Eight strangers were clustered around the campfire of the distant caravanserai —silhouetted, ragged, and ripened by adventure. As the flames licked the darkness, sparks spitting up into the desert's nocturnal firmament, the traveller dressed in indigo cleared his throat and told his tale.
Opening lines from The Caravanserai Stories by Tahir Shah (Secretum Mundi Publishing Ltd)
The Qasr’s only door is huge to allow horses and loaded
camels into the open courtyard. Around
the courtyard, there are 61 rooms for weary travellers. There is little light from
outside, only the narrow, arrow-slit windows.
Once in here, the traveller is safe from the desert. The courtyard is open to the stars. Water is given,
food and fodder provided and fires are lit. Travellers from all directions exchange
goods, ideas and, above all, stories.
The great Berber traveller, Ibn Battuta would have stayed in
caravanserais such as this one and his tales still survive. A few decades later, Geoffrey Chaucer
recorded the tales of pilgrims going to
Today, the Qasr al Kharaneh sits in empty desert. In its glory days, the climate was softer. Well-irrigated fields and date palms would have surrounded it. Al Kharaneh would have been sociable and lively but the accommodation would have been simple to the point of stark. The next Qasr could not be more different.
Qasr al Amra also sits isolated in the desert. It is on a smaller scale, more intimate. It is less harshly square and even has a couple of domes. I have seen domes like this before in Turkish baths (hammams). Surely not here? But that is exactly what it is. If you had been a merchant trekking for a couple of weeks across the desert with only a camel for a friend, you might have liked the idea of a good wash and a massage with scented oils in a hammam. You would have been out of luck. Caravanserais were also places for Sultans to rest as they travelled their lands. This one was probably built for the Umayyad caliph al-Walid I (705-715). We could still see some of the frescoes of hunting and bathing scenes that border on the lascivious.
There are Qasrs like al Kharaneh scattered all over the Jordanian desert marking out old trade and pilgrimage routes.
On one night among many over the centuries, the Sun has set
and fires and braziers light the central courtyard. Strangers sit round these fires with coffee
and dates and water pipes. People start to tell stories of their recent
travels, their experience of
They tell new stories of Richard Coeur de Lion and Salah ad-Din. They tell older, well-loved stories of Scheherazade garnered into Arab literature from ancient Sanskrit and Persian tales. They tell Bronze Age stories from The Book; stories of Ibrahim and Ishmael and of Moses.
A traveller from the very furthest North of the known world tells a story of Lief Eriksson. The story is too outlandish to be believed.
A traveller from
The stories drift up into the desert sky and join the literary heritage of the World.
I was travelling with the excellent Jules Verne Tours