16 of The Oldest Castles in the World

Castles hold a powerful place in our collective mythic consciousness, the older the better
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Human beings have needed fortification for the whole length of their history. In the beginning, the natural formations of rock and wood played the role of shelter, to be built upon and improved in later eons and across countless generations. Forts and fortifications from once-mighty civilizations have changed hands and been added to throughout the centuries, providing a timeline for the great bastions of the ancient ages in the very working of earth and stone.

As time rolled inexorably on, so to did humanity’s pursuit of settled lands rather than nomadic trails, and those settled lands required defenses. As the nature of conflict between the settled areas of the world altered, and as weaponry advanced and shifted in form, the nature of those defenses changed as well. Earth forts were replaced by tall castle walls, only to be replaced again by trenches during the First World War.

Castles, as we think of them in the West, often have a medieval fairytale aesthetic, which stems from mythology more than a practical understanding of what these great fortifications were and how they were used. The very concept of “castle” has entered our mythic consciousness, building on the ancient roots of our fortified civilizations through the ages, and carrying with it both an aesthetic and an emotional resonance that is impossible to ignore.

Castles, citadels, forts, oh my!

castle or citadel, fort or palace?
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What’s the difference between all of these things anyway? What makes a castle different from a fort, or a fort different from a citadel?

From the Latin word castellum we find the root of the word Castle. In Roman times, these were generally small fortified fortlets or watchtowers, but during the Middle Ages in Europe “castle” specifically referred to a residence for nobility. Castles came in various styles and forms, with many Japanese castles dotting the landscape during the Japanese Middle Ages. Generally, we can think of castles as “fortified homes” for nobility.

“Palace” doesn’t actually refer to anything specific, since it could mean anything from residence for an important figure to a central place of State governance.

Forts, are defensive military constructs. These have been built throughout history, and at times may have been built in conjunction with some form of greater settlement. Generally, they were military installations, designed to house soldiers and provide for the defense of a region. Modern “star forts”, for instance, became popular constructs with the growing usage of gunpowder weapons and can be found dotting much of Europe’s countryside.

Citadel refers to the fortified center of a town or a city, and in this way, it could be a fortress or castle, or any sort of fortified installation. Even the word itself is a diminutive of the word for city, literally meaning “little city.”

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Citadel of Aleppo
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Established: 3000 BCE
Location: Aleppo, Syria
Can I visit?: Probably not anytime soon though tourism is a traditionally major draw for the city in times of peace.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, perhaps as far back as the sixth millennium BCE. A jewel of the Middle East, Aleppo has survived wars, famines, Roman and Greek invasions, and modern conflicts, the city was once the largest in Syria before the civil war of the 2010s damaged the infrastructure and saw most of the population turned to refugees.

A monument to time

Citadel of Aleppo
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The first structures built on the Citadel hill go back to the 3rd millennium BCE with the ruins of a temple to the storm-god Hadad, and the surrounding city was later known as the “City of Hadad.” It was only after the conquest of Aleppo by Alexander the Great that the true fortification of the Citadel hill began under the rule of the Greek general Seleucus I Nicator, who took control of a splinter of the Greek empire after Alexander’s death.

The Citadel has been damaged many times throughout its long history, including when the Mongols invaded in the late 1200s, and again in the 1400s. Though its most recent damage was sustained in the Syrian Civil War, history suggests that this will just become another moment in this ancient wonder’s long lineage.

Maiden Castle
Pintrest

Established: 600 BCE
Location: Dorset, England
Can I visit?: Yes! Free entry is permitted.

Ancient Celtic peoples lived and grew crops in the area as far back as the Bronze Age, around 1800 BCE. The fortifications of Maiden Castle were built around 600 BCE during a time where a great many such Iron Age hill forts were being constructed. Further development of the site greatly expanded the site of the fort until it was the largest in Britain, perhaps in all of Europe. Ramparts and ditches were added, increasing the complexity of the fort’s defenses.

