From Winterfell to Qarth: Architecture and City Design in A Song of Ice and Fire

When viewers first read about Winterfell in George R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, immediate associations come to mind: dark, snow-riddled walls, ivy-encrusted stone towers, and castles steeped in tradition and history. These associations are no accident; they are strategically created and pulled from real world influences to help create a specific atmosphere. While accuracy to the genuine Middle Ages is irrelevant to this discussion, classic ‘medievalism’ has greatly influenced the architecture of Westeros and Essos, in both Martin’s story world as well as in HBO’s production. Here we will focus on the influences of medieval cities on the locations in A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as look at why these sources were chosen. What connects the domes of Constantinople to King’s Landing? And why is Braavos so clearly inspired by Venice?

Real world influences in fictional story worlds can be used to immediately evoke feelings that we associate with places in our world. The architecture and city design in A Song of Ice and Fire is used in a dynamic way and plays a much more important role than a simple backdrop for action. It evokes emotions and associations from our memories and sets a specific atmosphere that is critical to the story’s success. Below, we look at cities in each major region of Martin’s world, and assess what their historical influences were, as well as why these specific influences were chosen.

Northern Westeros

The North, as with the rest of Martin’s world, is a carefully crafted blend of history and fiction intended to evoke associations with hardiness and tradition. Dark, grey stone walls and ancient oak roofs evoke memories of Northern English and Scottish castles steeped in medieval folklore. These castles are used to evoke the kind of associations that Martin needed to create in the North.

Winterfell

Winterfell, as depicted in The World of Ice and Fire.

Winterfell, as depicted in The World of Ice and Fire. (Martin and Garcia, 2014)

To begin, Winterfell is clearly influenced by the classic image of the northern English and Scottish medieval castle. This is pre-Gothic architecture, as the focus of the design is on functionality, not aesthetics. Winterfell’s first functional element comes from its need for defense, with two staggering stone walls fortifying the castle and a moat placed strategically in between.1 The second element of functionality is the integration of the hot springs located under the castle into the architectural design. This feature draws directly from the Ancient Roman use of hot springs during fort and town building, as seen in Bath in Somerset.2

So why did Martin choose to pick the classic ‘medieval’ northern castle as his inspiration for Winterfell, stronghold of the Starks? I believe his reasons are two-fold: first, it sets the tone of the Stark family, and second, it reminds the reader of the constant presence of winter. The Starks are an extremely old house, steeped in their ‘old ways’. The architecture of Winterfell is designed to illustrate the Starks’ long-standing lineage and dedication to tradition. It brings associations with the castles in our world that appear in folklore and myth, hidden away in the moors. Using the northern castle as inspiration also plays into the Starks’ motto, “Winter is Coming”. Winterfell is supposed to look like it has lasted a thousand winters, and what better inspiration than castles that have actually done so. The thick, grey stones and intricate hot spring networks illustrate the need for protection against the bitter cold, and remind readers and viewers alike that winter is around every corner.

The Iron Islands

Pyke and the Iron Islands as depicted on DeviantArt

Pyke and the Iron Islands as depicted on DeviantArt. (Francisco, 2013)

            Clearly Martin drew a lot of his inspiration for the Ironborn from the Vikings. However, one large element where the two differ is in their architecture. Elements of Martin’s Northern architecture seep into the design of Pyke and the Iron Islands, instead of a more traditional Viking wood longhouse 3. Pyke is described as once being a great stronghold castle (akin to Winterfell), but throughout the years the cliffs fell away leaving scattered stone buildings on little islands 4. So the question for the Ironborn is what the significance is of Pyke’s architecture that would warrant a change from their Vikings influence? My argument would be based on that Martin wanted to maintain a connection between the Ironborn and the Northerners. Much of Westeros, although vast and diverse, hold a lot of similarities that unite them as one unit, instead of as separate kingdoms. The continuation of this pre-gothic ‘northern medieval’ architecture allows for a connection between the North and the Iron Islands, as well as works to lift Pyke to the same rank as other great castles of the North. Looking past the changes in city and castle design, what else is interesting in the architecture of Pyke is its slow and steady destruction due to waves. This may allude to the slow and steady decline of the power of the Ironborn, or be nothing more than a stylistic choice to show the authority of the ocean in their culture. Either way, the architecture of Pyke and the Iron Islands help to set Martin’s narrative’s atmosphere, and evoke associations to a land steeped in faith and seawater.

