Ardahan Fortress rises over the northern bank of the Kura River, flowing slowly to the east. The hill where the fortress was erected has gentle slopes and an almost flat top. It dominates the fertile plain where the small town of Ardahan has developed. The valley has had strategic importance since the times unknown, as all the major transportation routes of the region pass through it. On the other hand, not much is known about the prehistory and ancient history of Ardahan, and the information available is a mixture of facts and myths. Sami Patacı from the University of Ardahan lamented: "[The Ardahan Province is] a relatively neglected area of archaeological research in northeastern Turkey. The dynamics of cultural development in this region at the northern frontier of the Near Eastern archaeology are still problematic, as its archaeology has so far received very limited attention, especially when compared with other borderlands in eastern Turkey and Transcaucasia."
According to Georgian mythology, the city of Ardahan, which was known as Atone or Kadjtha-Kalak, was fortified for the first time by a descendant of Kartlos. Kartlos, the great great grandson of Noah, was the eponymous ancestor of the Georgians, described by Leonti Mroveli in the 11th century in "Georgian Chronicles", presumably recorded from much earlier oral traditions.
Back to a firmer historical ground, archaeological excavations conducted within the fortress confirmed that the area was inhabited from the Early Bronze Age, i.e. 3500-2000 BCE. Historical sources provide the information that Ardahan was a major transit point for the goods travelling from the lands of the Abbasid Caliphate to the Black Sea region from the 9th to the 11th century. It was held by the Bagratid princes of the Principality of Tao-Klarjeti, and then it fell under the Arab rule for a short time. Next, Ardahan became a part of the Kingdom of Georgia.
Yahya of Antioch, the 11th-century Christian historian, recounted that in 1021 the Byzantine army captured Ardahan and slaughtered its population. It happened during Emperor Basil II's eastern campaign against the Georgians and their Armenian allies. The next half of the millennium saw Ardahan change hands very frequently, for example, the Mongol army captured it in the 1230s, but it returned to Georgians in 1266, when it was reconquered by the princes of Samtskhe-Saatabago. The other major players in the region in those times were: the Seljuks, the Ak Koyunlu and the Kara Koyunlu Turkomans.
Finally, Ardahan was incorporated within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, during the reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, according to the information provided by the inscription above the gate of Ardahan Castle. The acquisition of Ardahan resulted from the provisions of the Peace of Amasya, signed between Shah Tahmasp and Sultan Suleyman, following the Ottoman–Safavid War of 1532–1555. The inscription commemorating the reconstruction of the fortress claims that: "Sultan Suleyman, son of Sultan Selim Han, the ruler of Arabs, Persians, and Romans, and seas and lands, had it constructed in the year 1556, August/September. God keep his country forever."
These dates were also confirmed by Evliya Çelebi who visited the region in the 1640s. Unfortunately, he failed to provide the detailed description of the fortress itself. He only mentioned that "The fortress of Ardahan sits atop an inaccessible cliff. It is square-shaped and sturdy [...] This fortress has a cold climate and, because of this, there are no gardens or orchards."
After rather uneventful three hundred years, Ardahan Fortress reappeared on the pages of history during the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829. The Ottomans wanted to use Ardahan as a base that would help them secure the Armenian Highlands. Therefore, with the assistance of German engineers, they erected a line of fortifications, stretching to the north and the east of the medieval castle. However, they failed to keep the region, and it fell under the Russian control, as a part of the Kars Oblast.
The Russian forces kept Ardahan, with short breaks, until the October Revolution, when they withdrew and were replaced with an Armenian volunteer garrison. The Ottoman army retook the city in March of 1918 but when the First World War ended Ardahan was occupied by the British army that handed it over to the Democratic Republic of Georgia. The Turkish army returned in 1920, and the remaining Armenian, Pontic Greek, and Georgian population was forced to flee, ending the multicultural history of the city. Finally, the Treaty of Kars was signed in 1921, and Ardahan was confirmed as a Turkish city.
Unfortunately, the main source of the knowledge concerning the fortifications in northeastern Turkey, Robert W. Edwards' report published in 1986, is not very informative in the context of Ardahan Fortress. As the author admits: "[...] those in Kars refused admittance into Ardahan Kalesi for reasons of 'security.' The fortress in Ardahan is presently garrisoned, and part of the interior is a rifle range. Consequently, I was unable to measure this site, and my brief description is derived from observations of the exterior." Thus, the speculation that Ardahan Fortress is a Georgian construction was based only on the features that Edwards could observe from the outside. He admits that he could not establish a chronology of the castle but ventures to make some parallels between this structure and "its late medieval counterparts at Kutaisi and Mcheta."
Ardahan Fortress has a trapezoid plan, and it is surrounded by the fortification walls, 754 meters long. They encompass an area of more than 32 thousand square meters. There are 14 towers along the walls: the four bastions projecting outward on the north wall are on the polygonal plan while the remaining ones were erected on the square plan. At present, there is only one entrance to the castle, situated at its western side. In the past, the access to the fortress was also possible via several other gates that are now blocked.
Above the main gate, there is the commemorative inscription in Arabic script, dating back to the times of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. In the same location, two peculiar blocks can be seen built into the walls. One of them is decorated with a lion relief while the other bears the relief of a shield.
The walls of the castle were built of the stones of the medium and small size. In the corners, larger cut stones were used. There is a difference in elevation between the northern and southern half of the fortress area, due to the inclination of the hill. The southern part, closer to the Kura River, is lower than the northern part. The difference of altitude between these two sections increases from the west to the east. The difference between the highest land in the north and the lowest land in the south is around 36 meters. Moreover, the southern wall of the fortress is almost 50% higher than the northern wall.
The most detailed description of the fortress, along with the ground plan and colourful photographs, was provided by Sami Patacı from the University of Ardahan, in his book "Ardahan Kale ve Kuleleri", published in 2016. The most fascinating find he reported is the small inscription in the Georgian script, built into the fortification walls. It is the oldest construction element discovered within the castle. The inscription, located on the northern wall, three meters above the ground, has the dimensions of 45 to 31 centimetres. It consists of four lines, transcripted into "Holy Stone. Jacop's Rock" with the letters 3 to 8.5 centimetres high. Because of this text, Sami Patacı supposed that it had originally been part of an older structure, most possibly a church, and was later reused to erect the fortress.
Nowadays, the Turkish army no longer occupies the grounds within the fortification walls, and the castle is open to visitors. The restoration of Ardahan Fortress was carried out in 2000, and now it is a popular picnic area for local families. There are shaded tables to sit and relax, and the paths have been prepared for the comfort of the visitors. Climbing the walls is officially forbidden, by this ban is frequently ignored. Actually, there's not much to see within the fortress and meeting the geese may prove to be the most thrilling moment of the visit, especially for the younger generation of explorers.
There are no official opening hours and the admittance into the fortress is free of charge.
I'd like to thank Fatih Özaydın and Mehmet Tütüncü for their help with the translation of the castle's inscription.
Ardahan Fortress is situated in the centre of Ardahan, just to the east of D010 road that connects the city with Artvin in the west (115 km). The nearest significant city is Kars, 90 km to the south.