Ancient inspirations

Maiden Castle
Historic England (illustration by Peter Dunn)

The sites of antiquity have inspired artists from all backgrounds and cultures. There is something uniquely vibrant in the immense sense of time and the sense of communion with peoples who have come before; communion with the ancients has often been a powerful condition for the arrival of an artistic Muse. In this case, John Ireland, an English composer, took inspiration from the site of Maiden Castle and composed Mai-Dun, which in British Celtic means “great hill.” It’s considered one of his great works.

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Established: 1st century BCE
Location: Taoping District, Li County
Can I visit?: Yes! The modern reconstructed village is connected to the remnants of the original and is a strong tourist center.

One of the most interesting fortified dwellings in this part of Asia, the Qiang building style heavily relied on stone, making for structures that could last a long time and proved of interest to various military leaders interested in defensible positions. Originally, these fortress villages were composed of between 30 and 100 households and would be clustered together in a small geographic area. The design construction is a unique and aesthetic blend of stone layering, featuring multiple stories and with the buildings often connected by a system of tunnel-like passages that helped connect the households and provide additional defense.

A long and proud history

Taoping Qiang Village
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There’s a long and harrowing history to the hardy people now bearing the name “Qiang” (they refer to themselves as “Rma”), not the least for the massive devastation that took place during the 2008 earthquake when as many as 30,000 Qiang were killed. Modern approaches to tourism have been an interesting issue as well since the preservation of the historic elements has sometimes come at the cost of the modern residents being relocated. Despite their troubles, the Qiang maintain many of their traditional customs, with the sheer diversity of different groups of Qiang creating a vibrant mix of clothing styles and foods.

Edinburgh Castle
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Established: 2nd century BCE / 12th century CE
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Can I visit?: Yes! The Castle is one of the most famous in Europe and a massive tourist draw and is considered the best feature of the Edinburgh skyline.

Iron Age settlers inhabited Castle Rock, where the castle now rests, and it possibly served as a settlement and hill fort of the Celtic Briton people known as the Votadini, and also possibly for later Scottish tribes. Then, in the epic Welsh poem "Y Gododdin," a reference to the “stronghold of Eidyn” appears, which is generally assumed to refer to Castle Rock, and suggests that some fortification existed there during this time.

It would not be until the 14th-century account of an 11th-century tragic tale involving Saint Margaret. Over the next several centuries, Edinburgh Castle would play a prominent role in Scotland’s history, including its resistance to English invasion and the Wars of Scottish Independence, with the final military conflicts involving the Castle taking place in 1745 during the second Jacobite rising.

A deep dark dock

Edinburgh Castle
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Edinburgh Castle served as a prison at several points during its later history, with its vaults converted to hold prisoners from a number of wars (including the American War of Independence). It also held prisoners during both of the World Wars.

Mamure Castle
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Established: 4th Century BCE
Location: Anamur district, Mersin Province, Turkey
Can I visit?:

Built on the remains of the Roman city of Ryg Monai, Mamure Castle is one of the largest and best-protected castles in Turkey, with parts of the modern castle being originally built upon the ruins of the ancient Roman castle that once dominated the same land. In the 11th century CE, the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia rebuilt the fortification as a method of defending against pirates, and it would be later maintained by the Byzantine Empire.

An impressive series of destructions

Mamure Castle
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When Turkish forces captured the castle in 1221, they restored it and expanded its fortifications. Several more times throughout the centuries, the castle was attacked, destroyed, and rebuilt, until during the reign of the Ottoman Empire it was repaired further and maintained consistently, even used for a time as a caravanserai.

Chittorgarh
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Established: 8th Century CE or earlier
Location: Rajasthan, India
Can I visit?: Yes! It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of the most defining features of this ancient fortification is the massive natural water catchment which has a total storage capacity of around 4 billion liters- enough to provide an army of 50,000. Over the centuries, the fort changed hands several times, with one of the greatest battles taking place in the 16th century where the fort’s defenders were defeated and a large portion of the city’s population is believed to have committed suicide rather than submit to the degradations of surrender.

A legendary beginning

Chittorgarh
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One legend about the origin of the fort says that the ancient hero Bhima, who was imbued with great strength by the semi-divine Nāgas people, struck the ground where the fort is, and so caused a crack to form in the earth out of which came a spring of water which would feed the reservoir.