Winterfell, as depicted in HBO's Game of Thrones

Winterfell, as depicted in HBO’s Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011)

Pyke, as depicted in HBO's Game of Thrones. (HBO, 2012)

Pyke, as depicted in HBO’s Game of Thrones (HBO, 2012)

HBO’s portrayal of Winterfell and the Iron Islands are similar to Martin’s version in his books. HBO chose Ireland as the set location for much of the North, including Winterfell and the Iron Islands. Beyond being a timeless and beautiful place, Ireland’s past evokes feelings of pagan mysticism 5. Our Ireland has stories of leprechauns, fairies and Celtic gods; Martin’s version has the children of the forest, direwolves and the godswoods. I believe HBO used these Irish associations to their benefit and to further illustrate the impact of magic and tradition on the North and its people. The rugged coasts of Ireland also lend themselves to the setting of the Iron Islands. 

Southern Westeros 

King’s Landing

As the seat of power in Westeros, King’s Landing is equal parts threatening as it is wondrous. Even the art work below, show a vast and intimidating mecca of palaces, churches, homes and slums.

King's Landing, as depicted in The World of Ice and Fire. (

King’s Landing, as depicted in The World of Ice and Fire. (Martin and Garcia, 2013)

The hardy, grey medieval castles of the North make way for the Red Keep, which towers over its city like the throne it holds 6. The Red Keep’s only rival in stature would be the great Sept of Baelor, whose likely influences will be discussed at the end of this section. The sheer vastness of King’s Landing is needed to illustrate itself as the capital and stronghold of Westeros. There also needed to be a shift in climate between the North and the South of Westeros, which is clearly illustrated in the design of King’s Landing. Here architecture moves away from functionality, and more to the aesthetic side.

In terms of its medieval influences, Martin pulled from a variety of places to piece together the powerhouse that is King’s Landing. It is not clearly influenced by one city over another; instead Martin took his influences and mixed them together to create his archetypal medieval capital city. Two clear influences to King’s Landing, however, are Constantinople and Medieval London. To start, Martin draws many clear parallels to medieval Constantinople in his depiction of King’s Landing. Constantinople was a rich and cosmopolitan city, located in modern day Turkey 7. It was considered one of the centers of the medieval world, as it was strategically placed coastally, as well as being a major seat for religion. Both cities are expansive, affluent and secure as well as having moved through many different rulers and empires. Both cities also have been influenced by different architectures throughout their various rulers and wars. The Sept of Baelor, for instance, draws clear comparisons to the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople (IMAGE OF THE TWO).

The Sept of Baelor (HBO, 2012) draws remarkable similarities to the Hagia Sophia  (Tesla Society)

The Sept of Baelor (HBO, 2012) draws remarkable similarities to the Hagia Sophia in present day Istanbul (Basilica of Hagia Sophia)

Here Martin could be drawing direct connections between the Faith of the Seven and Eastern Orthodoxy 8. Or he could also have simply modeled his colossal Sept of Baelor off the beautiful and equally colossal Hagia Sophia. Whatever the reason behind it, though, the Sept of Baelor connection is only one of many parallels that can be drawn between the city design of King’s Landing and Constantinople. One last influence this is more ambiguous is the influence of Medieval London on King’s Landing’s architecture and city design. I believe Martin drew influences from the medievalist view of London: bursting at the seams. The slums and over crowdedness of King’s Landing seem to draw on this inspiration. Whether Martin used one, both or none of these ancient cities for inspiration, he succeeded in creating a vibrant and daunting capital, worthy of its imperial name.

Dubrovnik, Croatia, town used as King's Landing in HBO's Game of Thrones (Wexler, 2013)

Dubrovnik, Croatia, town used as King’s Landing in HBO’s Game of Thrones. (Wexler, 2013)

The show’s portrayal of Kings Landing, while capturing the essence of Martin’s version, does have some unique elements from the book series. HBO uses Dubrovnik, Croatia as it’s setting for King’s Landing. This leads to the show’s version of King’s Landing to having a more ‘western’ image than many readers had envisioned. However, with the use of CGI, many more classically ‘eastern’ architectural elements do come back into play, especially in the design of the Red Keep.

