TEHRAN – A bridge between eastern and western parts of the world, Iran is home to countless ancient fortresses which draw the attention of thousands of sightseers and researchers each year.
Visitors may conjure up scenes of the past when soldiers and their commanders benefited from those fortified structures in an ever-changing world of invasion and conquest.
Forts and fortresses were normally constructed in every corner of the vast country along significant routes predominantly on heights overlooking steep slopes or cliffs.
Many of them were built using modest material such as stone, mud-brick, and mortar so that often leaving them no more than mounds of dirt for today’s archaeologists.
Below, we have rounded up 10 most famous ones that are worth visiting at least once:
Visiting Qa’leh Babak, the ruined ramparts of the Babak fortress, is a cultural trip to the lair of 9th-century Iranian hero Babak Khorramdin who fought against Arab invaders until he died in 838 CE.
The crumbling ramparts of the fortress loom while one approaches the village of Kaleybar in East Azarbaijan province. It is a must-see as the views of the citadel and the surrounding mountains are simply breathtaking.
Occupying a cultural position somewhere between King Arthur and Robin Hood, the fortress can be reached via several access paths, though the normal route ascends stairs behind the seasonal Babak Hotel. After a short, stiff climb, the end of the stairs, and the views shine as you follow a muddy track, traversing gently to the right before climbing steeply to a hut that sells drinks in summer. Continue sidling right and ascending, and you’ll eventually see the stone steps of the cleft. Remember where you join the stone path, as you’ll need to return the same way. There are no signs, though the route is fairly obvious. Bring sunscreen in summer and be prepared for icy conditions in winter.
The fort consists of several stone towers and lodging areas stretched in a space of nearly ten thousand square meters and the origins of the monument are said to date from the Sassanid era (224–651).
Nested on a conical cliff, Qa’leh Dokhtar is now a ruined fortress rampart which is situated near Firouzabad-Kavar road in southeastern Kerman province.
Qa’leh Dokhtar (literally meaning the Maiden Castle) was made upon the order of Ardashir I, the founder of the Sasanian Empire (224–651) in 209 CE. The fortified palace contains many of the recurring features of Sasanian architecture such as long halls, arches, domes, recessed windows, and stairways.
Narratives suggest the monument is named after the ancient Iranian goddess Anahita, to whom the term “Maiden” refers.
The entrance to the castle is through a tall gateway within a large, rectangular tower. Inside, a broad stairway leads up to a rectangular hall, with blind niches on either side of two large buttresses at the east end.
Cuddled on top of a hill, the fabled ruin of Alamut Castle is situated in a relatively remote village amidst the Alborz mountain range.
The access path to the well-fortified castle starts about 700m beyond the little cherry-growing village of Gazor Khan. It was once sheltering the followers of Hasan-e Sabbah (1070–1124), spiritual leader of Islam’s heretical Ismaili sect, known as ‘Assassins’. In popular myth, Sabbah led a bizarre, much-feared mercenary organization whose members were dispatched to murder or kidnap leading political and religious figures of the day.
In the early 1930s, British-Italian explorer and travel writer Freya Stark described her exploration of the place in her book “The Valleys of the Assassins”.
The Seljuk-era fortress of Qal’eh Rudkhan defends a steep, wooded spur of the Alborz mountain range some 50km south of Rasht and makes a pleasant day trip, especially when coupled with a visit to nearby Masuleh. Occupying an area of about 50,000 square meters, this medieval structure which is made of brick and stone has been built on two sides of a jagged rocky region so its architecture benefits from natural mountainous features.
Archaeological evidence, uncovered by digging, indicates the foundation of the structure was built in the Sasanian era (224–651) and rebuilt in the Seljuk era (ca. 1040–1157).
To access the castle one has to go through a hilly winding route in a dense forest. Upon arrival a big entrance gate flanked by relatively tall towers welcomes visitors.