Prague Castle
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Established: 870 CE
Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Can I visit?: Absolutely! Prague Castle is a major tourist attraction. Even more excitingly, if you can’t visit right away in person, you can take the virtual tour!

The history of Prague Castle is one of continual growth, expansion, and renewal, a history that has seen it become the largest coherent castle complex in the world. It all began with the Church of the Virgin Mary, followed by the Basilica of Saint George and St. Vitus. In the 14th century, vast improvements to the fortification and living spaces were made, with a heavy influence of gothic-style architecture. Throughout the following three centuries, mainly due to damage from fires, the castle was rebuilt and refurbished several times, taking on elements of different styles from each age.

A curse to beware

Crown of Bohemia
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After the Nazis forced then-Czechoslovakia to accept Nazi rule, Reinhard Heydrich (one of the worst criminals and vilest figures of the Nazi regime) took over the role of Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. A popular myth describes how he took the ancient Bohemian crown from its resting place in Prague Castle and placed it on his head, thereby activating an ancient curse. The curse, so the legend goes, says that any usurper who wears the crown shall die within a year, as shall his heir within a year following. Within one year, Heydrich was assassinated, and before the next was up his son and heir died as well in a traffic accident, thereby fulfilling the promise of legend.

Eltz Castle
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Established: 9th Century CE
Location: Wierschem, Germany
Can I visit?: Yes! Seasonally, April to October.

Eltz Castle started out as a manor home, Platteltz, that grew from a defensive earthen palisade into a fortified keep; by 1157 it was considered an important fortress along the Holy Roman trade route. Due to laws of inheritance at the time, the Castle was (and still is) owned by three different families, with two sections open to the public and one still reserved for the Kempenich family.

Not all sieges end this well

Eltz Castle
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While many prominent castles have been sacked, destroyed, and rebuilt through the ages, Eltz Castle has the distinction of never having been laid low through siege. The one time that Eltz Castle was put to siege when the lords of Eltzer and other free imperial knights of the Holy Roman Empire opposed an attempt by the Archbishop of Trier to reincorporate their holdings into the local administrative district and suborn them to centralized control. When the free knights resisted, Eltz Castle was bombarded by catapults, but by around 1337 the feud ended with the Archbishop’s successful bid to bring the knights under centralized control. He returned control of the local lands to the knights, but only as recognized vassals, no longer free.

Despite the bombardment, Eltz Castle stood strong, and today it has been fully restored, maintaining an incredible collection of different eras within its design.

Burgalimar Castle
Wikimedia by Kordas

Established: 10th century CE
Location: Baños de la Encina, Spain
Can I visit?: Yes! Tourism is a major economic sector in Spain.

This region of Spain has been recognized by UNESCO as especially important due to the impressive number of standing castles that dominate the countryside. Due to the strategic value of this region during the Middle Ages, when tensions between Islamic and Christian countries were at a feverish high, fortifications sprouted as if grown from the very ground itself.

Burgalimar Castle is remarkably well-preserved for its age, with its stunning towers and battlements retaining their original caliphal design. Despite some damage during the Peninsular War, it has remained intact, a true monument to the ages.

Roots to antiquity

Burgalimar Castle
Wikimedia by Jose Luis Filpo Cabana

The hill on which Burgalimar Castle rests shows signs of inhabitation from Roman and pre-Roman times, with a clear indication of inhabitation by the early Celtic people of the region. During the 12th century, control of this region passed back and forth several times between the Caliphate and Christian forces, before definitively falling under Castilian control in 1225. The last modifications were made in the 15th century when one of its fourteen towers received improvements.

Warwick Castle
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Established: 1068 CE
Location: Warwickshire, England
Can I visit?: Yes! Warwick Castle is a major tourism site.

Placed in the strategically important position, Warwick Castle actually stands on the site of an older Anglo-Saxon burh - a defensive fort — built over a hundred years earlier in 914. It was William the Conqueror who built the original motte-and-bailey castle after the Norman conquest of England since the castle’s location made it an important defense against a Midland rebellion. The motte-and-bailey construction was replaced in the mid-12th century by stone castle keep, and further extensive refortification took place in the 14th century as well.

