Set attractively in a wide, steep-sided mountain valley, unassuming Kaleybar town makes a great starting point for random hikes and visiting nomad camps en route to the upper Aras River Valley. But by far its biggest draw is the extensive crag-top ruin of Babak Castle. It's a national symbol of Iran high up in the the Arasbaran forest near Kaleybar City. It was also one of the last regional strongholds to fall to Arab invaders in the 9th Century.
Hisory of Babak Castle (Qaleh Babak)
The castle, built on 2300-2600 meter heights, surrounded by gorges as deep as 400 to 600 meters, is believed to belong to the Parthian dynasty and modified under the Sassanid dynasty. This castle, named after Bābak Khorramdin the warlord, managed to resist the Arab armies until 839CE. Babak was the leader of the Khurramites in Azerbaijan who fought the Abbassid Islamic caliphate. For this reason the large citadel is also known as the Immortal Castle or Republic Castle.
In the ruins of the rooms and corridors, pottery and coins dating from the 13th century have been found by Iranian archeologists and restoration teams (since 1998). Access is difficult, but the scenery is stunning, involving an arduous uphill walk from the base of what used to be Babak Hotel (may reopen in the future).
Getting to Babak Castle
To get to Babak Castle first you'll need to catch a bus or private transport to Kaleybar City, from there the castle is located 6 km southwest of Kaleybar City.
The ascent to the castle is not for the infirm, elderly, or those afraid of heights. To reach the castle, one has to trek a tortuous and narrow passageway and then cross a corridor-shaped temple, 200 meters in lengths. You will need good walking shoes or hiking boots, a sun hat, plenty of water, and around 3 hours for the climb, and 2 hours for the descent.
There is a series of long and broken steps leading to the top of a hill, you'll then find several choices for further ascent. The easiest route to the castle is the one straight in front of the steps, you'll notice the long worn dirt track. However there's no signage towards the Castle so just keep to the left side walking in the direction towards the peak.
At the end of the track turn left onto the rocky mountain face, just be careful not to slip. The first sign of the ruins will appear on your left, but don't get too excited just yet, because the actual Babak Castle is another 2 peaks away. The first peak offers spectacular views of the Castle and from the second peak, with its own ruins, you will see the Castle perched on top a jagged cliff.
Climbing the Castle steps is a hazardous process; there are near vertical cliffs on your right hand side, and no protective handrails to prevent a fall into the gorge several hundred meters down. Needless to say, try to take extreme care of the cliff edges and hold onto your loved ones.
Once you have climbed the peak you'll start appreciating the effort in building and maintaining a fort at this altitude. Unfortunately, you will also have to tolerate the graffiti on the ancient walls. Under no circumstances should you even consider climbing these walls: firstly this can damage the old structure, and secondly any fall would likely result in death.
Despite the hazards and effort, the experience is well worth the arduous journey. The surrounding Arasbaran oak forest, jagged cliffs, mountain scenery, and the history of the region combine together beautifully to create one of the best vistas in Iran.
Two More Reasons to Visit East Azerbaijan
With it's many sites, including the UNESCO listed Tabriz Historical Bazaar, you'll start to appreciate the the local Azeri culture, arts and music. Just don't miss the El Goli Park in Tabriz to relax after a great breakfast.
Staying overnight at Kandovan Laleh Rocky Hotel is an unforgettable experience. The hotel has 40 rooms with a jacuzzi and natural stone audio-visual theater. It's called the Cappadocia of Iran for a reason.
Iranian Azarbaijanis gather at Babak Castle during the first weekend in July for the annual commemoration of Babak Khorramdin. Network to get a free ride, or like most people just hire a local tour guide or join a pre-arranged tour to drive you there and show you the way.
Where to Stay
My favorite hotel, not just in Tabriz but in Azerbaijan, is the El Goli Pars Hotel. It's right next to the huge park of the same name, with a revolving restaurant and great views over the city and parklands. Doubles from US $100, including breakfast.
The newer Tabriz Hotel has smart doubles from $181, including breakfast.
From Tabriz you can use it as a base to reach Babak Castle by tour or local transport. Homestays near Kaleybar normally ask for around $15-$20 a day per person, including meals. Due to their natural hospitality some will refuse money but please always insist as poverty here is common and some families will not eat themselves in order to serve guests. Keep in mind camping in the area is also wildly popular, look out for potential campsites or ask around in Kaleybar.
Need to Know
Note: travelers need a visa for Iran, you can apply for your visa at most embassies with a Authorization Code from the MFA.
For general up-to-date information about hiking in Iran see this excellent website: