Caravansary: Palace of the Cultural Crossroads

For us Burners, with the New Year comes a sea change from the domestic warmth of the holidays (and its subsequent hangover) to a reinvigoration of our collective creative and nomadic drives. The wanderlust and desire for expression returns anew, and the keystone of that transformation -presently, at least for this writer- is the announcement of the theme for Burning Man 2014: Caravansary.

Caravansary Artwork for the 2014 Theme for Burning Man
Caravansary Artwork for the 2014 Theme for Burning Man

I’ll admit when I first encountered the art accompanying the missive from Jackrabbit Speaks the first conception I had was of some inventive portmanteau of the words “caravan” and “anniversary” – an idea alit in my mind of some annual fete of travelling merchants commemorating a successful expedition upon their return home. Not an inapplicable concept for our yearly return HOME, but much more elucidation was to follow within the message attached. The first line of text in the commentary was a quote mentioning the “Silk Road” – a fascinating collection of mercantile routes connecting East and West, which facilitated a cross-cultural exchange of ideas, spirituality and art from antiquity into the medieval era. I’ll admit that my interest was immediately piqued, for I had a History class in college based entirely on this period and region, and I found it engrossing beyond measure. Add in some obvious parallels between these Silk Routes and Burning Man, which has increasingly become a cross-cultural mecca in this new epoch of global connectedness, and I’m convinced that this year’s theme is one of the most elegant demonstrations of what our meta-culture is all about.

Caravanserai by Pascal Coste
Caravanserai of Mother of Shah Sultan Hussein by Pascal Coste

The Oxford English dictionary defines a “caravansary” (also spelled “caravanserai”) historically as “an inn with a central courtyard for travelers in the desert regions of Asia or North Africa.” A secondary definition refers to the notion of communal travel, and an etymological breakdown of the Persian root indicates a “palace” for “caravans.” Caravansaries were historically places where desert travelers could gather within protective structures at waypoints in their marathon treks, and naturally this led to an intimate commingling of cultures, as people from far-flung places met face-to-face in the open air. Cities grew up around the most useful and convenient oases, with large portions of their populations ambulating along the roads. Thus developed syncretic Greek style Buddhist statues in Gandhara (today Peshawar, Pakistan), and the adoption of agricultural and artistic trades of the Chinese by the interspersed nomads. Much like we all find inspiration with how others create art, express themselves, and find elegant solutions in the harsh climate of Black Rock City, so did these trailblazers of cultural exchange.

Edwin Lord Weeks Caravan
A painting by Edwin Lord Weeks of a caravansary outside of Morocco.

One potential sticking point I anticipate with this year’s theme is the fact that the Silk Road was based upon commerce, a paradigm from which we endeavor greatly to unburden ourselves at Burning Man. There could be the anxious thought that ever more Burgins might confuse our gift economy with a barter system due in part to visions of transitory traders. But to be fair, there is an entire economy based on catering to traveling Burners – just ask anyone who lives in Reno – and the fact is we all have to spend greatly to get to the Playa. So none of us, in my estimation, has completely freed ourselves from the leviathan of commercialism. The point, in my mind, is that both the Silk Road and Burning Man transcend the idea of human life based in economic relations, and ascend to something greater and more altruistic. Those nomads may not have had the intent to change the world, but they fundamentally altered the course of history and culture. On the Playa we have set in place principles designed to foster a new paradigm of community divorced from the quotidian, value-based exchanges of the “default world,” and encourage an open forum for self-expression and artistic creation wherein each individual is celebrated for their part. Will we change the world in some modicum of the way the Silk Road travelers did? I believe we already have, but it still remains to be seen whether it will be towards a lasting effect.

Taklamakan desert caravan
A camel caravan trekking through the Taklamakan desert.

I find myself deeply inspired by Caravansary and the poetic synthesis it finds with our already existent community ethos. I’m already having visions of whirling dervishes, gypsy entertainers, Bactrian camel art cars, Langdon Warner costumes (the real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones, who some consider a consummate historian while others regard as not more than a looter), Byzantine architecture, Chinese pagodas, Mughal warriors, Buddhist pilgrims, oodles of silk, phantasmagoric caravans, and of course communal fires where we can gather and find catharsis together.

Whirling Dervishes
Whirling Dervishes

If the journey really is the destination, as it certainly is for yours truly, then our caravansary, our oasis, and our cultural mecca is to be found in Black Rock City. As we traverse in our caravans to our arid palace, let’s be grateful that our desert is not the Taklamakan, and have respect for the travelers who braved the trail from its scorching wastes to the heights of the Hindu Kush mountains and forged the first “information superhighway.”



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