When you think of Iran, do you think of lonely, windswept medieval castles clinging to the tops of craggy peaks? No? Well, you should, because north-western Iran is full of them. And Babak Castle is the best of the lot.
Who was Babak?
Babak Khorramdin was a famous rebel leader from the Azerbaijan region of north-western Iran. Babak led a 23-year long campaign against the Islamic caliphate that ruled Persia in the 9th Century CE.
Babak’s rebel organisation – they called themselves the Khurramites – resented the process of Islamisation that occurred in Persia following the Arab Conquest in the 8th Century CE.
Babak (pronounced Bay-bek) was of Azeri Turkic roots, and he was a proud Zoroastrian.
The Islamisation of Persia was a threat to his – and his follower’s – religious, cultural, and political freedoms.
The Khurramites fought back. They wanted to oust the Islamic leaders, and engaged in many bloody battles over the years. Despite suffering heavy casualties they mostly came out on top.
The rebel campaign continued for more than two decades. Babak’s stronghold throughout this period was the lonely, windswept, heavily-fortified Babak Castle. This part of the Azerbaijan region of Iran came to known as Babak’s land.
The rebel leader was eventually caught by an Armenian prince, who sold him for a handsome sum to the Islamic caliphate.
Babak was executed in 838 CE; he was disemboweled while still alive, and had a cow’s head sown on top of his own to ridicule his memory.
The hike to Babak Castle
There are several routes that lead to Babak Castle. Ami and I hiked from a trailhead 7km outside of the town Kaleybar. This is the most popular way to reach Babak Castle.
Kaleybar is a 2.5 – 3 hour drive from Tabriz (it’s a long drive, but on the plus side the route takes you through the scenic Rainbow Mountains).
It’s a two to three hour hike from the trailhead to the castle. The climb starts in rolling, treeless slopes, and progresses into rocky mountain ridges that were still snow-covered when we visited in April.
On that note, it began to snow while we were hiking to the castle; so make sure you bring decent winter clothing.
There are no signs to guide the way, and no formal path to follow till you reach the lower fortifications.
The trail is steep and slippery, especially in the icy patches. Take care. Hiking poles are recommended.
But then you climb over a small pass, and there, at last, on the next ridge top, are the well-camouflaged remains of Babak Castle.
From this angle the castle doesn’t look like much, but as you begin to climb into the structure, you discover that a great deal of Babak’s stronghold remains.
Be careful exploring the ruins as they are in desperate need of repair.
The roofs of many of the stronghold’s structures have already collapsed. Others look like they will soon follow suit.
From the top you have stunning views of the surrounding landscape, including the UNESCO protected biosphere known as the Arasbaran Forests.
These scraggly, shrub-covered hillsides are hardly what you think of when you hear the word forest, but this is one of the few patches of native vegetation I saw during my entire month in Iran.