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The Caravanserai

I recently came across this intriguing creation, a necessary offspring of the age-old need for intercontinental, yet plodding, transport: The Caravanserai.

From Wikipedia:

A caravanserai or caravansary was a roadside inn where travellers (caravaners) could rest and recover from the day’s journey. Caravanserais supported the flow of commerce, information and people across the network of trade routes covering Asia, North Africa and Southeast Europe, most notably the Silk Road. Although many were located along rural roads in the countryside, urban versions of caravanserais were also historically common in cities throughout the Islamic world, though they were often called by other names such as khan, wikala, or funduq.

The word کاروانسرای kārvānsarāy is a Persian compound word 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. The word is also rendered as caravansary, caravansaray, caravanseray, caravansara, and caravansarai. In scholarly sources, it is often used as an umbrella term for multiple related types of commercial buildings similar to inns or hostels, whereas the actual instances of such buildings had a variety of names depending on the region and the local language. However, the term was typically preferred for rural inns built along roads outside of city walls.

Caravanserais were a common feature not only along the Silk Road, but also along the Achaemenid Empire’s Royal Road, a 2,500-kilometre-long ancient highway that stretched from Sardis to Susa according to Herodotus: “Now the true account of the road in question is the following: Royal stations exist along its whole length, and excellent caravanserais; and throughout, it traverses an inhabited tract, and is free from danger.” Other significant urban caravanserais were built along the Grand Trunk Road in the Indian subcontinent, especially in the region of Mughal Delhi and Bengal Subah.

A 17th-century caravanserai in southern Iran. Credit: Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 4.0.
A 16th-century caravanserai in Cairo, Egypt. Credit: Sailko, CC BY 3.0.

In the first few years after the founding of modern Singapore in 1819, development was concentrated in the southern part of the island, where the port town was located at the mouth of the Singapore River. However, from the 1820s, trunk roads began to be laid down from the port to eventually all corners of the island, complementing the agricultural development of the island’s interior. My book Jalan Singapura details this.

Back then, transport was rudimentary - people travelled on foot, or using horses, bullocks, and associated carts and carriages. Cross-Island travel would have been slow, taking hours. I can imagine government or municipal officials, such as surveyors, taking a good part of a day to travel from the Town to a far-flung corner which would now be Jurong, Woodlands, or Changi, spending the night there, and then returning to “civilisation” the following day.

Which is where my interest in Caravanserai comes in. I wonder whether such facilities were built in the early days of modern Singapore, in the 1820s and 1830s, when cross-island transport was still in its early legs. Was there a market for such a business? Did the authorities run such facilities instead? How were these buildings like? Who patronised them?

And the challenge for me, the historian - if they had existed, how do I go about finding them?

I will take on this challenge.

The word serai is sometimes used with the implication of caravanserai. A number of place-names based on the word sarai have grown up: Mughal Serai, Sarai Alamgir and the Delhi Sarai Rohilla railway station for example, and a great many other places are also based on the original meaning of “palace”.

Of course, the Singapore place name “Geylang Serai” immediately comes to mind. However, this time, the “Serai” in “Geylang Serai” is Malay for lemongrass, which used to be grown in the area. I am not aware of any other place name in Singapore with “Serai” in it. That said, I am very happy to be proven wrong!


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