A caravanserai (or caravansary; ) was a roadside inn where travelers (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.
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 (1,600 mi) 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.
The word is also rendered as caravansary, caravansaray, caravanseray and caravansara. The Persian word ? k?rv?nsar?y is a compound word combining k?rv?n "caravan" with sar?y "palace", "building with enclosed courts", to which the Persian suffix -yi is added. Here "caravan" means a group of traders, pilgrims or other travellers, engaged in long distance travel. 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".
The Persian caravanserai was built as a large road station, outside of towns. An inn built inside a town would be smaller and was known in Persian as a khan () (from Middle Persian h?n' (x?n, "house")). In the Middle-East the term "khan" covers both meanings, of roadside inn as well as of inner-town inn. In Turkish the word is rendered as han. The same word was used in Bosnian, having arrived through Ottoman conquest. The Greek pandocheion, lit.: "welcoming all", thus meaning 'inn', led to funduq in Arabic (?), pundak in Hebrew (), fundaco in Venice, fondaco in Genoa and alhóndiga in Spanish.
Al-Muqaddasi the Arab geographer wrote in 985 CE about the hostelries, or wayfarers' inns, in the Province of Palestine, a province at that time listed under the topography of Syria, saying: "Taxes are not heavy in Syria, with the exception of those levied on the Caravanserais (Fanduk); Here, however, the duties are oppressive..." The reference here being to the imposts and duties charged by government officials on the importation of goods and merchandise, the importers of which and their beasts of burden usually stopping to take rest in these places. Guards were stationed at every gate to ensure that taxes for these goods be paid in full, while the revenues therefrom accruing to the Fatimid kingdom of Egypt.
Most typically a caravanserai was a building with a square or rectangular walled exterior, with a single portal wide enough to permit large or heavily laden beasts such as camels to enter. The courtyard was almost always open to the sky, and the inside walls of the enclosure were outfitted with a number of identical animal stalls, bays, niches or chambers to accommodate merchants and their servants, animals, and merchandise.
Caravanserais provided water for human and animal consumption, washing and ritual purification such as wudu and ghusl. Sometimes they had elaborate baths. They also kept fodder for animals and had shops for travellers where they could acquire new supplies. In addition, some shops bought goods from the travelling merchants.
Multani Caravanserai, which was established in the 14th century in Azerbaijan and now houses a restaurant, was constructed in a square shape. It has very ancient style with balconies around the courtyard.
The whole of the centre of Sheki has been proclaimed a reserve protected by the state. To take you back to the time of the caravans, two large eighteenth-century caravanserais have been preserved with spacious courtyards where the camels used to rest, cellars where goods were stored, and rooms for travellers.