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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
In the days of the elder patriarchs there seem to have been no places specially devoted to the reception of travelers, at least in the pastoral districts frequented by those venerable nomads; for we find Abraham, like the Oriental shepherds of the present day, under a strong sense of the difficulties and privations with which journeying in those regions was attended, deeming it a sacred duty to keep on the outlook, and offer the wayfaring man the rites of hospitality in his own tent. Nor could the towns of Palestine, as it would seem, at that remote period, boast of any greater advance with respect to establishments of this sort (see ); from which it is evident that the custom, which is still frequently witnessed in the cities of the East, was then not uncommon, for travelers who were late in arriving, and who had no introductions to a private family, to bivouac in the streets, or wrapping themselves up in the ample folds of their hykes, to pass the night as they best could in the open air (see also ). In the Arab towns and villages, however, when a traveler arrives in the daytime, the sheikh, or some principal person of the place, goes out to welcome him, and treats him with great civility in his own house; or else he conducts him to the menzil, which, though a place of rather a nondescript character, is understood to be the house occupied by those who entertain strangers, when there are no other lodgings, and to which the women in the sheikh's house, having surveyed the number of the guests, send provisions of every kind, according to the season, and provide every accommodation the place can afford.
The first mention of an inn, or house set apart for the accommodation of travelers, occurs in the account of the return of Jacob's sons from Egypt (); and as it was situated within the confines of that country, and at the first stage from the metropolis, it is probable that the erection of such places of entertainment originated with the Egyptians, who were far superior to all their contemporaries in the habits and the arts of civilized life. The Egyptian inn, where the sons of Israel halted to bait their asses, was probably, from the remote period to which it belonged, of a rude and humble description, in point both of appearance and accommodation; and such is the low state of art, or the tyrannical force of custom in the East, that establishments of this kind in the present day can, with few exceptions, boast of improvements, that render them superior to the mean and naked poverty of those which received the pilgrims of the patriarchal age.
Khan, or karavanserai, is the name which this kind of building bears; and though the terms are often applied indiscriminately, there is an acknowledged distinction, which seems to be, that khan is applied to those which are situated in or near towns, whereas caravanserais (a lodge for caravans, as the compound word imports) is the more appropriate designation of such as are erected in desert and sequestered places. Some of these buildings are provided at the public expense, or owe their existence to devoted Mussulmans, who bestow a portion of their wealth, as a meritorious act of charity, in promoting the comfort and refreshment of pilgrims; while others are erected by the contributions of private merchants for their own accommodation. The latter, of course, are the most spacious, the most elegant, and best appointed; but though varying in character and size, this class of establishments preserves so generally the same uniform plan of construction, that a description of one may serve to convey an idea of all. The caravanserai then is a large edifice presenting the form of a square, the sides of which, about 100 yards in length each, are surrounded by an external wall of fine brickwork, based on stone, rising generally to the height of twenty feet. In the middle of the front wall there is a wide and lofty archway, having on one or both sides a lodge for the porter and other attendants; while the upper part of it, being faced with carving or ornamental mason-work, and containing several rooms, surmounted by elegant domes, is considered the most honorable place of the building, and is therefore appropriated to the use of the better sort. This archway leads into a spacious rectangle, the area forming a courtyard for cattle, in the midst of which is a well or fountain. Along the sides of the rectangle are piazzas extending the whole length, and opening at every few steps into arched and open recesses, which are the entrances into the travelers' apartments. An inner door behind each of these conducts to a small oblong chamber, deriving all its light from the door, or from a small open window in the back wall entirely destitute of furniture, and affording no kind of accommodation in the way of presses or shelves, except some rude niches excavated in the thick walls. This cell is intended for the dormitory of the traveler, who generally prefers, however, the recess in front for sitting in under shade during the daytime, as well as for sleeping in during the night, when the season allows. There being no other door but the entrance arch, each occupant remains isolated in his own quarters, and is cut off from all communication with the other inmates of the caravanserai. But in the middle of one of the three sides, or in large caravanserais of each of the sides, there is a large hall, which serves as a travelers' room, where all may indiscriminately assemble: while at the end of each side there is a staircase leading to the flat roof of the house, where the cool breeze and a view of the surrounding country may be enjoyed. These chambers generally stand on the ground-floor, which is a few feet above the level of the