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Lal Quila (the Red Fort)

Delhi, India

Lal Quila (the Red Fort) was built between 1638 and 1648 at the command of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (who also built the Taj Mahal) as the royal residence in his new capital, Delhi. The fort, representing the highest achievement of Mughal architecture, contained all the accoutrements befitting a center of empire: public and private audience halls, domed marble palaces, luxuriously appointed private apartments, a mosque, and exquisite gardens. Much of the opulence has gone, but in its heyday its magnificence would have been unparalleled, as boasted by an inscription on one of its walls: “If on Earth be an Eden of bliss, it is this, it is this, none but this.”

Delhi stands at the western end of the plain of the Ganges. The epic Mahabharata speaks of it as a thriving city built about 1400 b.c., although archeo-logical reality suggests it was settled about 1,000 years later. The first city named Delhi was founded in the first century b.c. by Raja Dhilu; southwest of the modern location, it had six successors. Its Mughal history is relevant here. In 1526 Babur, the first Mughal ruler, established Delhi as the center of an empire that would unite vast areas of south Asia for the next two centuries. His son Humayun built a new city near Firuzabad but it was leveled when Afghan Sher Shah Suri overthrew him in 1540. He built a new capital, Sher Shahi, as the sixth city of Delhi. Once more eclipsed when the emperors Akbar and Jahangir moved their courts elsewhere, Delhi reached prominence, even glory, in 1638, when Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan moved his capital from Agra to establish the seventh city of Delhi: Shahjahanabad, now known as Old Delhi. Most of it is still embraced by Shah Jahan’s walls, and four of its seventeenth-century gates still stand. He also built Lal Quila as the royal residence within the new city.

Almost immediately, Shah Jahan commissioned the architects Ustad Hamid and Ustad Ahmad to design a fitting royal residence—the Red Fort—at the northeastern corner of Shahjahanabad. It was completed within about ten years. An area of 124 acres (50 hectares) was enclosed within 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) of formidable defense walls. It was flanked by the Yamuna River on the eastern side, which fed a moat 76 feet (22.8 meters) wide and 30 feet (9 meters) deep. Thick red sandstone walls (from which the fort derives its name), punctuated by turrets and bastions, rose 60 feet (18 meters) from the river; those on the other side stood up to 112 feet (33.5 meters) above the surrounding terrain. Two of the six main entrances—the Lahori Gate and the Delhi Gate—survive. Now the moat is dry and the Yamuna flows almost a kilometer away, but Lai Quila towers above the modern city of Delhi that spreads out to the west.

The buildings within the walls are all carefully arranged on the long north-south and shorter east-west