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Arge Bam, Bam, Iran.

Castle in the Sand: Arg-e Bam as a Pillar of Middle-Eastern Longevity


Iran’s Arg-e Bam, Bam Citadel, once stood as a pillar of longevity in the Middle East. Created upon the beginnings of the Achaemenid Empire (6th-4th centuries BC), and building on the commercial shrewdness of the Parthian and Seleucid empires, Arg-e Bam rose to cultural and economic prominence in the medieval period, at the height of the Chinese Silk Road. With such a potent blend of Persian, Parthian, and Hellenistic power encapsulated within ever-growing walls of brick, it is unsurprising that Arg-e Bam became an epicenter of medieval political and economic supremacy.

Arg-e Bam’s Seamless Additions and Growth

A cleverly designed organic complex, Arg-e Bam housed not only the military barracks and royal homes of the ruling elite; within its walls was an entire community of poor, middle-class, and wealthy families, and numerous commercial endeavors. Arg-e Bam was not merely a fortress through which trade passed; Arg-e Bam was a home constantly ready and willing to build additions to incorporate its growing culture.

The extensive Bam Citadel in 2002.

The extensive Bam Citadel in 2002. (Ales.kocourek/CC BY SA 3.0)

Never considered "incomplete", Arg-e Bam was planned with the need for additions already in mind, and thus they could easily be sewn into the fabric of the already existing structure. They blended seamlessly into it. This also likely benefited Arg-e Bam's continuation; the different facets within the complex served a variety of purposes (such as commercial, religious, political, etc.) and the ease with which additions could be tacked on undoubtedly contributed to a sense of unity within Arg-e Bam. 

Although Arg-e Bam reached the height of its power in the 7th century AD, the site of the citadel had ancient origins which persisted beside and underneath centuries of additions—not reconstructions. The citadel's earliest construction can be dated to the Persian Empire around the 6th century, and Arg-e Bam only continued to grow as new empires came and went. The Sassanian Empire of 224-637 AD is credited with Arg-e Bam's official medieval take-off. Thus, the location remained, in a way, the crux of Middle Eastern strength. The site of Arg-e Bam survived when King Darius I of Persia's Persepolis did not, and it expanded into one of the greatest desert complexes on record.

Structures inside Arg-e Bam, Bam Citadel.

Structures inside Arg-e Bam, Bam Citadel. ( BY SA 4.0)

The Hydraulic System That Kept Arg-e Bam Going

Now, while the site can be called the crux of the Middle East, Arg-e Bam was held together by a scientifically innovative core element: an impressive hydraulic system, constructed to accommodate agricultural endeavors in an otherwise rather dry region. These 3000-year-old systems, called qanats, resembled ancient Roman aqueduct systems only underground. Qanats tap into "underground mountain water sources…and channels the water downhill through a series of gently sloping tunnels…to the places where it is needed for irrigation and domestic use." Suffice to say, without the qanats, the likelihood of the survival of the citadel from ancient times forward is debatable.

Above: A cross section of a typical quanat.
Below: Qanat Niavaran in Iran.

Above: A cross section of a typical quanat. (Samuel Bailey/CC BY 3.0) Below: Qanat Niavaran in Iran. (Zereshk/CC BY SA 3.0)

It was under Persian rule that trade began to flow through this region; located as it is on a natural, elevated plateau, the site "encompasses the central part of the oasis of Bam, including the Citadel of Bam and the area along the Bam Seismic Fault. This contains historical evidence of the evolution of qanat construction from the first millennium till the present." The centrality of Arg-e Bam's location in the Middle East—between China and what was once the Roman Empire— in conjunction with advanced agricultural technology, made it the ideal location for a power center. Thus, the commercial value of the area was retained through the medieval period, even into the present. Silk and cotton trade were the most common commodities that passed through Arg-e Bam centuries ago, officially establishing the 7th-11th centuries as the climax of Arg-e Bam's history.

‘Arrival of a Caravan Outside the City of Morocco’ by Edwin Lord Weeks.

‘Arrival of a Caravan Outside the City of Morocco’ by Edwin Lord Weeks. (Public Domain)

When the Ground Shook Arg-e Bam to its Foundations

Devastatingly, once credited as the largest adobe structure in the world, Arg-e Bam fell victim to a terrible earthquake in 2003. What survives today is predominately a reconstruction of the site's former glory.

The 2000-year-old Citadel, the world’s largest mud fortress, destroyed by the earthquake in Bam, Iran.

The 2000-year-old Citadel, the world’s largest mud fortress, destroyed by the earthquake in Bam, Iran. (Public Domain)

It is nonetheless noteworthy that when Arg-e Bam's extensive existence crumbled, it was not due to military strife or political conquering (though the citadel did face such obstacles in its career). Rather, it was a natural disaster that leveled the site—implying that Arg-e Bam may in fact have been nearly indestructible by human means. The truth of this statement is uncertain; however, the metaphor behind it speaks volumes. Arg-e Bam was truly the pinnacle of ancient and Middle Eastern innovation.

Arg-e Bam, Bam Citadel.

Arg-e Bam, Bam Citadel. (Diego Delso/CC BY SA 4.0)

Top Image: Arge Bam, Bam, Iran. Source: Arad Mojtahedi/CC BY SA 3.0

By Riley Winters


Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Qanāt: water-supply system." Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed December 27, 2017.

Gray, Martin. "Bam Citadel." Sacred Sites. Accessed December 29, 2017.

Khan, Gulnaz. 2017. "This Ancient Citadel Looks Like a Giant Sandcastle." Accessed December 30, 2017.

UNESCO. "Bam and its Cultural Landscape." UNESCO World Heritage Center. Accessed December 30, 2017.

Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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