Sunspear

Sunspear, as depicted in The World of Ice and Fire (Martin and Garcia, 2013)

Sunspear, as depicted in The World of Ice and Fire (Martin and Garcia, 2013)

Dorne is unique from the rest of Westeros in more ways than one. Martin uses the architecture of Sunspear to highlight these differences. Martin had to strike a balance between separating Dorne and Sunspear from the more ‘European’ Westeros, while keeping it from becoming too exotic and distant. To do this, Martin chose a variety of influences for Sunspear, both from the west and the east. To begin, much of the architecture is clearly inspired by Moorish Spain.

Example of Moorish Architecture

Example of Moorish Architecture. (Cat, 2008)

The rounded shapes in the building design are traditionally Moorish, as are the gold domes crowning the towers 9. Martin most likely chose this influence as Spain hits a fine line between being traditional ‘Europe’ while having its own distinct culture and design. Moreover, there are also clear influences from Ancient Palestine in the architectural design of Sunspear. Palestine is also influenced by Moorish architecture, so it makes sense that similarities can be drawn between the two 10. I believe the Palestinian influence was chosen for the main reason that Palestine and the Middle East are thought of as a hot and exotic location. Dorne is supposed to be seen as a lush, exotic and dangerous spot, which are all stereotypes of medieval Middle East. The last influence, which is more vague but still remaining, is that of Greek Cycladic architecture. The Cyclades is a group of islands between Greece and Turkey. This puts them at an interesting junction between the East and the West. They are famous for their whitewashed polygonal walls and buildings, which are the main feature that Martin seems to draw from in his design of Sunspear 11. There are two reasons why Martin used these influences. First, because this design feature is commonly seen as feminine, it illustrates the strong female influences in Dorne. Second, Cycladic walls are often described as ‘snake-like’, which could highlight the dangers of Sunspear or the Sand Snakes themselves. To wrap up, there are clearly many influences to Martin’s design of Sunspear, but they all work together to create a place of exotic beauty and intrigue.

We have yet to see Sunspear appear in HBO’s Game of Thrones, however, we do know that they have shot many of the Dornish scenes in Seville, Spain. They are obviously drawing on the Moorish inspirations of Sunspear, and are even using what many consider to be one of the shining examples of Moorish architecture: Alcazar 12. As seen below in the set design video from HBO, Alcazar seems like a great set to illustrate the beautiful and mysterious Dorne (VIDEO).

(Canal+ España, 2014)

Essos

While the architecture and city designs of Essos could fill an entire book by themselves, these two cities were chosen as they both illustrate clear inspiration from our medieval world. Braavos and Qarth are both designed in a way to help illuminate the exoticism of places that move farther from Westeros. Both cities are hinted to have thought to have magical elements in them, and Martin uses specific influences too demonstrate this.

Braavos

Braavos, as depicted in HBO's Game of Thrones (HBO, 2014)

Braavos, as depicted in HBO’s Game of Thrones (HBO, 2014)

Martin takes great lengths to illustrate Braavos as a city of mystery and influence. Braavos is one of the free cities, although it is very independent from its sister states. A city of trade, it plays a large part in the politics of Westeros, although it resides in Essos 13. A lot of this has to do with the Bank of Braavos, which holds many, including the crown, in debt. Our medieval history has a great impact on how Braavos is portrayed architecturally. The clearest influence here is Venice. Both are filled with half sunken buildings connected by haphazard bridges over snakelike rivers 14. In the below comparison, medieval Venice and Braavos draw huge visual similarities.

A Map of Braavos (Martin, 2012)

A Map of Braavos from Lands of Ice and Fire (Martin, 2012)

Map of Venice, 1566. (Bertelli, 1566)

Map of Venice, 1566. (Bertelli, 1566)

But the question is why would Martin pick Venice as such a clear influence? The answer lies in our medievalist view of Venice. Venice has always had an element of mystery too it, conjuring images of masks, foggy canals and shady dealings in alleys. In this way it makes perfect sense to draw inspiration for Braavos. It needed to be a place where it seemed believable there could be faceless assassins and the all-powerful Bank of Braavos. While a realistic telling of Venice’s history would be far from Martin’s Braavos, our medievalist view of Venice provides a plethora of inspiration.