The Warwick trebuchet

Warwick trebuchet
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One of the world’s largest, fully-functional siege engines, a 59-foot tall trebuchet made from over 300 pieces of oak and a reproduction built using the expertise of the Danish living history museum Middelaldercentret. It remains one of the castle’s greatest attractions as well as laying claim to being the most siege engine of its type.

Cochem Castle
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Established: Around 1100 CE
Location: Cochem, Germany
Can I visit?: Yes! There are guided tours, meals, and more!

Originally, Cochem Castle perched upon a hill overlooking the Moselle River, a guardian watchtower that collected tolls from trade ships passing along the river. It became an official Reichsburg (Imperial Castle) in 1151 after King Konrad III elected to conclude, once and for all, a dispute about who would inherit the castle by laying siege to it and claiming it directly. The castle was taken by force again in 1282, only to be unceremoniously hocked (along with the entire town) in order to finance the coronation of King Adolf of Nassau. It was pawned a second time when Archbishop Balduin of Luxembourg (its new owner) briefly gave it up (though only for about a year).

A reconstructed original

Cochem Castle
By ThorstenS on Wikimedia

In 1688, the French invaded and destroyed the castle (and the surrounding town), and Cochem Castle remained in ruins until a restoration project in the 1800s finally saw it rise to prominence once more. There is a delightfully fairytale air about this ancient castle, owed to the 19th-century fanciful reconstruction, but the charming towers and parapets that now stand tall above the town of Cochem are built upon the sturdy foundations of a thousand years of history.

Inuyama Castle
Pintrest

Established: 10th century CE /16th Century CE
Location: Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, Japan
Can I visit?: Yes!

Sometime in the 10th century, a Shinto shrine was moved to make way for the building of a fortification on this spot and was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times throughout the following centuries. The current structure was ordered built by Oda Nobukatsu, son of “The Great Unifier” of Japan, Oda Nobunaga, and its “tenshu” or central tower has long been considered the oldest intact tenshu in Japan.

A history of warfare

Inuyama Castle
By ThorstenS on Wikimedia

Inuyama Castle featured heavily in a number of conflicts over the centuries, but the castle remained unspoiled until the Mehi era when Aichi Prefecture tore down a number of the outer castle buildings as part of a major reorientation of policy under the new Japanese government. Then, in 1891, the Mino-Owari Earthquake caused further damage. However, instead of letting the castle lay in ruins, Naruse clan was given the task of restoring it, which they did with donations from Inuyama Town.

Windsor Castle

Established: 11th century CE
Location: Berkshire, England
Can I visit?: Yes, though it is a working royal palace and may be closed on short notice.

After the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, invaded England, the castle was built to protect Norman interests and oversee a vital strategic point along the River Thames. The original motte-and-bailey construction slowly grew over the centuries, its buildings and defenses replaced by stone. Further expansions continued after the 13th century, resulting in one of the most expensive non-religious construction projects of the entire English Middle Ages.

A once and future king

Windor Castle
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King Edward III was enamored with the idea of chivalric identity, especially with regards to reinforcing English identity and the connection between the English subjects and the nobility (and among the nobility themselves). One of his great projects was to rebuild the order of the Round Table, connecting back to Arthurian mythology. Though his planned restoration of the order never came about, it had been planned to be hosted at Windsor Castle and a new building was even begun to host it (though it was never finished).

Killyleagh Castle
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Established: 1180 CE
Location: Killyleagh, County Down, Northern Ireland
Can I visit?: Yes! The gate lodges offer self-catering holiday accommodation.

The ambitious Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy wanted power. Without King Henry II’s permission, he took a small army consisting of around 300 foot-soldiers and 22 knights and drove into the heart of Northern Ireland, coming upon the town of Dún Dá Leathghlas and taking its defenders unawares. After two harrowing battles, he defeated the last King of Ulaid in battle and set about securing for himself a massive section of Ireland. He had numerous castles built, including Killyleagh, in an effort to cement his power and defend against attack.

