Tibetan-Influenced Architectural Marvel
Perched proudly upon the moraine of Ultar Glacier, Baltit Fort stands as a testament to history. It offers a commanding vista of Hunza Valley and its intricate network of tributaries. This architectural gem, boasting over 700 years of history, was originally constructed as both a defensive stronghold and a symbol of authority by the rulers of Hunza. Today, it has transformed into a cultural center and museum. The fort is recognized globally and has secured numerous international awards.
A Tale of Two States
In a historical landscape where mountain kingdoms reigned supreme, Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral were comprised of several small independent states. The Mirs, known as Thumo in Hunza and Nager, ruled their respective state. Notably, Hunza and Nagar, two major principalities separated only by the Hunza River, engaged in frequent clashes, fortifying their power with imposing strongholds.
The chronicles of history reveal that the early Hunza rulers inhabited the Altit Fort, but a fierce conflict between the two sons of Mir Sultan, Shah Abbas (Shabos) and Ali Khan (Aliqan), led to their separation. Shabos, the elder son, relocated to Baltit Fort, ultimately solidifying its position as the epicenter of Hunza’s power.
In the early 15th century, Ayasho II, Mir of Hunza at the time, forged a matrimonial alliance by marrying Princess Shah Khatoon from Baltistan, a region often likened to little Tibet. The princess brought with her a retinue of skilled craftsmen who orchestrated significant architectural modifications in both Altit and Baltit Forts, creating a harmonious fusion of Tibetan and local architectural influences that still resonate in these structures today.
The fortified village of Baltit, once known as “Agaai Koot” or the Heavenly Fort, and the nearby Altit, initially referred to as Hunokushal (derived from “Huns”), witnessed a linguistic evolution as Balti craftsmen introduced terms like “Elte” and “Delte” to denote “Here” and “There.” These linguistic nuances gave birth to the names Altit and Baltit, etching their place in history.
Turbulence and Transformation
The 19th century brought turmoil as the Maharaja of Kashmir launched attacks, followed by the British invasion in 1891. These incursions inflicted partial damage to the fort’s architecture and ushered in political upheaval in Hunza. In a daring move, Mir Safdar Ali Khan and Wazir Dadu, along with their families and supporters, sought political asylum in Kashghar.
The British, in their pursuit of strategic control, reshaped the forts according to their defense needs. They dismantled the fortified walls and watchtowers of the old Baltit village and Baltit Fort. Additionally, they imposed their governance by appointing Mir Mohammad Nazim Khan as the ruler of the Hunza state. Subsequent alterations by Mir Mohammad Nazim Khan included demolishing several third-floor rooms and adding new ones, lending the fort a British colonial aesthetic with lime wash and colorful glass panel windows. These changes remained largely unchanged until the fort’s eventual restoration.
Baltit Fort is a remarkable wooden pegged stone structure adorned with mud plaster. Its interior boasts exquisite woodcarvings that have since become a hallmark of architectural finesse. The three-story edifice perches gracefully on a moraine, affording breathtaking vistas of the valley below.
The basement of the fort houses granaries and storage rooms, supported by narrow man-made terraces that safeguard its ancient foundations. Ascending to the first floor reveals the main kitchen, a winter guestroom, a spacious winter house, a private meeting room, guardrooms, and additional storage spaces, all interconnected for seamless functionality. The second floor graces visitors with living quarters, a balcony adorned with bay windows, and a magnificent open terrace, crowned by a Moghul-style wooden canopy sheltering a regal throne. This vantage point offers awe-inspiring views of the Hunza and Nagar valleys. Moreover, the scenery of iconic Rakaposhi, Diran Peak, Golden Peak, Ultar, and the Lady Finger is simply breathtaking.
The fort’s third floor hosts a modest mosque and a guard shelter tucked away in the corner, completing the architectural splendor.
Restoration and Renewal
The fort was vacated by the local Mir family in 1945 and it remained abandoned for years, succumbing to decay. Concerned authorities contemplated its rehabilitation. Mir Gazanfar Ali Khan II, a descendant of the ruling Mirs of Hunza, made a momentous decision by gifting the fort to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. This charitable organization embarked on a restoration project in 1989. Getty Grant Program (USA), the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, and the French Authorities donated to the restoration project. The restoration efforts culminated in 1996, meticulously reviving the fort’s former glory.
The restoration work was executed with such precision that it recaptured the fort’s bygone grandeur. The Mirs lost their power in 1974 as a result of the accession of princely states to the mainland. The Baltit Fort is serving as a museum now—a beacon of preserved culture for generations to come.
Access and Appreciation
Baltit Fort, nestled in Karimabad (Baltit), was once the capital of District Hunza. The fort is accessible via the Karakoram Highway (KKH), approximately 100 kilometers north of Gilgit, the capital of Northern Areas, Pakistan. The fort commands a panoramic view of the entire Hunza-Nagar region, making it easily discernible from the Karakoram Highway.
- Summer: 09:00 to 17:30 hrs (April 1st to Oct 30th)
- Winter: 09:30 to 16:00 hrs (November 1st to March 31st)
Dining Amidst History
In homage to the legacy of former Hunza state rulers, who hosted elaborate dinners and musical soirees at Baltit Fort, it is now possible to arrange a dinner with light music for groups of a minimum of eight guests. This unique dining experience features traditional dishes crafted from local organic produce, including dried apricots and the oil extracted from apricots, walnuts, and almonds.
A Legacy of Accolades
Baltit Fort’s cultural significance and meticulous restoration have not gone unnoticed, earning it a cascade of prestigious awards:
- Grand Award to Aga Khan Cultural Services (AKCSP) in 1997 for “Restoration and Re-use of the Baltit Fort” by PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association).
- British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Global Award in 2000.
- Award of Excellence in the UNESCO 2004 Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation.
- Time Magazine Asia featured Baltit Fort on its cover page in 2005, recognizing it as a beautifully renovated landmark.
- In 2006, the Government of Pakistan commemorated Baltit Fort’s legacy with a special RS:15 stamp at its 10th Opening anniversary.
Baltit Fort stands as an enduring testament to history, culture, and architectural finesse