ARound Najaf: The khans of old downtown

About the Author
Dr Turath Jamil
Dr Turath Jamil is a Paris-based architect from Baghdad, and this article was originally part of his PhD thesis research. He works with 5-cinq, and recently obtained his PhD in art history at Sorbonne University. He is also a coordinator for Tamayouz Excellence Award.

In part six of Round City’s ARound: Najaf series, Iraqi -French architect and doctor Turath Jamil examines the city’s historic khans.

Historically, the term ‘khan’ was used to refer to buildings that served traveling caravans on commercial roads. Later, though, this term expanded to encompass building storehouses and hotels in the Middle East, starting in the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. Since Najaf has long been a main destination for religious tourism, it contained many khans that welcomed visitors and served as commercial exchange points.

On the way to Najaf from Karbala, several khans on the right side of the road still remain. These khans, which are different from urban khans, played an essential role in serving commercial caravans, along with the visitors of Imam Ali. The buildings are composed of at least one inner court surrounded by a strong wall that features arches and houses rooms. The courtyards were used to gather the caravans (of animals and goods), while the rooms accommodated the travelers. With the rise of vehicle use in Najaf, roadside khans became obsolete and the buildings slowly stopped being used by travelers. Ever since, many were demolished or left to neglect.

Khan al-Rubu’, located on the road from Karbala to Najaf

In Najaf’s old downtown, historical sources mention that the urban khans up until the 20th century numbered around 20. The majority were built during the 17th and 19th centuries. However, the first one was built in 895 (mentioned only in the historical sources), and it featured a wall composed of 70 arches used as rooms for visitors.

Aerial view of Najaf

The architecture of the khans developed over time to have a square or rectangular inner court surrounded by a strong wall composed of rooms and facilities to accommodate users. They were similar to the roadside khans, but smaller. Usually, the khan also contained a well and common spaces to tend to the needs of the visitors and their caravans. Because of their shape and size, the khans were usually built next to the city wall or the Mausoleum of Imam Ali. To absorb the flow and the high number of visitors during religious holidays, many other buildings were built and the city wall also contained rooms used by visitors, which followed the same shape of the rooms composing the actual wall of the mausoleum. This phenomenon confirms the theory that the main function of the mausoleum’s spaces was to provide rooms for the visitors of Imam Ali, but later they were given other functions, like student dormitories, burial spaces and offices.

Read more: ARound Najaf

In pictures taken in 1919 by the British air force, a few khans at the gate of the city can be identified. These khans were used to welcome tourists who arrived after sunset, as the city closes it gate. This overall organisation endured until the mid-20th century, but with the development of a modern transportation system, visitors no longer needed to stay overnight, and if so, they would often opt for hotels. While hotels offered more modern comforts, the rise of land value also led to the demolition of all the khans within the city except Khan al-Shilan, which became the first official museum in the city.

Some details about the origins of Khan al-Shilan are known today – for example, we know that it was built within five years and completed in 1899 by architect (or al-Asta) al-Said Ahmed Zaki. Evidently, the khan was open for free use by visitors. Then, at the beginning of World War I, the Ottoman army transformed the building into a military casern, which was later used by the British upon their arrival in 1917. In 1918, the Najafi started a revolution against the British and took control of the khan, turning it into their base, as well as a prison for British soldiers.

Today, Khan al-Shilan is the last well-preserved architectural witness of such buildings in Iraq. From the outside, the building looks like a rectangular brick fortress. There is one wooden entrance recently rehabilitated and decorated from the inside with blue glazed tiles. The interior of the building follows a typical plan: an inner court surrounded by rooms. Originally, each one of the rooms on the ground floor gave access directly to the inner court, but with the recent rehabilitation, the plan was modified to create a visitor’s path to the museum that starts from the right side of the entrance and stretches around the building.

On both sides of the khan sit two big iwans used to gather visitors at night for storytelling or simple exchanges. The iwans are now closed with wooden barricades or transformed into exhibition rooms along with most of the rooms on the ground floor. The first floor contains the same number of rooms, and some feature markings made by the British soldiers who were held here during the revolution.

Today, we can still save the remaining khans. Khan al-Shilan is a great example of conservation effort in Najaf’s old downtown, but new functions can also be given to the roadside khans to serve tourists visiting the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The millions who walk from all over Iraq towards these two destinations can be housed and accommodated in rehabilitated khans. Other cultural activities can also be held in these buildings, which would help raise the necessary funds.