The Hollywood blockbuster Troy rekindled interest in a famous Mediterranean island. Malta was called by Christopher Columbus the “Heart of the Mediterranean”. This island-country is dotted with numerous small houses built of milky-yellow stones. The colour creates a delightful contrast with the azure Mediterranean.
Carcassone Castle is located in southern France. Its well-preserved stone walls were built during the Middle Ages. The vast castle, from its flagstones at the gate to the roof of its central church, is built of stone. Today, this ancient stone castle-cum-city is a popular tourist attraction.
In the East, there are a people who, for many generations, have lived on a plateau 2,000 to 3,000 meters above sea level. They are the Tibetans, one of the fifty-six members of the great family of Chinese nationalities. The Tibetan people have also built themselves a great city of stone. The stone houses are often referred to as watchtowers. Over the centuries, these buildings have served as a stone shield protecting the Tibetan people inside, from invaders.
The stone city on the plateau is among the most elevated collections of buildings in the world. As the architectural embodiment of the Tibetan people’s strong character, it is a construction miracle symbolizing the human conquest of the harshest natural environment.
The village of Zhibo lies in the Songgang area of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. Zhibo, with its famous watchtowers, is part of the miracle of the stone city on the mountain peak.
The Suomo River runs past mountains and through valleys. At the side of the river is Barkan, a rich area of land in Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture.
Barkan is a Tibetan word, meaning “land of blossoming flame”. For many generations, this city on a plateau 2,600 meters above sea level, has been home to Tibetans.
The stone buildings with their clearly-defined outlines are watchtowers built of earth and rubble. Standing silently on the mountainsides, they create a sense of perfect harmony with their natural surroundings.
It was more than a century ago when Tibetan people began living in these watchtowers.
At the time, a system of rule by chieftains was in force in Tibetan areas. A particular tribe would be governed by a chieftain, who was not only a respected local leader, but also an official appointed by the imperial court.
The Tibetan areas were divided by mountains and rivers into several territories, each under the rule of a different chieftain. These territories were semi-independent, self-governing regions. Their chieftains, in order to exhibit their personal dignity and wealth, would order large stone cities to be built, known as “official strongholds”.
Narrow stone paths across the mountains connect all the stone houses.
For a time, the most powerful of the Tibetan chieftains was the ruler of Zhibo in Songgang. He had two octagonal watchtowers built on the mountains. The southern one stands in the village itself, while the northern one rises on the mountain ridge above. The two watchtowers stand 200 meters away from each other. Like guards, they remind visitors that they are entering Tibetan territory.
Looking around, mountain trenches from all four directions can be seen, converging on one another. Viewed from the mountain ridge, three rivers can be seen, meeting at the mountain’s foot. They are a rich source of water for irrigation, and also bring a sense of vibrancy to the village.
The area is surrounded by tall mountains. Landslides are quite common, making it very dangerous to live at the foot of the mountain. A stronghold built on higher ground is not only safer; it also attracts sufficient sunlight. All the houses in the stronghold face east. This allows them to make the most of the light from the rising sun, and also prevents the freezing north wind from entering.
Grain and fruit trees are planted at the mountain’s foot.
Here, the land also conceals a secret.
From the opposite mountain, the official stronghold of the Zhibo chieftain can be seen among the rolling hills. The mountain extends like a great dragon, with the small hill representing its head. The watchtowers are like two horns pointing up to the azure sky.
The stronghold of the Zhibo chieftain is well integrated with the green mountains and running rivers. As such, it accords with the theory of Fengshui in Tibetan culture, which stresses the unity of nature and man. The selection of the site for the official stronghold reveals the Tibetan people’s wisdom in adapting to Nature in order to survive.
The Zhibo chieftain divided his stronghold into administrative and residential districts.
The vast residence of the chieftain himself lies at the top of the highest mountain. Looking down from his courtyard, he could survey the vast territory over which he ruled.
Tibetans are Buddhists, and according to the Tibetan caste system, Buddhist holy men enjoy a status inferior only to the chieftain. So they would usually live on the mountainside, just below the chieftain.
Tibet in ancient times was a rigidly hierarchical society. Ordinary people were prohibited from entering areas higher up the mountainsides. The chieftains and holy men were entitled to a relatively private living environment.