Asia’s 45 million square kilometres of jungles, deserts, steppes, rivers, and plains cradle some of the oldest civilizations on Earth. And when civilizations have sweeping tracks of land surrounded by a lot of neighbours, they build castles.
From mountain mansions mantled in myth to forgotten fortresses that founded dynasties, these venerable citadels whisper their stories even today. Of course, the winds of time grind down even the strongest of walls.
So we teamed up with graphic designers and architects to visually reconstruct six extraordinary ruined castles from across Asia.
Alamut Castle, Alamut Valley, Iran
In 1090, Imam Hassan-i Sabbāh supposedly conquered the castle without shedding a drop of blood. The new state secured its power with targeted attacks on enemy leaders. Those who perpetrated these attacks were derogatorily referred to as “Hashashin” (“riotous herbage”), thus giving birth to the word “Assassin.” Ironically, Alamut’s fame led to its demise; its various conquerors demolished the castle as they searched for legendary assassin treasure.
Alamut Rock is a popular day-hike which offers an eagle-eyed view of the surrounding country. However, not much remains of Alamut castle itself; its few surviving stone nubs are covered in scaffolding while the Iranian government attempts to partially restore it for tourists.
The Old Summer Palace, Beijing, China
The Yuanming Yuan—known in the Western World as the Old Summer Palace—was not a single building but a 3.5 square kilometre complex of palaces, lakes, gardens, towers, and sculptures. The pride of the Qing Dynasty, Yuanming Yuan, was largely destroyed by British and French forces in retaliation for the death of a British envoy during the Second Opium War. Further destruction occurred during the Boxer Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution.
We have chosen here to reconstruct the Yuanming Yuan’s Haiyantang (The Palace of Calm Seas). In front of a two-story western-style palace, a water clock was surrounded by the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Today, the seashell centrepiece of the fountain sits inside the outline of its former depression, backed by a gap-toothed vista of tumbled palace columns.
Hagi Castle, Hagi, Japan
The Mōri Samurai clan lost to Tokugawa in the Battle of Sekigahara, and as a result had to rebuild their capital in the small seaside city of Hagi. The Mōri got their revenge, however. The castle became the capital of the Chōshū Domain, which was instrumental in the eventual overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Ironically, the castle was dismantled by the new government in 1874 as part of a policy of centralization and modernization.
Hagi was quite formidable in its day. Multiple baileys and walls protect the surrounding land, many of which still can be seen. The main wooden keep was dismantled, but its stone base and part of its moat endure. Higher up the mountain, the remains of a fallback keep can be found.
Citadel of Ghazni, Ghazni, Afghanistan
The former slave Sebüktigin was granted governorship of Ghazni in 977, but he promptly rebelled against his ruling Iranian overlords to found the Ghazni Empire. Ghazni became the military linchpin of Afghanistan, sought after by history’s VIP conquerors from Timur (Tamerlane) to the Mongols. When the citadel was famously conquered by the British in 1839, Afghani leadership was required to flee Kabul. It was also used as a military base by America after 2001.
The remains of the citadel perch atop a central hill overlooking the walled city. However, neglect, war, and weather have heavily damaged Ghazni. 14 of its original 32 towers have collapsed, one as recently as 2019. Today, Ghazni’s walls, towers, and citadel are in danger of being lost to the winds of time for good.
Raigad Fort, Raigad, Maharashtra, India
Though parts of the structure date back to 1030 AD, Raigad’s already impressive fortifications were expanded by Shivaji Maharaj. Shivaji was crowned Chhatrapati (“Umbrella Lord”) here in 1674, establishing the Maratha Confederacy in opposition to the Mughal Empire. The Confederacy would control Raigad until its destruction at the hands of the British East India Company in 1818.
The main entrance to the castle is 820 meters above sea-level—a climb of 1737 steps. (Fortunately, there is now an aerial tramway.) Visitors can still view the remains of two of the three watchtowers, several reservoirs, stone merchant stalls, and a famous wall named Hirakani Buruj.
Takeda Castle, Asago, Hyōgo, Japan
Takeda was built in the 15th century by “the Red Monk”— a man partially responsible for plunging Japan into the century of chaos known as the Sengoku period. The fortress was eventually conquered by Toyotomi Hideyoshi during reunification. After Hideyoshi’s death, the new Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu accused the castle’s final lord of arson during a pivotal battle. From here, Takeda fell into disrepair.
Today, the ruins of the castle sit 353 meters above sea level. Though no buildings are left standing on the mountain itself, a row of temples has survived by the base. The stone foundations of the castle are well-kept, having undergone minor restorations in the late 20th century. Because of a seasonal fog which fills the valley, some mornings Takeda appears to float above the clouds.
A Visual Walk Through History
The castles of Asia sing of the legacies of those who built them, lived in them, and defended them. One day, it will be safe to visit these tumbled stones and sand-blasted foundations in person again. Until then, reconstructing these beautiful buildings digitally breathes new life into their tales of tragedy, beauty, glory, and courage.
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