Arg-e Bam and its cultural landscape are highly regarded as an outstanding example of an ancient fortified settlement built in vernacular technique using mud layers.
Located on the southern edge of the Iranian high plateau, in Kerman province, the massive fortress and its environs were almost completely brought down to earth due to a devastating earthquake on December 26, 2003. The origins of the adobe fort can be traced back to the Achaemenid period (6th to 4th centuries BC) and even beyond. The ensemble was at crossroads of important trade routes as well in its heyday sometime between the 7th to 11th centuries.
However, most of what visitors now see at the site are exact replicas of the original structure being restored from 2004 onwards.
Narratives say the monument is named after the ancient goddess Anahita, to whom the term “Maiden” refers.
Located in the ruins of the ancient city of Susa in the Khuzestan province, the relatively-new Shush Castle was constructed by French archaeologist Jean-Marie Jacques de Morgan in the late 1890s, as a secure base for archaeological exploration and excavation.
The castle is similar to medieval monuments in France. However, it was built by local craftsmen with bricks taken from two other archaeological sites, the Achaemenid Darius/Dariush castle and the Elamite Choqazanbil ziggurat.
De Morgan managed to convince the French government of the time of the necessity of sponsoring the construction of the stronghold, which was used as a haven for his team and a place to carry out their studies.
Another impressive fortress-citadel of the country, Arg-e Rayen is a castle within a castle where visitors may walk through its dark passages and hidden inner courtyards.
Situated on the margins of a harsh desert near the ancient city of Rayen, the adobe fort still stands tall despite several earthquakes and other natural disasters, which have been flattened similar nearby structures.
Covering an area of about 20,000 square meters, the castle was inhabited until 150 years ago. The history of life in Rayen is said to date from the times of the Sasanian dynasty and even deeper.
Constructed in prehistorical times, Qa’leh Zahak served as a government building and a fire temple during the Parthian era (247 BC – 224 CE).
In those years, Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the ruling kings, who likely used part of the fort as a fire temple.
The fortress bears depictions of animals and bizarre symbols. Moreover, it includes a square-shaped hall made of bricks.
It is unidentified why the fort is named Zahhak. However, narratives say Zahhak was the name of an Arab king who conquered parts of Iran.
Later, the fortress was served as a military post given its position close to the Iranian border with other nations in the northwest, including Turkey and Armenia.
The decaying Qal’eh Portoghaliha was constructed in the early 16th century by Portuguese colonizers. It is now a tourist attraction where you can soak up the silence while traveling through time.
Made from reddish stones on a rocky promontory at the north end of the island, the castle was cut off from the rest of the island by a moat, traces of which remain. The stronghold involves an arms depot, water reservoir, barrack, prison, church, command center, and central hall.
Muscular-looking walls, chambers, and archways as well as sets of rusting cannons in the courtyard still give the area a scenic beauty. A subterranean church featuring vaulted ceilings, a watchtower, and a submerged cistern are amongst other attractions of the site. Also, the upper levels of the fort offer wonderful views of the island, its village, rugged mountains all surrounded by the blue waters of the Persian Gulf.
History of the Portuguese Castle of Hormuz Island goes down in time when Commander Afonso de Albuquerque ordered the construction of a fortress in 1507 after his troops capture the island in the early 16th century.
For visitors, it seems to be easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of Portuguese military forces five centuries ago!
Situated in the southeast of Tehran province, Qal’eh Iraj (also known as Gabri fort by the locals) was once one of the largest military fortresses of ancient times.
Archaeological estimates suggest the crumbling fortress dates from the Sassanid era (224–651), however, some experts believe it belongs to the time of Kayanids, a semi-mythological dynasty that is mentioned in the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi’s magnum opus.
Measuring about 3,000 square meters in area, the fortress has lost its towers some centuries ago – maybe by erosion, and only lengthy and tall clay ramparts have been left. Based on evidence from excavations in 2008, archaeologists believe that the Iraj fortress was likely abandoned shortly after construction.