Wikalat Bazar'a (Bazar'a Caravanserai)
by Lara Iskander
| The term Caravanserai is originally Turkish, derived from the words Caravan and Serai (palace). The term seems to have been first used in the 12th century. A carvanserai is sometimes known as "Khan" which is a Persian name. Khans are often confused with caravansaries but these places are more similar to inns and hotels where not only lodging but food and comfort may be had for payment unlike caravansaries which are public buildings that only offer shelter for caravans and other travelers and merchants. Also, the khans are generally within the town walls providing more elaborate lodging and are usually much smaller then caravansaries. It is also suggested that having several names could be due to the difference in regional vocabulary rather than distinctive functions since the architectural origins of the various types of caravansaries are impossible to identify with precision. From the 12th century onward, caravansaries became a standard feature of Islamic architecture and became the centres of trade. They began to be established within the town or village walls rather than on the main commercial travel routes, as was the custom. They developed a variety of forms where the central courtyard was always a main feature and later on they became part of larger complexes that included a mosque, fort or bathhouses. Some of the best examples still remain today in Damascus, Aleppo and Egypt. In Egypt, caravansaries are named "Wikala". A Wikala is essentially a warehouse (Trade market) providing facilities for the storage and sale of goods whose revenues in turn not only supported the market itself but also, the mosques and madrasas in the city. The wikalas were lively places in the center of the town where a number of basic services were provided to merchants: spaces to store merchandise, living accommodations and gathering places for brokers and their clients. The doors were always kept open for all arrivals from early dawn until late in the evening. One of the wikalas still remaining in Cairo is Wikalat Bazara which dates back to the 17th century. It provides a good example of a typical wikala plan. This carvanserai is located in Darb al-Asfar district off al-Muzz el-Din street. It adjoins a mosque from the west. The structure is quadrangular in form and enclosed by a massive wall with small windows and wooden screens on the exterior. The entrance is trough a single high and wide carved portal that leads to a vaulted opening then onto a large open courtyard. Most wikalas had only one entrance. When there were two, they were opposite each other. A monumental entrance was usually the case allowing passers-by to easily look into the centre of the building in order to attract customers. A cloister like arcade surrounds the ground floor consisting of the central courtyard, which is in turn surrounded by cellular storerooms. The storerooms occupy the ground and first floor that are built of stones while the lodging areas on the upper floors are of brick and plaster. |
Left: Entrance facade of the Wikalat; Right: Detail close-up of facade details Animals were unloaded in the courtyard and the goods moved into the ground level storerooms. This central courtyard usually paved with flagstones was large enough to contain around 100 crouching camels or mules. Water was provided by a well with a fountain basin in the center of the courtyard.
Left: Detail of facade wooden screens; Right: Upper section of Courtyard The Bazara Wikala has 25 storage rooms taking up the covered space on the ground floor.
Left: View of the second floor corridor leading into the living quarters;
Right: Main staircase connecting the ground floor to the upper levels The ground floor is connected by broad open stairways to the upper levels that are ringed by a somewhat lighter arcade, which gives access to astonishingly small rooms. These living quarters were rented by the merchants and craftsmen as well as travelers and pilgrims.
Left: Courtyard seen from the main staircase; Right: Interior of the apartments Each unit or apartment forms a vertical unit, a duplex of rooms placed on above the other linked by inner staircases. There are around 366 units in the wikala. In addition to the standard rooms, there were usually a couple of larger rooms for important travelers. No traces of kitchens are seen in the apartments. A single Mashrabeyya is found in every unit and variation in roofing. The main decorative elements in the interior walls are the beautifully carved Mashrabeyya windows and the wooden screens on the second level denoting the area set apart on the top floors for sleeping.
Inside and outside of Mashrabeyya window During summertime, the roof was used as a roof- terrace for sleeping and possibly for keeping animals. Thought the wikala might seem very quite and organized nowadays, it is easy to picture it in the old times full of animals stabled on the ground floor and traders bargaining loudly, selling wood, coffee and soap with their clients watching from above.
Left: View from the Roof; Right: Courtyard Among the many medieval wikalas dating back to the Mamluk and Ottoman era, such as Wikalat al-Ghuri (1504) on Al-Azhar Street, the Bazara Wikala still stands in a well preserved state after being lately. It is to serve as a craft and art center. References:
- Islamic Architecture, Robert Hillenbrand
- Dictionary of Islamic architecture, Andrew Peterson.
- Islamic monuments in Cairo - The practical guide, Caroline Williams. Archives