What’s vernacular architecture?
Usually while talking about vernacular, we often refer to simple buildings, architecture adapted to the needs of community and constructed from local sources. These are traditional housing, baths, taverns, mills etc. This type of architecture represents local culture and traditions, serves every day needs and absorbs local mentality.
Can vernacular architecture be international? Transnational?
My answer is YES! A perfect example of vernacular architecture and at the same time a symbol of intercultural dialogue and exchange is a network of caravanserais along the ancient Silk Road!
The term “Silk Road” was developed by a German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 19th century. Naming it a “Silk Road” in Volume I of his publications about China, von Richthofen defines a network of routes connecting Eurasia. While speaking about the Silk Road, he primarily writes about human interaction and exchange along the routes, migrations and mutual influence of cultures and traditions. He notices Eastern influence in the West and vice versa.
Indeed, the famous Silk Road is a network of routes connecting East, South, Central and Western Asia and the Mediterranean. That is an ancient network of trade, merchants, travellers, which provided an exchange of ideas, goods, technologies and traditions in Eurasia. In fact, there is no “united” Silk Road, but a web of roads, corridors and ports which were used for travelling and trading depending on a season of the year, geopolitical situation and conflicts. Some of the routes were used only during dry seasons, the others were abandoned over the years or were not used due to conflicts or political issues. The Silk Road covers land and sea. The maritime Silk Road, a network of ports connected China and South East Asia via the Indian Ocean with India, Near East, Africa and Europe, was mostly used for transportation of spices such as paper, cinnamon, musk and others and thus received a name of a Spice Route.
Having silk as a primary good and as a vehicle of trade establishment and development of route, the famous road was used for transportation and trade of other important commodities as gunpowder, paper, cotton, tea, salt, iron, copper, minerals, spices, fruit and vegetables, animas, art pieces.
The Silk Road impacted the development of cities along the routes, which acquired their power and prosperity on trade and trade policies. Those cities became melting pots of cultures, traditions and ethnicities, they were cultural and educational hubs along the Silk Road. Khiva, Samarkand, Buhara, Merv and many others are good examples of impact of the Silk Road to the urbanism and economic development of the settlements.
On the road the travellers would need a place to stay and keep the goods and products safe in the night so they would stay in caravanserais – traditional inns, built on a distance of a day journey by a caravan, thus 30-40 kilometres in urbanised and rural areas. The caravanserais were a safe place to stay overnight and prepare for the journey; they were also centres of trade, communication and exchange with locals and other travellers. These buildings are the tangible witnesses of the Silk Road flow and examples of transnational vernacular architecture, which we can observer across South, North, East, Central Asia, India, Caucasus, Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
The name of these traditional inns varies from county to country, the word Caravanserai is taken from two Persian words karwan (caravan) and saray (place, house), however the names of Funduk, used in North Africa, Wakala from Ottoman Empire, Kaysariya from Greece or Rabat which was used in central Asia.
Traditionally caravanserais were built from local materials, burnt bricks, clay and stones. A classic caravanserai had a square or rectangular shape with a large gate to allow entry of bulky goods and animals. The caravanserais had an open-air court yard and identical sells, barns, niches around the yard to accommodate travellers, merchants, animals, and goods.
The sells were identical without windows or ventilators. Only the corner cells were bigger in size: they were meant for governmental officials on missions. The cells usually had verandas in front to protect them from the sun and rain.
The caravanserais would have different cells for people of different religions and a place of religious worships. As for instance in Pakistan one could typically find a mosque in every caravanserai.
The caravanserais would have baths and sometimes a doctor to provide hygiene and medical services as well as cooking facilities and dining space.
Often there were bazaars in the courtyards of the caravanserais, which allowed trade between the locals and travellers.
The caravanserais were places of exchange of ideas, sharing of experience and international hubs of intercultural dialogue.
Vernacular architecture absorbs indeed local mentality – the Silk Road vernaculars absorb Eurasian mentality! Something which should not be forgotten!