Falak-ol-Aflak in west-central Iran is one of the most impressive ancient castles in the Middle East and arguably the greatest surviving architectural legacy of the Sassanid Empire. A regional administrative center at the height of the empire, the majority of this fortress, later renovations notwithstanding, dates from pre-medieval times, and it looks much today as it did during the Sassanid period. It thus also bears the distinction of being among the world’s oldest intact castles. Falak-ol-Aflak is also renowned for its relatively advanced engineering, particularly with respect to its water and ventilation systems. It is currently being considered for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Lorestan Province in what is now Iran has been part of the civilized heartlands of Persia since the earliest times. Its strategic location in the relatively hospitable Zagros Mountains and its proximity to the rich and fertile lands of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley made it an attractive target to conquering powers as far back as the early 1st millennium BC. It was absorbed into the succession of Mede, Achamenid, Parthian and Sassanian empires, and was a bastion against the expansion of both the Roman and Byzantine empires.
During the 2nd century AD the Roman Empire reached its zenith, and large parts of the Sassanid Empire were conquered, including Lorestan. In the wake of Roman withdrawal, the Persians began to heavily fortify the region. Among their chief projects was the construction of a massive fortress in Khorramabad, one of the largest cities and most important trading centers in Western Persia. Work started in the early 3rd century AD, and was completed just in time for the fall of the Sassanid Empire. In fact, the fortress was finished in 651, the same year that Arab armies conquered the Sassanids.
At the time of its completion, the Falak-ol-Aflak Fortress was one of the largest and strongest castles in the world. It was perhaps for this reason that Khorramabad, and other areas of the Lorestan Province, managed to stay independent of Islam for so long. Neither the Arabs or Turks, or even the Mongols, managed to ever fully subdue the region. It is perhaps also due to the imposing fortress that Zoroastrianism managed to survive for so long in the area.
Although it did see occasional fighting in its long history, the Falak-ol-Aflak has remained in good shape, and in good use, right down to recent times. For many centuries it continued to be a bastion against incursions from the west, mostly the Turks. When gunpowder weapons finally made the mighty mighty obsolete, it was put to use as a prison in the 19th and 20th centuries. For a brief period it also became a symbol of the tyranny of the Pahlavi dynasty. It has since been reclaimed by the people of Iran as a national treasure. Completely renovated, it now hosts countless visitors annually as one of Iran’s most popular, non-religious historical sites.
For its age, the Falak-ol-Aflak Fortress is surprisingly intact. Built on a tall hill, the battlements of the fortress absolutely dominate the surrounding residential districts of Khorramabad. Its outer wall was once more than a mile in circumference, and in some places tops out at over seventy feet in height. Eight of the fortress’ original twelve towers are still intact. At one time a second battlement surrounded the first, though little remains of this additional defensive structure.
The Falak-ol-Aflak Fortress is famous for its water and ventilation systems, which were remarkably advanced for the Sassanid period. It is perhaps for these reasons that the fortress remains so amazingly intact to the present day. The main well in the central courtyard is still in use after many centuries. An intricate canal system that runs under much of the structure allowed the foundations to breathe with a natural dehumidifier, helping to preserve the castle from the devastating effects of weathering.
The Falak-ol-Aflak Fortress is located in the very heart of Khorramabad, approximately 180 miles west of Esfahan and 180 miles southwest of Teheran. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.tourismiran.ir (official tourism website of Iran)
The mountains of west-central Iran were the traditional heartlands of the various Persian empires in antiquity. The Sassanids in particular left behind a legacy of castles and fortifications scattered throughout the region. Among the relatively more intact survivors are the Ghal’eh Dokhtar Castle in Fars and Narin Castle in Nain.