The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1586] The Silk Road Caravansaries: The Forgotten National Identity

Iran, Islamic Republic of


Ancient remains left to us by past generations have an undeniable impact on our understanding of the culture and identity of our countries. Renovation and restoration of these remains can also intensify the historical identity of different nations through out the globe. Furthermore, restoration of historical sites leads to an understanding of the history of the past generations as well as an acquaintance with the buildings which were built in previous periods according to the culture and beliefs of the people of that era. Such cases can act as fresh and novel motivations for those who want to explore the lost identity of their homeland, encouraging them to preserve and maintain their national heritage. One of the special cases which carry an important place in the historical background of the Iranian people is the Silk Road and the guesthouses built along this road. The buildings along side the road which were built to provide comfort, accommodations and security for the travelers are known as Caravansaries or guesthouses. Due to their being location on the route of the Silk Road these Caravansaries were considered as important locations with vital roles in this commercial – informational – economic road. In other words, it could be argued that these buildings acted very similar to the internet

network in today's world.

According to the National Survey and Mapping Institution in Iran and the received data from the Institute of Cultural Heritage and Tourism of Iran and the data collected through field work, it becomes clear that some parts of the Silk Road, especially in the Northeastern provinces, intersect with present roads of Iran, and the ancient guesthouses can still be recognized alongside these new roads. Thus through innovative methods this chain of guesthouses can be transformed into a symbol of Iranian identity, standing out on the map of Iran in order to attract public attention towards these Caravansaries intertwining people lives with these spaces once again. The aim of this project is to propose simple, low cost, innovative and attractive guidelines to revive the Silk Road guesthouses and direct the attention of both locals and travelers to these Caravansaries. In this way, not only can people drive for miles experiencing the joy of passing along such an ancient road, but also would be reminded of the history of the guesthouses and gradually learn to recall them as a symbol of their national identity.


The history of the Silk Road goes back to six thousand years before Christ. This road begins from Chang’an province in China and passing central Asia, ends in Europe. A great part of this road is located in Iran. During the Parthian period (100–200 BC.), the Huns and other tribes from Central Asia were frequently attacking Iran. The Parthian drove these invaders back, extending the borders of their empire to Oxus River, and therefore became neighbors with China. The next step was opening trade relations with China to extend that the Chinese emperors dispatched ambassadors to the Parthian court. A continuous trade route between East and West was thus shaped which later on came to be called the “Silk Road”. For over a millennium, Iranian merchants dominated trade between China and Europe, centuries before Marco Polo set foot on the Chinese soil.

In specific points along this road buildings known as caravansaries or guesthouses were built to provide comfort, accommodations and security for the travelers.

136 of these Caravansaries or guesthouses were built during the Parthian (100-200 BC.) dynasty with the aim of providing security for the roads and facilitating commerce between Asia and Europe. The interval distance between these guesthouses were about 25 kilometers. The architecture of the Iranian guesthouses reveals different styles for in each historical era. These styles have been achieved due to alterations in beliefs, culture, religion, structure, material, progresses in mathematics and geometry (as exposed in the arches) and other architectural elements.

The constant presence of a central courtyard (based on the philosophy of the holiness of the central space, the development of a pond in the centre of the yard is because no human soul can occupy this centrality), posting towers, and enter vestibules into the main and internal spaces of the guesthouses, all illustrate the identity of the Iranian architecture and its introverted quality which has left its traces on the culture and life ways of the people, as well as their understanding of the spaces they live in up to the present day.

In addition, the Caravansaries located along the Silk Road, have been the main linking points between the East and the West. Acting as systematic networks, the Caravansaries have provided bases for cultural interactions between different nations rendering a fundamental organization for communication between the cities and the countries, having a crucial role for governments, and people (in times of war, or natural disasters like fire...).

The Caravansaries or guesthouses along the Silk Road which are located in Iran are no exception. They also stand as outstanding points in the commercial – informational – economic route acting like a systematic network to unify and spread the cultural, scientific, medical, and technological knowledge of various nations.

At the present time, only a few of these guesthouses are restored in Iran and are mainly used as restaurants. But the majorities of these buildings are at risk of destruction and are used by local villagers for storing goods or livestock during winter time. Continuation of such neglect and lack of restoration and renovations of these guesthouses, without doubt, will lead to more damage or total destruction of the buildings in the long run.

Thus it could be concluded that the destruction and demolition of such historical buildings would lead to the destruction of substantial parts of the history and remaining architecture of ancient Iran, and the eventual demolition of the history, culture and beliefs of the Iranian nation.

The idea of focusing on the Silk Road and its guesthouses, as a symbol of Iranian identity, gained more interest for the researchers when we imagined it as a unified pathway composed of unique features spreading over the present roads of the country. Thus by visiting the Institute of Cultural Heritage and Tourism of Iran, the road maps belonging to different periods in Iran and especially the era of the Parthian Kings were examined and the exact locations of the guesthouses along the Silk Road were extracted. In the next step, the maps of the present roads of the country were obtained from the National Survey and Mapping Institution of Iran and were compared with the maps of the era of the Parthian dynasty. After the initial and investigation of each set of maps (the maps of the present roads and the ones from Parthian era) it was found that the main roads which are used at the present time in Iran, especially the ones crossing from the Northeastern parts to the Northern south, are identical with the route of the Silk Road. Moreover, after this comparison it became evident that most of the guesthouses along the Silk Road in Iran are located along side the present roads in the country. This unique coincidence, as the finding of this study, had never been observed by any official authority before. Therefore, the next step was the idea of selecting the guesthouses as links along the chain of the Silk Road, and reviving the lost value of these buildings by putting forward practical and low cost proposals. Our goal was to attract the public attention towards these buildings in order to bring together the lives of these people with these spaces thus turning the Caravansaries into symbol for Iranian identity glowing on the map of Iran.


