We’d left Cappadocia and were driving along the Anatolian plain in central Turkey when our bus pulled off the road and headed down a narrow path, gravel crunching beneath our tires. I had no idea why we were stopping but at least it was an opportunity for me and Mrs. C. to stretch our legs. Our guide informed us that we’d arrived at the Sultanhani Kervansaray.
“The what?” I mumbled under my breath. I didn’t remember reading anything about this on our itinerary.
“Where the hell are we?” Mrs. C. asked, glancing around at a place that looked like time had forgotten.
We stepped out of our bus and immediately missed the air-conditioning; the stiflingly hot air was thick with dust kicked up by our tires. The terrain was flat and treeless except for a few apricot trees incapable of providing much shade. A score of unpainted concrete houses matched the muted colors of the landscape. The only structure of interest was a colossal stone wall with an arched opening where the portal appeared to have been designed by a swarm of massive wasps.
Selchuk, our ever-cheerful guide, explained. “Welcome to the town of Sultanhani. It isn’t much to look at, but a thousand years ago this was a hotspot on The Silk Road. Bandits prowled the countryside preying on caravans loaded down with precious silk, gold and silver, and spices.” He pointed at the thick wall. “Behind that wall is a kervansaray, or caravan fort. These have been used since the tenth century, offering amenities and protection for merchants and stabling for their animals.”
Selchuk was a wealth of information. “In kervansarays, foreign as well as native traders would find hospitality for three days. Their shoes would be repaired or the poor would be given new shoes. The ill would be treated and animals would be tended, and if needed horses would be shod. For their religious practices, travelers would use a small mosque in the center of the courtyard.”
As we passed beneath the arched entrance I remembered reading an article in an archeological magazine purporting that Jesus hadn’t actually been born in a stable as we’ve come to imagine it. He was probably born in a large compound that housed up to three thousand people and half as many animals. According to the article, in ancient times forts were constructed for travelers with rooms lining the inside of protective walls. In the center of the fort was a large courtyard where animals were kept. Those who couldn’t obtain a room slept in the courtyard with the animals. The fort I’d read about, the so-called stable where it was speculated Jesus was born, was much like the kervansaray Mrs. C. and I were walking through, even though this one had been built a thousand years after Jesus’ birth.
We almost stepped on a snoozing Anatolian shepherd that had taken shelter from the withering heat in the shadow of a dried-up fountain. His colors were so close to the grey-brown stones that he was nearly invisible. The huge dog lifted his head and blinked slowly at us as we disappeared into the cool, dark interior where centuries earlier travelers and their animals had huddled for protection from storms.
We were alone inside. It might have been my imagination but my ears picked up the excited talk of heated discussions, and when I inhaled deeply I could smell the lingering scent of camels and horses, spices from far-a-way India and China, along with the effluvium of those intrepid travelers who, for a time, made this one of the most prosperous regions on earth.
I’d come to this place by bus, not by caravan, and souvenir peddlers chased us when we departed instead of bandits waiting to slit our throats and seize our precious goods. But we felt strangely safe in this place where goods and ideas were exchanged, where cultures joined together like different ropes creating a single knot, and where the world we now live in was created.