Perched on the edge of a 1000 feet high rocky cliff rising sharply from the Hunza River, the epoch-making 900 years old impressive Altit Fort is one of the ancient forts surviving today in Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly northern areas), Pakistan. It has, for centuries, served as a palace to the local Mirs – the hereditary rulers of the state of Hunza – and later as a fort following some subsequent additions. The award-winning Altit Fort is a major tourist attraction not only because of its longstanding rich history but also for its unique architectural design facing the Karakoram Highway and for its strategic location on the ancient Silk Route.
Before its formal accession to Pakistan in 1974, Gilgit-Baltistan was divided into several independent princely states and the kingdom of Hunza was one of the states ruled by the Mirs. The rule of local Mirs came to an end in 1974 when the state system was abolished, and socio-political reforms took away their power during the reign of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Altit Fort was then handed over to the Aga Khan Foundation in 1990 for renovation.
The village of Altit was the oldest settlement (Altit Khun) founded in the 11th century and served as a capital of Hunza. The ancient name of Altit village was Hunokushal referring to the arrival of people from Turkic tribe of Huns from the Persian Empire in A.D 47. However, the name later changed to Burushal – the village of Burushaski speakers who were spirit worshippers before Islam was introduced in the 15th century and eventually people converted to Islam.
According to historical accounts, the rulers of Hunza first resided in the Altit Fort. A dispute between the two royal brothers – prince Shah Abbas (Shabos) and Prince Ali Khan (Aliqan) of the then Mir Sultan- lead to a divide and eventually, Shah Abbas had to move to Baltit Fort which soon became the new seat of power. With the capital shifted to Baltit, Altit Fort began to lose its significance. Prince Ali Khan made Altit Fort his stronghold and launched offensives against his elder brother. The fatal fight ended up with the death of Prince Ali Khan.
When princess Shah Khatoon from Baltistan was married to Mir Ayaaho II of Hunza in the early fifteenth century, she was accompanied by craftsmen as a dowry. The Balti craftsmen made some significant amendments in the fort with a Tibetan touch in its design. During their stay in Hunza, they used two Balti words to refer to the two forts as “Elte” and “Delte” to say “here” and “there”. Later, the term Elte became Altit and Delte was modified to Baltit as both valleys are famously known today.
The fort was purposefully built by the ruling family of Hunza as a display of power, to defend Hunza from external attacks, and to safeguard the predominant feudal system. Altit fort has undergone several ups and downs before it was abandoned. It has been dexterously renovated and now the fort houses a museum, a culture center, and the offices of a successful Social Enterprise.
Altit Fort presents an unusual piece of building art and stood the test of time. The building is standing on a pair of rocks – the higher eastern rock and the comparatively lower western one. Its construction was completed in six different stages – the first stage construction, initiated over 800 years ago, was a two-floor building at the lower western edge as level one and another single floor on it as level two; the three-floor watch tower as the second stage construction; the storage space as third stage; the mosque as fourth; grain storage on the eastern side as fifth stage; and the guest rooms as modification of grain storage as sixth stage construction. The rooms at a lower level are accessible through narrow corridors while the upper ones can be accessed via the way to the watchtower.
The main entrance facing Ultar leads through a narrow dark corridor of the ground floor to the rest of the interconnected constructions. The fort has a main space with a rectangular seemingly supporting structure which has its anecdote. A prince is said to have killed by his own father after believing his involvement in a plot against his kingdom and was buried in the structure in a standing position.
The royal kitchen on the first floor decked with dexterous carvings inside is a little piece of interesting patterns to enjoy. Surrounding it are the lobby, the multipurpose traditional royal room, the queen’s room, and the rubble stone masonry.
The watchtower on the top built strategically, to monitor the entire land especially during the time of war or threat, provides a 360-degree scenic view. The tower was sometimes used to throw off prisoners who served their death sentence. The other major constructions including the mosque, the royal throne, and the guest rooms are located to the north of the tower while the storage space is to the south. The royal throne in the front of the mosque has a panoramic view of the whole settlement of Altit Khun.
The fort was in great despair and Raja Amin Khan donated it to Aga Khan Cultural Services in 2001. After an extensive restoration work done by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture Historic Cities Support Program and the Government of Norway, it was opened to the public in 2007 as a museum. Even since then, several development projects within and outside the premises of the fort have been carried out. Notable developments include the women’s social enterprise, the restoration of the Altit Valley, the Kha Basi Café in the lush green royal garden providing traditional Hunza Food, the apricot orchard, and the new art center cum guesthouse also providing special accommodation services. Special historical tours are organized within the premises running from 9.30am to 5.30pm, 7 days a week.
Access and location
Altit Fort is located on the edge of Altit valley, near the confluence of Hunza and Nagar rivers, about 3 km from Baltit Fort, in Hunza valley of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. The main entrance opens into the royal garden – an apricot orchard grown over an irregular plain of lush green grassland – leading through a path filled with sawdust all the way to the fort entrance.
The fort has several locations offering scenic views of Hunza and Nagar. The galleries in front of the royal guest rooms provide a beautiful view of the Altit village with its unique houses packed around each other. Likewise, the galleries hanging from the royal chambers has a scenic view of the Hunza River flowing parallel to KKH besides the beautiful landscape of Nagar Valley. The watchtower on the roof of the fort provides an exclusive view of the whole Hunza and Nagar valleys no other place can provide. Altit Fort also has a great view from the Karakoram Highway.
Altit Fort is the recipient of 2011 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
Conservation project mainly focused on fixing structural defects, mending and stabilizing existing walls, replacing some rooftops, treating wood decay and supplying appropriate lighting.