Caravanserais were roadside stations which supported the flow of commerce, information, and people across the network of trade routes covering Asia, North Africa, and southeastern Europe, especially along the Silk Road. Caravanserais provided water for human and animal consumption, washing, and ritual ablutions. They also kept fodder for animals and had shops for travelers where they could acquire new supplies. In addition, some shops bought goods from the traveling merchants. Routes would shift over the centuries like the sand dunes of the desert as empires rose and fell either side of the Sahara and as new resources were discovered that could be exploited in the trade that never ceased. These caravans would typically travel by day, from sunrise to sunset.
Inns called caravanserai were spread along the route of a long caravan journey. These roadside inns specialized in catering to travelers along established trade routes, such as the Silk Road and the Royal Road. Because such long trade routes often passed through inhospitable desert regions, journeys would be impossible to complete successfully and profitably without caravanserai to provide necessary supplies and assistance to merchants and travelers. In historical times, caravans connecting East Asia and Europe often carried luxurious and lucrative goods, such as silks or jewelry. Caravans could therefore require considerable investment and were a lucrative target for bandits. The profits from a successfully undertaken journey could be enormous, comparable to the later European spice trade. The luxurious goods brought by caravans attracted many rulers along important trade routes to construct caravanserais.
Such a camel train is described in the accounts of the journey made by Peter Fleming and Ella Maillart in the Gobi Desert in the mid-1930s. While organization of camel caravans varied over time and the territory traversed, Owen Lattimore’s account of caravan life in northern China in the 1920s gives a good idea of what camel transport is like. Less important caravan routes served various other areas of northern China, such as most centers in today’s Gansu, Ningxia, and northern Qinghai. Some of the oldest Hohhot-based caravan firms had a history dating to the early Qing Dynasty. A camel train or caravan is a series of camels carrying passengers and goods on a regular or semi-regular service between points. Although they rarely travelled faster than the walking speed of a person, camels’ ability to withstand harsh conditions made them ideal for communication and trade in the desert areas of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula for centuries. Camel trains were also used sparingly elsewhere around the globe.
The camel caravans which crossed the great dunes of the Sahara desert began in antiquity but reached their golden period from the 9th century CE onwards. In their heyday caravans consisted of thousands of camels travelling from North Africa, across the desert to the savannah region in the south and back again, in a hazardous journey that could take several months. Stopping along the way at vital oases, the caravans were largely controlled by the Berbers who acted as middlemen in the exchange of such desired commodities as salt, gold, copper, hides, horses, slaves, and luxury goods. The trans-Saharan trade brought with it ideas in art, architecture, and religion, transforming many aspects of daily life in the towns and cities of a hitherto isolated part of Africa. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE (Histories, Bk 4. 181-5), noted a camel caravan route which went from Thebes in Egypt to Niger . The Roman writer Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) noted in his Natural History (5.35-8) that the caravans were managed by the Garamantes, probably ancient Berbers, who lived south of Libya.
The Garamantes, in control of the date-palmed oases at Fezzan, acted as middlemen between the peoples of North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. This arrangement would continue throughout the history of trans-Saharan commerce because those who controlled the desert, who knew the secrets of meeting its formidable challenges, also controlled the trade.