As the global migration crisis worsens,there has been much scaremongering over caravans.
The word “caravan” describes a company of merchants, pilgrims and other travellers in the East or in northern Africa, moving together for security, especially through the desert, with animals such as horses, camels or elephants for the carriage of provisions. Originally from the Persian kārwān (“trader” or “dealer”), it entered European languages via the Arabic “qairawan”, in encounters during the Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries, in the Crusader states founded in the Levant, whose populations communicated in vernacular forms of French, Italian, Greek, Armenian and Arabic.
“The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on” is a saying in many languages across the Levant.
The earliest record in Western languages, from the second half of the 12th century, is the medieval Latin “carvana”/ “caravana”/ “karavenna”. This developed as the French “caravane” and the Italian “caravana”, from which it entered English in the 1590s.
This is emblematic of how Persian words entered English throughout history – through various, sometimes circuitous, routes. Long before the Crusades, cultural contacts between Persians and ancient Greeks and Romans introduced words, such as “pistachio”, into Greek and Latin, and from there, into English.
From the late 16th century, with England’s trade presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, a few Persian words – such as “Pasha” – came via Ottoman Turkish. With Persian the official language of the Mughal empire in the Indian subcontinent from the mid-16th century, and Urdu – a form of Hindustani with vocabulary from Persian, Arabic and Turkic – being the language of the elite, many Persian words entered English during British rule, “khaki” being one example.
Returning to “caravan”, the word’s scope expanded in the late-17th century to refer to a covered vehicle carrying passengers – later clipped to van – and, in the United States from the mid-18th century, to include traders or migrants, with their wagons, mules or packhorses. Subsequently, caravan came to mean a house on wheels, as in the travelling home of gypsies or a showman, and, in contemporary times, one towed by a motor car, used as a recreational dwelling.
Regularly organised caravans of the non-profit group Pueblo Sin Fronteras (“People Without Borders”) represent the rights to freedom of movement and to seek asylum – and not, as some politicians contend, to pose a security threat.