Caravanserai to accommodate travellers, tradesmen and guards, with the Jami Masjid in the background-Fatehpur Sikri, Mughal period.
A Serai, also called a Caravanserai, is a temporary resting/meeting place—an inn for travelers passing through on caravans (OED). Similarly, the word Serai also marks a cross-roads for a profusion of linguistic signs, with varied spellings and associations: while the word is etymologically derived from Persian, it is often interpreted as Turkish.
European travelers going through eastern, Muslim lands in the early modern period often comment on their sojourns at serais, marveling at the “certaine kind of great harbours, or huge lodgings (like hamlets) called Caravan-sara, or Surroyes, for the benefit of Caravanes” (H. de Feynes, Exact and Curious Survey of all the East Indies, 1615, p.8). They were struck not only by their size, but their numbers and beauty: “every five or sixe Course, there are Seraes built by the King or some great men, very faire for the beautifying of the way, memory of their names, and entertainment of Travellers” (W. Finch in Purchas His Pilgrims, 1625, vol. I, p. 520). The word Serai or Serail was also associated with Ottoman palaces like the Topkapı Saray: “This Mahomet was the first founder of the great Seralia (where the great Turke now usually dwelleth) which he builded at the entry of the channell, about one of the corners of the City, upon the Promontorie Chrisoseras, which afterwards by the great Turkes which successiuely have dwelled there, hath beene greatly beautified and augmented” (W. Biddulph, Travels of Certain Englishmen, 1609, p. 23). Biddulph was both fascinated by and suspicious of the hospitality offered in such places, and as his spelling hints, this Serai would also later be conflated with or misused by Europeans for the more eroticized oriental image of a seraglio or harem: “Not thus was Hassan wont to fly/ When Leila dwelt in his Serai,” wrote Byron in The Giaour (ll. 443-444). [See OED for further examples.]
We hope Serai will capture the historical contingency of the linguistic sign as traced above, functioning as a discursive location that captures the cultural, religious, linguistic, and political flux marking historical European Christian encounters/interactions with eastern, Islamic nations in the early modern period and vice versa. By exploring the early modern moment, we hope to disrupt the familiar teleology of a “clash of civilizations” and stereotypes of east and west, and of Islam and Christianity, that are re-lived almost daily in contemporary headlines. Instead, our aim is to pluralize history by offering glimpses of the many micro-histories within the long durée of global interaction between the peoples of the Eurasian and African continents. Such histories will necessarily involve not only “East/West contact” but interactions between the many different religious and ethnic groups living within the boundaries of both “Christian” and “Islamic” empires.
In Serai, we hope to include but also move beyond familiar empirical topics of warfare and commerce, expanding the discussion to include a broad range of cultural formations in the early modern period. We welcome those studying within and at the intersections of history, literature, visual culture, ethnography, architecture, translation studies, sexuality studies, post-colonial studies, and globalism, among other fields. Such transnational and trans-disciplinary perspectives will be the impetus of our quarterly blogs, photo essays, and spotlighted archival documents. We also seek to increase interdisciplinary awareness and participation by serving as a central site for the posting of CFPs, new publications and other announcements relevant to this broadly conceived field of study. We encourage everyone working in or curious about this area of study – from academics, postgraduate and undergraduate students to the interested reader – to join the site, and to pass the link on to others.
This site has its origins and the core of its membership in an extraordinary National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar hosted by the University of Maryland’s Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies. Led by Dr. Adele Seeff (Director of CRBS, University of Maryland) and Dr. Judith Tucker (History & Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies, Georgetown University), “Re-mapping the Renaissance: Exchange between Early Modern Islam and Europe,” featured scholars from multiple disciplines and areas of expertise. The seminar focused on Cartography, Trading Patterns & Travel Narratives, and Material Goods. It benefitted from the lectures of Meredith Gill (Art History, University of Maryland), Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak (Persian Language & Literature/ Iranian Culture & Civilization, and Director of the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute Center for Persian Studies, University of Maryland) and Alison Sandman (History, James Madison University). The site itself was set up and well-tended by Dr. Karen Nelson (English, University of Maryland), to whom we all owe a debt of thanks. We pay tribute to the work of these scholars, and that of the wonderful participants in this seminar. We hope that Serai will continue the labor and the enjoyment of interdisciplinary work on this topic by involving an even broader set of scholars in discussions made possible by this internet forum, itself just another kind of Serai, a stopping place for travelers from many places, pursuing many different paths.
Please join us, and encourage others to join as well!
Jyotsna Singh, February 22, 2013