Actual visit or narrative device: Byron at the Qal’a Ikhtiyar al-Din

It was interesting to discover, from personal experience, how spies find their vocation

“Herat citadel has a long and stormy story”, Nancy Hatch Dupree wrote in 1977 in her Historical Guide to Afghanistan. And in fact, the story of the Qal’a Ikhtiyar al-Din is strictly connected with the turbulent history of Herat itself.

Alexander the Great besieged the city in 330 BC, during his campaign against the Achaemenid Empire: it is believed that the citadel was first established during that period. Herat was then ruled by the Seleucid, Parthians, Kushans, Sasanians, Hephthalites, Umayyad, Taherids, Saffarids and Samanids until the 10th century. At this point, the citadel was already established. Herat then became the capital of the Ghurid empire, in 1175, followed after one century and a half by the Ghaznavids and eventually the Seljuks. The early chronology of the citadel remains nevertheless unclear.

Exterior view of Malik Tower from south, after the Soviet invasion. Photo by Rachel Hall (archnet).

What is known, is that in 1221 the city was completely destroyed by the Mongols and the citadel was subsequently built (or re-built) by the Kartid rulers, in the late 13th and early 14th century. In particular, Fakhr al-Din Kart, who in 699/1299-1300 reinforced it with towers, walls, ramparts, and a moat and built the western part, and Ghiath al-Din Kart (d. 728/1328), who built palaces in it.

But it was again Byron’s favorite dynasty, the Timurids, that enlarged and reinforced the citadel. The entire facade was covered then with a revetment of glazed tiles, under Shah Rukh. This revetment still survives on the western tower, the so-called Malik Tower. Here the fragments of a tall Kufic inscription band remain.

General view of the citadel. Photo by Robert Byron (artandarchitecture).

The Timurid reinforcement did not last long, though: with the decline of the dynasty, the citadel was battered constantly by attacks and besieged several times during the 19th century. Eventually, it could no longer be considered an effective defense and was replaced by a new citadel, the Arg-e Now.

The valuable historical citadel was excavated and renovated in the 1970s under the auspices of Unesco, but this project, that yielded many precious data, was abruptly interrupted by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

When Byron visited the citadel, on the 24th of November 1933, it was the seat of the Commander-in-Chief and the garrison of Herat. From Byron’s account, we can perceive the military importance that the citadel still had in the 1930s:

I walked back to the furthest corner of the wall parade-ground that separates the citadel from the New Town, to take a photograph. This led me near to an artilery park of about twenty guns.

He then went back to his hotel to “fetch some chalks with which to copy a Kufic inscription at the bottom of the [Malik] tower”. But upon returning to the citadel, he is advised that the parade-ground is now shut:

“Shut, do you say? We were there an hour ago.”

“Yes, we were, but now it is shut.”

“All right, we will go tomorrow instead”

“It will be shut tomorow too”

“In that case I shall go at once”

Eventually, Byron manages to have the permission to copy the inscription, but his focus is now on the artillery park:

I now kept my eyes off the artillery park in order not to embarrass him. But my fancy lusted after it. I held the secret of a formidable armament, capable of withstanding, or worse, expediting, an advance of the Soviet army on India. I saw myself earning the VC [Victoria Cross] and probably a seat in the Cabinet, by reporting its existence.

It was interesting to discover, from personal experience, how spies find their vocation.

The Malik Tower and the Kufic inscription. Photo by Robert Byron (artandarchitecture).

At this point, we ask ourselves: did Byron copy the inscription of the citadel? Maybe, Byron genuinely wanted to copy the inscription, but his poor Arabic prevented him. What we know for sure is that we do not have any sketch signed by Byron of this inscription. We know that he took a cab, and he “drove out to the shrine of Gazar Gah”.

Did Byron’s visit the citadel at all? Or was it simply a narrative device to let the readers know about the political and military situation of Afghanistan?

Maybe we’ll never know.


The primary source of additional information and photo is Byron’s photos can be found instead at the website

Nancy Hatch Dupree, A Historical Guide to Afghanistan, Afghan Tourist Organization Publication, Jagra, Tokio 1977, pp. 244-247. [available online on]

Roberto Pagliero, “Restoration Activities on Two Work-Sites: Qala-i Ikhtiaruddin and Madrassah of Sultan Hussain Baiqara, in Herat”, in Restoration of monuments in Herat: Afghanistan, UNDP/AFG/75/022 Technical Report FMR/CLT/CH/81/286 (UNDP), December 1981, pp. 11-18, plates nn. 10-66, pp. 42-98. [available online at]

Maria Eva Subtelny, “Ekhtiar al-Din”, in Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. VIII. Fasc, 3, pp. 290-291. [available online at]



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