The Road Inns (Khans) in Bilad al-Sham. By KATIA CYTRYN-SILVERMAN. BAR S2130. Oxford: ARCHAEOPRESS, 2010. Pp. vi + 290, illus. [pounds sterling]58.
Unlike the Roman empire, whose territories were crisscrossed with stone-paved highways (viae), the considerably larger medieval Islamic world had none. Yet travel and communication were as important to the medieval Islamic world as they were to their Roman predecessors, if not more. Not only were the movements of armies and trade vital to the Islamic world; so, too, were two types of travel that were particularly Islamic: the pilgrimage (hajj), which brought thousands if not tens of thousand of pilgrims to Mecca every year in the month of Dhu 1-Hijja, and the travel in search of knowledge (talab al-ilm), especially that kind of religious knowledge that required oral transmission, the knowledge of hadith (prophetic traditions), which meant that countless students took to the road to learn from famous transmitters in faraway cities and earn their license to transmit (ijaza) from these teachers.
Many scholars tried to explain the discrepancy between the significance of travel for medieval Muslims and the absence of paved roads in their lands that would sustain and facilitate the large volume of travel attested to in the written and illustrated sources. The most innovative and convincing explanation is that of Richard Bulliet, whose The Camel and the Wheel ((1) 1975, (2) 1990) argued that the domestication of the camel and the improvement in its saddle shortly before the emergence of Islam allowed the conquering Arabs and subsequently the rest of their empire to replace wheeled traffic with the much easier and cheaper camel transportation. This meant that the Islamic empire did not need to maintain the costly road network it inherited from the Roman empire or to add to it. Simple, unpaved pathways were sufficient for all the long and short distance traffic the medieval Islamic world required.
This did not mean that Islamic authorities neglected the support of travel routes. On the contrary, many rulers and dynasties distinguished themselves for their patronage of travel-related public work. In fact, among the earliest material remains of the Umayyads, the first Islamic dynasty, are carved stone road signs in Arabic that were added in the early eighth century to the Roman road network of Bilad al-Sham, which the Umayyads maintained as well. They are also credited with the first Islamic road inns or caravanserais, of which they built a number of remarkable examples across Bilad al-Sham and possibly further east and south, and which will be the topic of a projected book by Rebecca Foote. The Abbasids, too, maintained a road system, the most famous part of which...