The Baltit and Altit Forts functioned not only as forts for the kingdom of Hunza, but also as living quarters for the ruling Mir and family.
Long ago the area now known as Gilgit-Baltistan was divided into a number of small, independent states. The wealthy Hunza kingdom was one such state and its rulers were known as Mirs. To the north, by means of possession of certain strategic passes, the Mirs of Hunza were able to loot caravans along the Silk Road, and to the south carry out raids to capture slaves. To protect their territory and express their power, the Mirs built fort-palaces, meaning a defensive fort that also functioned as living quarters for the ruling Mir and his family. There are two famous forts in the Hunza locality: Baltit Fort and Altit Fort.
Baltit Fort is an ancient fort in Hunza valley of Gilgit-Baltistan. Local narrations boast that it was built more than 700 years ago and in fact carbon testing has confirmed that parts of the building date back to the 12th century (to 900 years ago). Baltit Fort is built at the top of Hunza hill and overlooks the Baltit village which is now renamed Karimabad in honor of the Aga Khan.
Baltit Fort may originally have started off as two single story houses, with one having an attached defensive tower. Over time, the properties merged and expanded and as the owner grew wealthier, the current fort began to take shape. One of the most renowned and visible features of this fort—the whitewashed façade—was undertaken around the year 1900 and is attributed to Mir Mohammad Nazim Khan. Archaeological techniques have identified over 70 phases of construction and in fact some of the alterations are less than a 100 years old.
Historical sources relate that the Hunza rulers initially resided in the Altit Fort, but the bickering of his two sons forced the ruling Mir to divide his kingdom into two. The eldest son shifted to Baltit Fort and eventually defeated the younger brother. Thus Baltit Fort was established as the seat of power for the Mirs of Hunza. The unique beauty of this fort can be traced back to when a Mir of Hunza, Ayasho II, married Princess Shah Khatun of Baltistan, and as part of her dowry she brought with her Balti artisans and masons who set about altering the face of the fort. Baltistan is culturally and ethnically connected to Tibet, thus the fort shows Tibetan architectural influences.
In 1960, the Mirs of Hunza moved to a new palace downhill and Baltit Fort fell into decay. The Aga Khan Historic Cities Support Program initiated and supported a restoration project which was completed in 1996. UNESCO awarded the Aga Khan Trust with the 2004 Award of Excellence for their restoration of Baltit Fort. The fort is now a museum run by the Baltit Heritage Trust.
Altit Fort is located above the village of Altit, about 3 km from Baltit Fort, in the Hunza valley of Gilgit-Baltistan. Situated at the edge of the main Hunza gorge, it stands upon a 600 meter high sheer rock cliff at the edge of the Hunza River. The fort was built in six stages using the various natural uneven levels of the rock cliff. Given that its watchtower is about 300 years older than the first phase of Baltit Fort, Altit Fort is considered to be the oldest surviving standing structure in the western Himalayas (around a thousand years old).
One of the earliest settlements in that region, Altit village, or Altit Khun, is said to be founded in the 11th century but this claim is disputed. But scholars agree that Altit was the first capital of the Hunza kingdom, and its strategic location along the Silk Road allowed it to flourish. When the capital shifted to Baltit, or Karimabad, Altit began to lose its importance.
As with Baltit Fort, the Altit Fort fell into disuse and was donated by a prince of the former ruling family of Hunza to the Aga Khan Foundation, which restored the fort and the surrounding settlement. In 2011, the Aga Khan Trust was awarded the 2011 UNESCO Award of Distinction for their conservation work at Altit Fort. It was opened as a museum in 2007.
Dani, Ahmad Hasan. History of Northern Areas of Pakistan (upto 2000 AD). Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publ., 2001.