Zahak Castle (Qaleh Azhdehak)
By: Babak Amin Tafreshi
From every side Zahak Castle is surrounded by mountains and long plains bedecked with wild red anemones. At a distance one can see the railway and the railway station. At the depth of the valley like a snake a twisting river comes from west, makes a circle and follows the railway towards east. As if the mountain underneath is like a giant statue of Arab Zahak and the two banks of the river are the dreadful snakes growing from the monsters shoulders. This is the landscape of a mountain which has preserved one of the Iranian ancient sites for thousands of years.
Although wars, march of time and plunderers of cultural heritage have not permitted this ancient castle to stand upright, still it retains works from several decades before the Islamic period which is interesting for study.
|Mural decoration found on the Zahak Castle site
Hashtrood Zahak Castle is lying beside the railway coming from Tehran to Tabriz several kilometers east of Khorassanak railway station. The best way to reach the castle either from Tehran or Tabriz is the railway. The surface roads from Tehran to Tabriz deviates from that route and 63 km past Mianeh in Qareh Chaman (Siah Chaman) village, an asphalt side road stretches to Sar Eskand and Hashtrood. A 14 km dirt road links Sar Eskand with Khorassanak village and from Khorassanak onward one must follow the railway route or walk over the mountain to reach the castle. Therefore, the best route to arrive Khorassanak is the railway which takes 8 hours to reach that station from Tehran.
Arabloo village sits north of Zahak Castle mountainous area. But from a big plain above the village (south of Toolkeh Dashi Mountain, 1770 m high) and Zahak Castle it is obstructed by a deep valley which does not possess any safe or short passage to the castle. Qaranqoo river flowing from the lower elevation of the valley circles Zahak Castle like a moat. The only bridge to reach the area is the railway bridge, and should you arrive at the castle from another direction you must take the risk of walking through the chilly Qaranqoo river.
The main basin of Qaranqoo originates from the southwestern skirts of Sahand Mountain. Other rivers such as Sareskandar and Shoorchay join Qaranqoo near Khorassanak. After crossing this pass Qaranqoo stretches to Minasar and joins the Qezel Ozoon river near the railway.
The shortest route from the railway station to the castle is to pursue the railway towards east. At a near distance from the station and after passing the gorge from a river that seasonally flows in the area, the railway enters into a long tunnel. All the tunnels in the area are narrow but at each 50 meters intervals there is a special clearing which serves as a safety resort for people. Thus passage from that path is not so dangerous. Nevertheless outside the tunnel and at the right margin linked to the tunnel one can see a winding path. Past the tunnel we come across the bridge over Qaranqoo river and another tunnel cuts into Zahak Castle mountain.
After crossing the bridge you can walk from an ancient route beside the river which leads to Zahak Castle at a lower slope. This is visible when the water is low. But the shortest way from that point is to climb the sharp slope above the tunnel leading to the southern part of the mountain and Esmaeelieh Fort. Meanwhile there is another winding path which lessens your fatigue by exhibiting rare and beautiful landscapes and saves you from Qaranqoo's chilly water. Before the first tunnel you can gradually ascend the mountain top and then march towards east. Here endless plains and fanciful mountains render a bewitching landscape.
From distance one can spot the pavilion of the castle which is the only ancient building which stands intact in the area. The river has separated the Zahak Castle's mountain wing from the route. Therefore, you must walk to the foot of the river and pass that point. The northern wing of the path is facing a wooded valley which is the habitat of many wild boars, eagles and other birds of prey. Also big hecatombs are visible in the road here and there which are the dwelling quarters of boars and foxes. From the mouth of the mountain several hundred meters above the valley (at northwest) and amid a mass of trees a small cave exists with a clear tiny spring which feeds the beasts in the region or those who visit the castle with its meager water.
British colonel Monteith was the first explorer who spoke about the remains of the ancient fort in 1830. After him Rawlinson, the well known orientalist, who had deciphered the Bisetoon inscription, visited Zahak Castle and declared that this was a Sassanid monument.
The extent of the buildings at Zahak Castle at the north-southern junction is more than one kilometers. The highest mountainous peak at Zahak Castle is 1805 m. This mountain is equipped with two high mounds in between a deep valley. If you ascend the slight sloppy old road beside the river, you will arrive at this part of the building. At the southern side one can spot the remains of Esmaeelieh Fort which (Mohammad Taqi Mostafavi believed) is one of the forts that the Esmaeelieh sect conquered in their wars; but the fort must surely possess a more older background. The walls of the castle are built of broken stones and plaster of lime and ash. Such a method of architecture was prevalent in the Sassanid buildings such as the Lambsar Esmaeelieh Fort in Razmian (Roudbar, Alamut) or a smaller building like Qaleh Dokhtar (the daughter's fort) in Mianeh and near this region. The battlement of the castle is made of two layers and at the southern section is capped with round towers of which little has survived. The wall stretches to east and to the river. After that the castle is built at the southern wing. The central section has been converted into residential quarter.
This mountain has housed different civilizations from the second millennium B.C. up to several centuries A.D. If you walk towards the northern mound from the middle cavity you will see a layer of stone walls without mortar. These walls in fact used to serve as the prehistoric battlements of Zahak Fort and date back to the second millennium B.C. The prominent rectangular brow on the battlement is still visible. The entrance gate is located at the end of the western wing and near the valley slope. Remnants of this ancient wall is visible here and there at the northern wing of the castle and where no such walls can be traced the mountain or a sharp slope serves as a wall. Near the prehistoric stone fence earthenwares as old as the second millennium B.C. have been discovered which are related to Median and Achamenid periods. Many of these wares meanwhile belong to the Parthian Dynasty, but few Sassanian earthenware have been unearthed.
The pavilion of Zahak Castle is sitting at the brink of the eastern precipice bordering Qaranqoo river and facing southern mountains. This valuable building has survived from the Parthian period. Although it resembles Sassanian penthouses from distance, it is not a ritual building. Astonishingly enough, the foundation of the building made of broken stone and plaster of lime and ash is laid at the brink of the precipice.
The building is 9.1 meters from north to south and 9 meters from east to west. The inside halls are 5.8 x 5.9 m in size. The whole building is made of baked bricks with 6 x 32 x 32 cm size which have been fastened to each other with mortar.
What is interesting is that all these bricks are laid on each other perpendicularly and from length. The southern and western arches used to be open. The landscape at this wing is quite open and one can see the river and the southern mountains at a great distance. The ancient Azarbaijan roads to Ekbatan (Hamedan) used to pass near this fort. This proves that the pavilion served as a watchtower. But the eastern wing of the castle is closed and the entrance gate opens at the northern wing. Therefore, surely this is not a Sassanid building. At the eastern enclosed section or the other half of south, a window opens to the east.
Shipmani, the well known archaeologist, visited this building in 1964 and mistakenly stated that the roof was dome-like whereas in fact it is a cylinder arch. After the collapse of the northern wall the front of this arch has also fallen. On the other hand the size of the cylinder arch was exactly the same as the southern arch whereas the northern wing is closed. The building gate is 2.5 m in size and is placed at the northern wing and the whole interior is adorned with plaster and varnish.
At the upper outside section, an ornamental inscription adorned with continued spiral images and three sided cavities, circles the building like a belt. Many of these inscriptions were adorned by plaster in the past particularly at the western facing which was disintegrated. This continued cavities are the main elements of Achamenid architecture. Meanwhile innovations such as the plaster ornamented Mitra broken cross or another additional cavity existed. During the inspection of the building by a German archaeological team two decades ago, plaster works of granulated leaves were discovered.
Beside the northern pavilion the remnants of many chambers have survived. The immense size of the building shows that it was perhaps a palace. Meanwhile a piece of wall built of broken stone and plaster of lime has been discovered in the nearby plain which might be an extension of this Sassanian or Parthian building. Following unauthorized excavations between the prehistoric gate and the pavilion, a series of underground buildings were unearthed which were mostly related to the Parthian period. At times the weeds grown in the castle are burnt so that they will not damage the underground relics which have remained unexplored as yet.
At the cavity of the northwestern rock a spring used to exit which nowadays is dry in summer.
Minorski believes that Zahak Castle might be the same Fanasapa which has been quoted by Ptolmy. Since this castle is the only important Parthian relic between Azarbaijan and Ekbatan, this statement might be true.
When spring arrives many visitors flock to the caste to inspect the castle and the beautiful landscape around or to reap the pharmaceutical herbs. At times groups of travelers pitch their tents in the vast and green vested plains in the area to benefit from the pure air and inspect the monument.
- German archeological team, a report on Iranian archeology, translated by Soroosh Habibi, 1975.
- Archeological Iranic VIII, 1967.
- Behrooz Khamachi, historical castles in Azarbaijan, 1993.
- Zahak Castle, Wolfarm Clice, cultural heritage monthly Nos. 8 and 9, Faramarz Najd Samie.