Shushtar: Afzal Caravanserai
Ancient Fortress City Pop: 102,000
May 8, 2022
Roberta, Sergio and I are scheduled for a day trip to the nearby city of Shush. I decide to remain alone at the hotel and enjoy the sunny courtyard for a much-needed "time out."
Nearby, a young girl who has been pouring over a pile of books approaches me and initiates a conversation. After a series of questions and answers (She questions. I answer.), Ala tells me her story:
“My father wants me to be a doctor. My mother will be happy when I marry and raise children. But my goal is to be an automotive engineer! I want to go to Harvard.”
Ala is ambitious and determined.
I do a quick search and discover the obvious: Michigan State University offers an automotive engineering curriculum. Of course!
Ala wishes to accompany me to the nearby Caravanserai when the shops reopen in the late afternoon.
There’s not a camel in sight as Ala and I make our way through the entrance doors to the Afzal Caravanserai.
Maybe a motorbike or two.
Ala guides me along the arcade where we find a variety of small shops.
At the bakery the baker kneads his dough while the baker's wife slaps the dough on to the side of the outdoor oven. The busy owner of a musical instrument shop tunes a traditional string instrument (santoor) using a modern electronic tuner. A proud lady displays her formal wear. A shy lady prepares her wool for small rugs and traditional gift items. A group of women pose in their fabric store.
At the woodworker’s shop I decide to purchase a tiny wooden box. Ala insists on buying it for me.
Like every café everywhere else in the world, the café at the caravanserai is filled with young folks. I order ice cream.
At the next table a young girl with a large pink purse hovers over her books. I take a candid shot.
At another table, two adult women invite me to share a snack. Teachers!
The ice cream arrives. OMG! A cone and four different scoops decorated with a chunk of chocolate, M&M’s? and chocolate syrup! Coconut flakes! “This is normal in Iran,” the waitress assures me,
Dinner time is soon. I dare not.
The waitress brings additional plates.
I carry two scoops to the kind teachers.
I take the strawberry scoop to the girl in pink. I show her the photo. Surprised by the ice cream and delighted with her photo, Lila hands me a set of multicolored pens. Lila insists. Later I mail her the photo.
In the evening, Roberta, Sergio and I return to the caravanserai café for dinner. **
I order a “traditional” Iranian hamburger and a strange yet refreshing lemon drink.
And with an enthusiastic smile and a determined stride, the young and attractive waitress-manager approaches our table. She insists on a photo together with yours truly.
In this ancient city of Shushtar I am constantly reminded of an ancient Persian proverb, “Yes" is the only reponse to a young and attractive woman.”
**An excerpt from a recent newspaper article:
TEHRAN –The Qajar-era (1789-1925) Afzal Caravanserai in the ancient town of Shushtar, southwestern Khuzestan province, will soon be assessed for possibly becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shushtar’s tourism chief has said.
A unique and magnificent location inside the city’s historical texture, next to its bazaar, makes the caravanserai a landmark worth mentioning, the official added.
The architect of the historic inn, Haj Jafar Memar was one of the leading architects of that era. He also built the Mostofi Mansion in Shushtar as well as parts of the historical Selasal Castle, he noted.
Caravansary (also Caravanserai or Caravansaray) is a building that served as the inn of the Orient, providing accommodation for commercial, pilgrim, postal, and especially official travelers.
According to Encyclopedia Iranica, from the number of surviving caravansaries and their sizes, in Safavid and Qajar times there was a state architectural department that was specifically concerned with the construction of caravansaries and stations on the overland routes. Furthermore, in the cities, several caravansaries were erected as lodging houses, depots, and commercial offices in the vicinity of the bazaars.
A typical caravansary consists of a square or rectangular plan centered around a courtyard with only one entrance and arrangements for defense if necessary. Whether fortified or not, it provided security against beasts of prey and attacks by brigands.
The journeys of merchants and their caravans along the Silk Road through the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa would have been much more difficult if not for the caravanserais that dotted those ancient routes.
Variously described as “guest houses,” “roadside inns,” and “hostels,” caravanserais were buildings designed to provide overnight housing to travelers and their donkeys and camels loaded with goods.
Merchants and their caravans were the most frequent visitors. By furnishing safe respite for guests from near and far, caravanserais also became centers for the exchange of goods and culture.