered the plantation of shady trees, dug wells, erected milestones and built caravanserais along the GTR. The Mughal emperors carried on with the legacy of their successors in improving the trade infrastructure of medieval India. From the times of Akbar to Jehangir and Shah Jehan, a large number of caravanserais were built up containing mosques, baolis (stepwells) all along the length of the GTR. Some of the caravanserais functioned as military outposts, called Rabats, especially the ones which were positioned near the frontiers of empires. They were also the dak chowkis (massenger houses) used for dispatching news across the Silk Roads.
The caravanserai played a major role in economic, political and cultural life of ancient and medieval societies as long distance trade was the major source of state revenues. The luxury goods brought by caravans motivated many rulers to construct caravanserais along important trade routes. The provision of safe land routes for caravans, carrying the wealth of nations, topped the list of medieval state priorities.

Largely located far away from the urban centers, the caravanserais were the local centers of civilizations in the remote areas of deserts and mountains. An unprecedented exchange of culture, language, religion, and customs took place in caravanserais, which created the common heritage of plural Asian identity. Caravanserais played a major role in the economic, social and cultural life of the region. As trading and intellectual posts, they bore testimony to the history and cultural diversity of the Silk Roads.
However, with the changes in modes of transportation, shifting travel networks from land to sea routes, and the advent of rail and metalled roads in the subsequent centuries, the caravanserais generally fell in disuse and the structures became dilapidated. Caravanserais are one of the most neglected monuments of Islamic architecture in Pakistan, which like Sarai Kharbooza near Tarnol, north-west of Islamabad, were listed as protected monuments by the state, but were swallowed up by rapid urbanization.

The historical caravanserai, Sarai Kharbooza (the Melon’s Inn), is located at the foothills of Margalla along the old GTR, which leads to the north towards the medieval town of Shah Allah Ditta, to cross the hill from Kanthala to reach Khanpur. Sarai Kharbooza is a protected cultural heritage, under the Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance 1985, by the Government of Punjab. After the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the site is looked after by the Federal Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM), Islamabad.
Although no inscriptions have been found on the site, a single but authentic literary source shed light on the provenance of Sarai Kharbooza. The emperor Jahangir (1605-27) mentions Sarai Kharbooza in his memoirs Tuzk-i-Jahangiri, as he halted his journey to Kabul, in the first year of his reign, to celebrate the Muharram festival.

On Monday 10th Muharram 1016/AD 1605, I encamped at Sarai Kharbooza. The Ghakkar in former days erected one domed structure here in which they used to collect toll from travelers. As the dome is shaped like a melon, it is called Kharbooza. On this march, is the pass called Marigalla.
Although Sher Shah Suri is generally credited to have ordered the systematic improvement of GTR including construction of public serais, Sarai Kharbooza is likely to have been built in earlier centuries through local patronage, by the Ghakkars chieftains, who traced their origin to Iran and ruled the Potohar region, from the 10th to 16th Centuries. Built on the model of Persian caravanserais, Sarai Kharbooza holds greater historical and architectural value as the common heritage of the region.

The architecture of Sarai Kharbooza carries all the key characteristic elements of a Persian caravanserai. It resembles a fort with its fortified, thick brick walled structure, which is square in plan with two arched gateways in the northern and southern walls. There were four domed caped, octagonal towers on all four corners, with staircases leading to the top. All four sides of the perimeter walls were 420 meters long and 15 meters high with medium size simple and plain merlons.
The open to the sky courtyard of Sarai Kharbooza used as a marketplace was surrounded by hundreds of chambers, stalls and storage bays to accommodate travelers along with their servants, animals, and merchandise. There were 26 chambers in the inner walls on the north and south, and 24 chambers on the east and west. Sarai Kharbooza has been constructed in small brick masonry and plastered in lime surkhi. There is a mosque in the north-western corner of the inner courtyard of the Sarai, which has been renovated, and plastered with cement mortar. The mehrab has been left untouched, which reveals the floral designs in blue, orange and green colors. A unique feature of the mosque is a wood-fired hot-water storage tank with a domed top, which was used for ablution and bathing. There are also traces of a bath house which was connected through large arched underground chamber with the well.

Sarai Kharbooza is in dilapidated condition and suffers from centuries of neglect and encroachment. The encroachers are dismantling the older structures and reusing the medieval bricks to make their cemented houses within the premises. Luckily some parts of the chambers have survived along with a lone octagonal tower. Although the mosque and the water tank remains, a house has been built over the bath house and the step well. However, the underground chamber which leads into the step well still exists and is used by the occupant of the house as living quarters during the summer.
The caravanserais were a vital node of the network of Silk Roads, which certainly was the first globalized overland road network and trading system in the world. The caravanserais became the crucibles for cross fertilization of cultures across the length of Silk Road. Out of many thousands of caravanserais that have existed, today only a few hundred have survived centuries of neglect. Thousands of them have perished without a trace. Sarai Kharbooza is one of those caravanserais that survived partially from destruction and forms the integral part of a common heritage of nations connected by the Silk Road that stretched from Asia to Europe. Many countries have taken initiatives in restoration of the caravanserais such as Iran, Turkey, China, among many other Central Asian states others. There is a 14th Century caravanserai in Azerbaijan called Multani caravanserai which has been conserved and now houses a restaurant of Azerbaijani cuisine. It is high time that Pakistani government bears the responsibility to protect the common heritage of the Silk Road. With the help of UNESCO, the government should conserve Sarai Kharbooza and develop it for an adaptive reuse, possibly as a tourist building with recreational facilities. Such steps can contribute to the development of cultural tourism and reintegration of caravanserai into the present day economy.


The writer is the former Director of National College of Arts, Rawalpindi campus & Vice President of the Council of Social Sciences.
E-mail: [email protected]

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