Qarth

Qarth, as depicted in HBO's Game of Thrones (HBO, 2012)

Qarth, as depicted in HBO’s Game of Thrones (HBO, 2012)

Finally we are going to look at our most distant and alien city: Qarth. Qarth seems to be a meeting place; a meeting of cultures and a meeting between east, west, north and south. Most often when thinking of the Middle Ages we could picture a ideal oasis from the desert filled with beautiful intricate architecture and lush foliage. In this way Qarth is supposed to be a grand show of wealth and beauty. It is supposed to be an almost unbelievable oasis in the middle of the sand. A lot of how Martin portrayed Qarth seems to be about emphasizing its exotic appeal. Pictures show it filled with luscious foliage and warm stone archways, perpetually basking in the sun. For Qarth, Martin clearly drew most of his inspiration from Constantinople 15. The triple walls surrounding the city are a direct parallel, providing both cities with much needed protection 7. Similar to the discussion above about King’s Landing, much of the architecture seems to be inspired by the thick stone arches and walkways of Constantinople. As well, domes are also a feature directly pulled from Byzantine architecture 16. So why were these influences chosen? Qarth needed to be a place of riches and mystery. A place where one could live their life in rich excess, surrounded by marble walls and intricate mosaics. It also needed to be a place far attached from the rest of the world, a place where magic could be possible. In this respect Qarth stands apart from Constantinople, and reaches for more exotic inspiration like Morocco, and further into the Middle East and Africa 17.

Footnotes:

1George R.R Martin and Elio Garcia, “Winterfell” The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros (Fantasy Flight Publishing, 2014), 142-143.
2Tim Lambert, “A Brief History of Bath.” A History of Bath, England, http://www.localhistories.org/bath.html (accessed on April 1, 2015).
3“Viking Houses.” Viking Denmark, http://www.vikingdenmark.com/viking-houses-architecture-inside-layout.html (accessed on April 1, 2015).
4Martin and Garcia, “Pyke” The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros, 193.
5James Bonwick, “Part II. Early Religions Of The Irish: Irish Gods.” Sacred Texts, http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/idr/idr19.htm (accessed on April 2, 2015).
6Martin and Garcia,The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros, 131.
7“Let’s Talk about Game of Thrones Part 1: Byzantine Constantinople.” Going Medieval, http://goingmedieval.tumblr.com/post/62408555194/lets-talk-about-game-of-thrones-part-1-byzantine (accessed on April 3, 2015).
8“Eastern Orthodoxy.” Patheos Library,http://www.patheos.com/Library/Eastern-Orthodoxy.html (accessed on April 3, 2015).
9Sue Caryl, “Moorish Architecture.” National Geographic Education, http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/media/moorish-art/?ar_a=1 (accessed on April 3, 2015).
10Colum Hourihane, “Early Christian Architecture.” The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture(Oxford University Press, Vol 2, 2012), 379.
11Markos Karydis, “Cycladic Architecture.” Greece, http://ezinearticles.com/?Greece—Cycladic-Architecture&id=918711 (accessed on April 3, 2015).
12Cian Gaffney, “Spain to Serve as Dorne in Game of Thrones Season 5.” HBO Watch, http://hbowatch.com/spain-to-serve-as-dorne-in-game-of-thrones-season-5/ (accessed on April 3, 2015).
13Martin and Garcia, “Braavos” The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros, 271-275.
14“History of Venice.” History World, http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?groupid=429&HistoryID=aa43>rack=pthc (accessed on April 4, 2015).
15Steven Hastings-Young, “What Historical Parallels or Allusions Are There in Game of Thrones?” Quora, http://www.quora.com/What-historical-parallels-or-allusions-are-there-in-Game-of-Thrones-Are-there-any-societies-or-countries-or-political-sagas-that-Game-of-Thrones-ASOIAF-is-based-on-or-similar-to (accessed on April 4, 2015).
16“Byzantine Architecture.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1365642/Byzantine-architecture (accessed on April 4, 2015).
1717.”The Cultural Influences of The World of Ice and Fire.” A Forum of Ice and Fire, http://asoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/topic/121728-the-cultural-influences-of-the-world-of-ice-and-fire/ (accessed on April 4, 2015).

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