As mentioned before one of our initial steps was to visit the Institute of Cultural Heritage and Tourism of Iran, where the road maps of different periods in Iran and especially the era of Parthian Kings were examined and the exact locations of the guesthouses along the Silk Road were extracted. Next, the maps of the present roads of the country were obtained from the National Survey and Mapping Institution of Iran and were compared and contrasted with the maps of the era of Parthian dynasty.

The strategies utilized at this stage can be divided into two parts; first identifying and focusing on the routes of the present roads which are identical to the Silk Road, and second proposing new programs for the guesthouses along the Road and the areas surrounding them in order to attract public attention and emphasizing their importance.

1) The Silk Road – The Iranian roads: A single Use for Hundreds of Generations

A special system of codification, such as highlighting the roads by using florescent colors in the asphalt of those parts which are identical to the Silk Road can be used to make the route recognizable. Furthermore, through direct interviews with the public about the color of the road or even devising a competition for choosing the best color or designing graphic icons to signify the passage of historical travelers along this road, public involvement and attention could be attracted towards the Silk Road and its history, motivating the people to contemplate deeply on the impact of this road on their culture and civilization.

In addition to the above mentioned strategies, figures and visual elements which signify the Silk Road could be installed posts at every 25 kilometers along the Road. The design of such figures and visual elements could also be assigned to the public who could use their imagination freely while participating in the project.

LCD billboards could also be used throughout the route between guesthouses to provide travelers with information about the history of the road they are passing through, making them familiar with a route which has served as a means of transportation for their ancestors for thousands of years.

A radio station (The Silk Road Radio Station) could be established to enable travelers of the Road to tune into programs broadcasting information about thousands of years of history, construction methods, and functions of the Silk Road and the role of its guesthouses in the past and their architecture and methods of construction.

Since the Silk Road is stretched through different parts of Iran and the people who live along this route, apart from being Iranian, have their own local culture, dialect, handcraft, and farming products, even their own musical instruments and tunes, the Silk Road Radio Station can focus on this potential to broadcast programs introducing the native residents of each area and playing their local music to the travelers who are driving through.

2) The Guesthouses of the Silk Road, Popular Architecture – Space for the Public

This part could also be divided into two sections: The first part deals with proposing methods and practical guidelines about the main buildings of the guesthouses and ways for attracting the public to use these buildings capturing the historical sprit present in them. The second part concentrates on the sites that surround the main buildings of the guesthouses, and the way it could be used to direct the attention of drivers and travelers towards these sites and eventually inside the spaces of the guesthouses.

The locals who have the Silk Road passing through their lands, the travelers and the ordinary people who pass through this route could come together in these guesthouses for socializing, thus getting to know each other better through these encounters. Such practices could pave the way for facilitating communication between the locals, travelers, and foreign tourists, expanding the level of cultural interactions and social connections of the villagers and the native residents.

Local fairs could assist the revival of the native history, introducing local handicrafts, rituals, native costumes, wild life, greenery and even the local music of each area which could be performed live by the natives in the guesthouses.

Permanent or seasonal exhibitions set up offering the agricultural products of the area (or even a range of products from all over Iran) could be a good incentive for the locals and natives to offer their unique products and handicrafts. This in turn can bring these unknown places under spotlight gaining worldwide recognition.

Furthermore, by placing speakers at proper positions and playing the sound of caravans’ movements, the bells of the camels and the horses’ neighs every one hour, can impress the spirit of travelers and passengers and absolutely merge their soul with the atmosphere of these caravansaries in the past eras. This approach is a great help to increase the attractiveness of the caravansaries to travelers and visitors.

In order to give drivers and travelers of the Silk Road a chance to get truly involved in the experience of staying in these places, new buildings could be built in the surrounding fields according to the architectural characteristics of the local taste and culture, providing travelers with restaurants, gas stations and communication facilities all designed in accordance with the original spirit of the site.

It is possible to attract people's attention towards the natural beauties surrounding these guesthouses by setting up tourist centers for those who want to explore the nature of the area. Providing camping areas in these sites can attract more people to come and visit these places.


The role of the Silk Road as a vital commercial route which connected the Eastern hemisphere to the West, played a significant role and in the interaction between cultures of different nations of the world, is indeed undeniable. The guesthouses along this road, as centers or milestones connecting this commercial – informational – economic route, also played a crucial role in rising people's knowledge towards the culture and developments of other nations, resulting in the expansion of science and technology.

By selecting and rehabilitating the guesthouses or Caravansaries along the Silk Road in Iran, and by turning them into a chain which stands as a symbol of Iranian identify on the map of the country, and by reuniting the lives of the ordinary people with these buildings and motivating them to spend some of their time in these historical spaces, a great step could be taken towards saving the Caravansaries and their historical importance.

Additionally, by creating various points of attraction along parts of the Silk Road that correspond to existing roads in Iran, it will be possible to motivate the present day taraveller to pass along this historic route. Along this route the Silk Road Caravansaries will play a crucial and fundamental role in transferring the Iranian history and identity from one generation to the next.


1. W. Kleiss. M. Y. Kiani (1994). Iranian Caravansaries

2. The Papers of the Second International Meeting on the Silk Road (1997). Published by the Ministry of Culture & Islamic Guidance of Iran

3. Nasser Takmil Homayon (1997). The scientific and cultural role of UNESCO in the Silk Road research

4. Farzin Rezaeian (2008). Seven Face of Civilization

If you would like to contact this author, please send a request to

« Back to The Reserve

Copyright © 1998-2024 Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy
For permission for any form of re-use of any of the contents, please contact
The BERKELEY PRIZE is endorsed by the Department of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley.