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IRANIAN ARCHITECTURE: PARTHIAN DYNASTY

The Parthian Zahak Castle


 

By: Babak Amin Tafreshi

 

 

Abstarct: The Hashtrood' Zahak Castle is lying beside Tehran-Tabriz railway, several kilometers east of Khorassanak railway station. The highest mountainous peak of Zahak Castle is 1805 m. This is the only important monument that has survived from the Parthian period within the route stretching from Azarbaijan to Ekabatan (Hamedan). The foundation of the building is laid at a craggy precipice from a layer of broker and plaster of lime and ashes. The whole building is constructed of baked bricks placed on each other from length.

 

 


 

Zahak Castle in Hashtrud2 WM.png (1149041 bytes)

Zahak Castle in Hashtrud1 WM.png (2964509 bytes)

  (Click to enlarge)

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 Zahak, the villain of Iranian mythology 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.


Hashtrood Zahak Castle is lying beside the railway coming from Tehran to Tabriz several kilometres 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.

Arablu village sits north of Zahak Castle mountainous area. But from a big plain above the village (south of Toolkeh Dashi Mountain, 1770m high) and Zahak Castle it is protected 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. 


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 taught to be a Sassanid monument.


The extent of the buildings at Zahak Castle at the north-southern junction is more than one kilometre. The highest mountainous peak at Zahak Castle is 1805m. This mountain is equipped with two high mounds in between a deep valley. If one ascends 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 Isma'ilit 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 Parthian and 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 Achaemenid periods. Many of these wares meanwhile belong to the Parthian Dynasty, but few Sasanian 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 6x32x32cm 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 Ecbatana (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 Achaemenid architecture. Meanwhile innovations such as the plaster ornamented Mithra broken cross (Swastika) 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 Parthian building. Following illegal excavations by smugglers between the prehistoric gate and the pavilion, a series of underground buildings were unearthed which were mostly related to the Arsacid dynastic 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 Ptolemy. Since this castle is the only important Parthian relic between Azarbaijan and Ecbatana, this statement might be true.


References:

German archaeological team, a report on Iranian archaeology, translated by Soroosh Habibi, 1975.

Archaeological Iranic VIII, 1967.

Behrooz Khamachi, historical castles in Azarbaijan, 1993

Zahak Castle, Wolfarm Clice, cultural heritage monthly Nos. 8 and 9, Faramarz Najd Samie.

 

 

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Keywords: Parthian, Arsacid, Askhkanian, Zahhak, Zahal, Hashtrud, Hashtrood, Hashtroud, Architecture 

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