court-yard; but in the few buildings of this sort which have two stories, the travelers are accommodated above, while the under flat is reserved for the use of their servants, or appropriated as warehouses for goods. And in such establishments there is found one other additional advantage in having a supply of servants and cooks, as well as a shop in the porter's house, where all commodities may be procured. Caravanserais of this superior class, however, are rarely to be met with. The most part are but wretched lodging-places—filled, it may be, with dirt and vermin—consisting only of bare walls, in which not an article of furniture is to be seen, nor a cooking utensil to be found, nor provisions of any sort to be obtained for love or money. The traveler must carry along with him, as well as provide with his own hands, whatever is necessary for his use and comfort. He must also subsist on the supply of food and articles of luxury he may have had the foresight to provide, as no addition to his stores can be made till he reaches the next town. In short, in many of the khans or caravanserais to which he may come, he can look for nothing from the keeper except to show him the way to his chamber, and give him the key if it is furnished with a door. One assistance only he may depend upon, and it is no inconsiderable one—that of receiving some attendance and aid if overtaken by sickness; for one of the requisite qualifications for the office is, that the functionary possess a knowledge of simples, and the most approved practice in case of fracture or common ailments. And hence the good Samaritan in the parable (), although he was obliged, in the urgency of the case, himself to apply from his own store a few simple remedies for the relief of the distressed man, left him with full confidence to be treated and nursed by the keeper of the khan, whose assiduities in dressing the wounds and bruises of his patient might be quickened, perhaps, by the liberal remuneration he was promised, as well as by the example of the humane traveler.
Among the Egyptians, and indeed among the ancients generally, the keepers of houses of public entertainment were always women; and hence we can easily account for the ready admission which the spies obtained into the house of Rahab, 'on the wall of Jericho,' situated, as such houses were, for the reception of strangers, for the most part at the gate or entrance into the town (). This woman is called a harlot in our translation, but the original Hebrew admits of being translated by another word, to which no degrading or infamous associations are attached.
Although it is probable that the state of Judea in the time of Christ and the Apostles was, in respect to means of communication, much superior to that of any Oriental country in the present day, yet the warm commendations of hospitality so frequently met with in the works of contemporary classical writers, as well as the pressing exhortations of the inspired Apostle to the practice of that virtue, too plainly prove that travelers were then chiefly dependent on the kindness of private individuals. The strong probability is, that the 'inns' mentioned in the New Testament find their true and correct representations in the Eastern khans and caravanserais of the present day; and that the Jews of that period had experience of nothing better than the bare walls and cell-like apartments of such edifices as we have described above.
This subject acquires additional interest from its connection with the birth of our Lord; and there has been a good deal of controversy both respecting the character of the building from which Mary was excluded by the influx of company, and also the nature of the place where she 'brought forth her first-born son.' No explanation, however, that we have met with, appears so satisfactory, and conveys such an intelligible picture to the eye, as that given by the editor of the Pictorial Bible (); with whose words we shall conclude this article. 'The most complete establishments have very excellent stables in covered avenues, which extend behind the ranges of apartments—that is, between the back wall of these ranges of building and the external wall of the khan; and the entrance to it is by a covered passage at one of the corners of the quadrangle. The stable is on a level with the court, and consequently below the level of the buildings, by the height of the platform on which they stand. Nevertheless, this platform is allowed to project behind into the stable, so as to form a bench, to which the horses' heads are turned, and on which they can, if they like, rest the nose-bag of hair-cloth, from which they eat, to enable them to reach the bottom when its contents get low. It also often happens that not only this bench exists in the stable, but also recesses corresponding to those in front of the apartments, and formed by the side walls which divide the rooms, being allowed to project behind into the stable, just as the projection of the same walls into the great area forms the recesses in front. These recesses in the stable, or the bench if there are no recesses, furnish accommodation to the servants and others who have charge of the beasts; and when persons find on their arrival that the apartments usually appropriated to travelers are already occupied, they are glad to find accommodation in the stable, particularly when the nights are cold or the season inclement. It is evident, then, from this description, that the part of the stable called 'the manger,' could not reasonably have been other than one of those recesses, or at least a portion of the bench which we have mentioned, as affording accommodation to travelers under certain circumstances.'
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Inn'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​i/inn.html.