Ill winds come on wings to those for whom a vile ambition sings

Killyleagh
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John de Courcy’s expansion in Ireland angered the English Monarch, and soon de Courcy found himself feuding with William de Lacy, another Norman knight. De Lacy’s son would go on to capture de Courcy, taking him while he went to church on Good Friday. Though he defended himself with the cross pole and killed thirteen of his attackers, he was eventually taken.

Ousted, de Coursey made one vain attempt to return to power, gathering a host of soldiers and striking out to lay siege to Killyleagh Castle. Unfortunately, the very defenses that he himself had put in place proved too strong, and again he was defeated. He died in obscurity and pauperdom.

Fortezza di Sarzanello
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Established: 1493 CE
Location: Sarzana, Italy
Can I visit?: Yes!

With the increasing use of gunpowder and canon on the battlefield, old methods of fortification were becoming quickly obsolete. Canon could punch through walls and lay them open for invading forces, making the process of constructing defensible bastions far more difficult. The Fortezza di Sarzanello’s unique star shape was an attempt to rid it of angles against which enemy fire could be applied, with a dense design intended to turn aside heavy cannon fire.

Defended through the ages

Fortezza di Sarzanello
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The town of Sarzana sits at the mouth of the valley of the river Magra, an area of strategic importance since ancient times. Through the middle ages it changed hands several times, first taken by the city-state Pisa, then Florence, and at one point in the 16th century even owned by a bank, the Banco di S. Giorgio.

Citadelle Laferrière
Reddit

Established: 1805
Location: Nord, Haiti
Can I visit?: Yes!

The largest fortified stronghold and the only African-derived military fortification in the western hemisphere. Its immense-size and longevity, as well as its connection to Haiti’s proud history, have made it something of a national icon. The Haitian revolutionary Henri Christophe planned the construction including the citadel as a means of ensuring a powerful line of defense against foreign incursion (most notably the French). Though the French never did return, the citadel has survived numerous earthquakes, standing tall in its long watch through the centuries.

A final resting place

Citadelle Laferrière
Rémi Kaupp on Wikimedia

Henri Christophe eventually declared himself king of a portion of northern Haiti and set about building a number of his planned palaces and fortifications. After suffering a stroke in 1820, however, he committed suicide after growing unrest from members of his own military. Loyalists entombed his body in quicklime and placed it beneath the Citadelle ‘s interior courtyard, to ensure that it could not be mutilated by his enemies.

Architectural works that have stood the test of centuries!
Odin Odin (52)
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In our yearning for meaning, our enduring quest for connection, we humans often turn to architecture for our release, placing into the buildings around us all our emotional turmoil, hopes, dreams, and beliefs. A temple or a skyscraper can be seen as a reflection of our innermost desires, a monument to our capacity for connection, and our vast imaginations have allowed us to construct works of architecture so complex and awe-inspiring that they serve as art as much, or more, as they serve a functional purpose. The power of the human imagination is incredible. The great philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote, in his book Sapiens, “There are no gods, no nations, no money and no human rights, except in our collective imagination.” The power of human imagination allows us to spend entire generations dedicated to projects that serve some unified purpose, spending our energies and attention in acts of dedication that are glorious and outstanding. Of all our building efforts, it is perhaps through our various religious feelings that some of the grandest and most gorgeous have come into being. Architectural works that have stood the test of centuries and will stand the test of many more, works that remind all who look upon them (regardless of religion) that our capacity for the construction of grace and beauty at least matches our capacity for dissonance or destruction. Cathedral, churches, monasteries, temples: what’s the difference? Churches are places of worship in the Christian religion, with the earliest types of church being “house churches,” which were simple gathering spaces in homes. Cathedrals are a type of church that contains the “cathedra”, which is Latin for “seat”, of a Christian bishop. Monasteries are private religious communities designed to provide a spiritual living environment for those who live there. Not Christian in origin, many belief systems incorporate monastic traditions. Temple is a generic term for a building reserved for spiritual rituals. It may be superseded by a term preferred by a specific religion, such as “church” or “mosque”.