Altit Fort is a spectacularly sited defensive work overlooking the Hunza river valley in Gilgit-Baltistan. Carbon-14 dating of its central shikari (watchtower) has shown that at least part of the central tower of the fort was built over a thousand years ago, predating nearby Balit Fort by at least 300 years. However, many of the fort’s buildings probably date from later periods, as indicated by dates corresponding either to 1583 or 1581 that were discovered on a lintel of a door frame in the shikari. Traditionally, village lore holds that the fort was constructed by craftsmen from Baltistan, who came here at the behest of the Balti princess Ayashu who was married to the Mir of Hunza, Shah Khan. Although the primary purpose of the fort was defensive, it also served as the seat of power of the Mir of Hunza before the political center moved to nearby Baltit (modern-day Karimabad).
The architecture of the fort is heavily influenced by the square layout common to Pamir, Hindukush, Karakorum and the Western Himalayas. One of the oldest areas, apart from the watchtower, is a lantern-roofed room on the second level that was likely used for official receptions (see image 19). Its distinguishing features are the four trapezoidal columns which taper from floor to ceiling, reflecting the cosmological concept of the ‘pillar of the world’, or axis mundi. These columns, which are often feature elaborately decorated woodwork, are to be found throughout Altit village in private homes. The earthen platform behind these columns is generally reserved for the use of men even today.
Many of the forts, palaces, mosques, and other structures in the area are not especially durable as the walls are made of stone fixed in place with compacted soil. Walls are generally narrow and rest on foundation stones that no wider than the walls, a technique that allows for rapid construction but does not permit any of the load on the walls to spread horizontally into the ground. One indigenous technique that does provide added strength is the use of ‘cribbage cages’ in walls of sufficient depth. This technique involves laying timbers in two nested squares with one square demarcating the outer surface of the wall and the other defining the inner surface. As the two squares are laced together, four smaller squares are created in the corners which adds a great deal of stability to the walls. In this earthquake-prone region, such design considerations greatly mitigate shear stresses from earthquakes and allow for extra strength at the corners.
In the late 1990s the fort and the surrounding village were in a precarious state as local residents built modern dwellings outside the village, threatening the upkeep of the town and its architectural heritage. Recognizing the historic value of the site, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture developed and implemented a comprehensive rehabilitation plan from 2006-2009. Their work involved stabilizing and repairing the fort and also providing clean water and electricity service to the village. Since that time, the population of the village has stabilized and many residents have returned.