Orbelian’s Caravanserai: A Lasting Sanctuary for Travelers Along the Silk Road
Orbelian’s Caravanserai (known previously as the Selim Caravanserai) is a caravanserai located in Vayots Dzor, a province in the southeastern part of Armenia. According to a dedicatory inscription, written in Armenian, the caravanserai was founded during the 14 th century by a prince of the Orbelian dynasty, hence its name. Eventually, the caravanserai fell out of use and was abandoned. During the 20 th century, restorations were carried out on the structure and this historical monument is regarded to be the best-preserved caravanserai in the country.
Where is Orbelian’s Caravanserai
The main function of a caravanserai was to provide shelter to people, animals, and goods that were traveling along a certain route. Orbelian’s Caravanserai is situated on the southern side of the Vardenyats Mountain Pass, which is 2410 meters (7906 feet) above sea level. This mountain pass was once known as Selim Mountain Pass but was changed to its current name in 2014 by Edgar Ghazarian, the governor of Vayots Dzor.
Mountain landscape with serpentine road. The view from top of Vardenyats / Selim Pass, Armenia. (smoke666 / Adobe)
This name change was carried out as Selim was found to be the name of a “foreign barbarian… famous for his evil deeds and destruction he caused”, and the governor did not want the area to be linked with this historical figure. At the same time, the name of the caravanserai was changed from Selim Caravanserai to Orbelian’s Caravanserai. In any case, this mountain pass climbs through the Vardenis Mountains and provides access to Lake Sevan, one of the largest freshwater alpine lakes in Eurasia.
Orbelian’s Caravanserai formally Selim Caravanserai - ancient Silk Road guest house on the top of Vardenyats mountain pass. Source: smoke666 / Adobe.
The Construction of Orbelian’s Caravanserai
An Armenian inscription on the eastern interior wall, just after the entrance, states that the caravanserai was built by the Orbelian dynasty, specifically Prince Chesar, his wife Khorishah, and his brothers Burtel, Smbat, and Elikom in 1332. The inscription also states that the caravanserai was constructed “with our own funds for the salvation of our souls and those of our parents and brothers reposing in Christ, and of my living brothers and sons Sargis, Hovhannes the priest, Kurd, and Vardan”, and passers-by were beseeched to remember them in Christ.
Orbelian's Caravanserai, the dedicatory Armenian inscription found at the eastern interior wall, just past the entrance to the upper right. (Liveon001 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
While Prince Chesar and his kin undertook this project to serve their spiritual needs, the caravanserai provided for the material needs of all those who stopped there. During the Middle Ages, Armenia was part of the Mongol Empire. The inscription in the caravanserai notes that at the time of its construction, the area was ruled by Busaid Khan of the Ilkhanate. Being part of the Mongol Empire, Armenia was also part of the Silk Road that the Mongols had revived. Therefore, like other areas of this trade network, caravanserais were built in the country.
Above the lintel are two high reliefs, a winged animal on the left and a bull on the right, Orbelian’s Caravanserai in the mountains of Armenia. (vesta48 / Adobe)
Most caravanserais consisted of a square or rectangular walled exterior, with a door wide enough for transport animals to go through, and a courtyard that was open to the sky. Within the structure, there are a number of identical stalls / bays / niches / chambers that were meant to accommodate travelers, animals, and merchandise.
This caravanserai was built by in 1332 by Chesar Orbelian in the reign of Khan Abu Said II and forms part of the old Silk Road. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Like other caravanserais, Orbelian’s Caravanserai has only one entrance. This structure, however, consists of a large hall divided into three aisles by two rows of seven pillars, where the animals would settle. The hall is roofed and small openings in the roof allowed light and ventilation to enter. On the eastern end of the hall is a chapel, which has since been half-destroyed, while on its western end were small rooms for travelers.
Items of Interest in Orbelian’s Caravanserai
Although Orbelian’s Caravanserai is not richly decorated, it has some ornaments of interest. At the entrance, decorations are seen around the semi-circular lintel. Above the lintel are two high reliefs, a winged animal on the left and a bull on the right. In addition, the openings in the roof are also decorated. Each of these openings has a unique design around it.
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Winged animal to the left of the entrance of Orbelian’s Caravanserai. (CC BY 2.0)
When the flow of trade dried up following the decline of the Silk Route, Orbelian’s Caravanserai no longer served its purpose and fell out of use. Restoration work was only carried out during the 20 th century, between 1956 and 1959. Since then, the site has become a tourist destination.
Top image: Interior of Orbelian’s Caravanserai. Source: Lockalbot / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Wu Mingren
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