Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
ARCHITECTURE: PARTHIAN DYNASTY
Parthian Zahak Castle
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.
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
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
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
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
archaeological team, a report on Iranian archaeology, translated by
Soroosh Habibi, 1975.
Iranic VIII, 1967.
Khamachi, historical castles in Azarbaijan, 1993
Castle, Wolfarm Clice, cultural heritage monthly Nos. 8 and 9,
Faramarz Najd Samie.
Parthian, Arsacid, Askhkanian, Zahhak, Zahal, Hashtrud,
Hashtrood, Hashtroud, Architecture
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies