Tolkien Gateway

Tower of Cirith Ungol

The name Cirith Ungol refers to more than one character, item or concept. For a list of other meanings, see Cirith Ungol (disambiguation).
The Tower of Cirith Ungol
Alan Lee - Cirith Ungol.jpg
"Cirith Ungol" by Alan Lee
General Information
LocationTop ridge of the Ephel Dúath
DescriptionBlack multi-tiered tower
People and History
EventsQuest of the Ring, Battle of Cirith Ungol
GalleryImages of the Tower of Cirith Ungol

The Tower of Cirith Ungol (Sindarin, "Spider's cleft") was a fortress on the left side of the pass of Cirith Ungol in the Ephel Dúath on the western border of Mordor.[1] Frodo was taken into the Tower and searched by Orcs, however he was rescued by Sam before they descended onto the Plateau of Gorgoroth. It is possible that the Tower of Cirith Ungol was originally not called the Tower of Cirith Ungol, because the pass of Cirith Ungol was previously called Cirith Dúath.[2]


[edit] Appearance

The Tower stood against the eastern mountain face of the Ephel Dúath on the mountain slope on the left side of the pass of Cirith Ungol. It looked down on the trough between the Ephel Dúath and the Morgai and on the plateau of Gorgoroth beyond the Morgai. From the west only the round, topmost turret was visible. The turret was supported by three great tiers with pointed bastions that stood on a shelf in the mountain-wall far below and looked north-east and south-east into Mordor. The lowest tier was encircled by a thirty feet high wall with overhanging battlements that enclosed a narrow paved courtyard. The main gate on the south-eastern side of the wall opened on to a broad road that ran along a precipice down to a southward bend and down to join the road that came over the Morgul Pass. A narrower path led down from Cirith Ungol by stairs to meet the broad road near the gate. In the gate were the Two Watchers. Across the courtyard a great door at the foot of the tower led to its interior. A wide passage with doors on either side led from the door to the mountain-side. At the end of the passage was a great arched door that was the inner side of the Undergate. On the right of the Undergate was a winding stairway that led to the upper levels of the tower. The top of the stairs was covered by a domed chamber with low doors facing east and west leading out onto the flat roof of the third tier of the tower. The roof was about 20 yards across and was surrounded by a parapet. On the western side of the roof stood the turret of the tower whose top rose high above the crest of the hills behind the tower. Another winding stairway inside the turret led up to the first and second storey of the turret. The turret had window-slits facing westward and eastward through which torchlight glowed like red eyes. In the ceiling of the passage a trap-door led to the middle of the floor of a large round chamber at the top of the tower.[3]

[edit] History

[edit] Third Age before the War of the Ring

The Tower of Cirith Ungol was originally built by the Gondorians after the War of the Last Alliance as an eastern outpost of the defences of Ithilien. Its purpose was to defend Ithilien and Minas Ithil from attacks from Sauron's remaining servants by guarding the pass of Cirith Ungol and by watching movements in Mordor.

Later the vigilance of Gondor failed and the Tower of Cirith Ungol was yielded up to the Lord of the Ringwraiths due to treachery.[3][note 1]

[edit] War of the Ring

On 13 March 3019, Orcs from the Tower, under the command of Shagrat, captured Frodo after finding his unconscious body in the Pass below.[4] They carried his body through the Under-way and into the Undergate that, besides the main gate, was the only entrance to the Tower. After overhearing Shagrat and Gorbag talking, Sam realized that Frodo had only been paralysed by Shelob and not killed as he had first thought. Sam was too late to gain entry through the Undergate and knocked himself senseless trying to get in.[5]

When Sam awoke on 14 March 3019 he determined to enter the main gate to find Frodo.[4] Mastering his fears, Sam came to the main gate and was halted by the malevolent will of the Two Watchers, stone statues flanking either side of the gate, topped with three vulture-faces each and endowed with spirits of evil. Holding aloft the Phial of Galadriel Sam overcame their will and thrust through the gate, but the Watchers let forth a shrill cry that was echoed by a harsh bell above.

In the meantime, the orcs had searched Frodo. When they found the shirt of mithril mail Frodo was wearing a quarrel over the spoils erupted. A contingent of orcs from Minas Morgul led by Gorbag fought Shagrat and his company for possession of the mithril. The fighting spread throughout the tower and most of the orcs on both sides were killed, making it possible for Sam to proceed and rescue Frodo. Although Sam fought Shagrat the Orc got away, bearing Frodo's gear to Barad-dûr. Sam finally found Frodo in the topmost chamber after killing Snaga. Sam returned the One Ring to Frodo, dressed him and gathered food and gear, and they left the tower. On the way out their use of the Phial caused the gate to crumble behind them. Again a bell clanged and the watchers issued a high and dreadful wail. This was answered far above in the darkness and out of the sky dropped the winged shape of a Nazgûl[6]with a ghastly shriek.[3]

[edit] Other versions of the legendarium

In the first draft ('A') of the chapter The Tower of Kirith Ungol the tower was described to consist of four great tiers and Tolkien drew a sketch of the tower with four tiers. It is mentioned that it was made after the overthrow of Sauron in the days of the Last Alliance. It is described to have been the easternmost outpost of the defence of not only Ithlien, but also of Minas Ithil.[7]

[edit] Drawings

Tolkien made three drawings of the Tower where only the turret is visible[8], and one with the entire bastion [9]. This last picture depicts the Tower in an earlier stage of writing, with four tiers.

[edit] Portrayal in adaptations

1987-96: Middle-earth Role Playing:

In the The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob's Lair module there are five adventures that take place in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, Shelob's Lair and the surrounding area. It is mentioned that the Tower of Cirith Ungol was built by Gondor early in the Third Age. It is mentioned that the Tower of Cirith Ungol is still manned by a reduced Gondorian consisting of 120 persons in T.A. 1640 and that the Tower of Cirith Ungol was left uninhabited by the end of the second millennium of the Third Age. The module contains floor plans and descriptions for eleven levels of the tower and a plan of Shelob's lair including the tunnel that leads to a gate in the first Level of the Tower of Cirith Ungol.
In the Teeth of Mordor module in the Fortresses of Middle-earth series it is described that Isildur began a grand plan to seal off Mordor and that the construction of the Tower of Cirith Ungol began before the end of T.A. 3019 and was completed during the reign of Anardil (T.A. 324 - T.A. 411). It is mentioned that by T.A. 1640 the last citadel guarding Mordor was abandoned. It is said that in the same year of the closing of the Dúnadan fortresses guarding Mordor Sauron sent all Ringwraiths except the Witch-king and Khamûl to lake Núrnen with the mission to ready Mordor for his return. It is described that they sent scouts north who found that the Gondorian fortresses were abandoned and that the Ringwraiths Ren and Indûr occupied the Tower of Cirith Ungol. It is further said that Gondor concerned with internal matters scarcely noted the activity.
In the Gorgoroth campain module it is described that the Ringwraiths Indûr Dawndeath and Ren The Unclean met the other Ringwraiths except the Witch-king in T.A. 1640 in the castle of Ostigurth to prepare the Black Land for Sauron's return. It is described that Indûr joined his companions in the siege of Minas Ithil in T.A. 2000. It is further mentioned that Ren often travelled between Barad-wath and Minas Morgul after T.A. 2002. It is mentioned that the basic garrison of the three-tiered Barad Ungol (the Tower of Cirith Ungol) consists of 48 Uruk-hai and 160 Orcs.

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

In Scene 43, "The Choices of Master Samwise", Frodo first sees the turret at the top of the tower through a narrow cleft, with a single red light glowing. Frodo is stung by Shelob, Sam fights and defeats the spider, and then Shagrat and orcs come upon Frodo's body. There is no Under-way or Undergate; the Orcs carry the body up the path with Sam following behind.
In Scene 58, "The Tower of Cirith Ungol" (Extended Version), the view zooms into a window of the turret to show Frodo, still unconscious, lying on the floor while Shagrat and Gorbag go through his possessions. Frodo awakes while the two Orcs find the Mithril coat. Unlike their roles in the book, Shagrat wants the coat for himself while Gorbag insists it goes to Sauron. A fight breaks out that soon envelopes all of the Orcs in the Tower. As the Orcs slaughter each other, Sam approaches the gate and spies the Two Watchers. The scene jumps to Sam inside the gate without showing the contest of wills. Sam climbs the inside of the tower and his shadow scares four Orcs, including Shagrat himself, descending the stairs. Sam kills three of the Orcs while Shagrat escapes with the Mithril coat. In the turret room Frodo struggles to free himself, attracting the attention of Gorbag, who threatens to bleed him "like a stuck pig". However, the point of Sting suddenly pops out of Gorbag's chest as Sam kills the Orc. Sam reluctantly returns the Ring to Frodo and they dress themselves as Orcs before they leave the Tower. Their escape past the Two Watchers is not shown.
The Tower's appearance in the film closely matches the text, a tiered bastion of dark stone with a turret bearing a red light at the top.


  1. In Appendix A I (iv) in the entry for King Telemnar it is mentioned that the fortresses that guarded the passes to Mordor were unmanned. In Αppendix B it is mentioned that Mordor was left unguarded in T.A. 1640 and that the Witch-king came to Mordor in T.A. 1980. In appendix A I (iv) in the entry for King Eärnil II it is mentioned that the Nazgûl came from Mordor by the pass of Cirith Ungol and laid siege to Minas Ithil in T.A. 2000. It seems unlikely that Gondor did not keep a garrison at the Tower of Cirith Ungol while it still occupied Minas Ithil, because the Tower of Cirith Ungol was an observation point from which forces coming from Mordor could be spotted early and because it guarded the pass of Cirith Ungol that led to Minas Ithil. The mentioning that the Tower of Cirith Ungol was yielded to the Witch-king due to treachery makes it probable that it was manned by Gondor until 2000.


  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "Map of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor"
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "The Disaster of the Gladden Fields", "Notes", note 11
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Tower of Cirith Ungol"
  4. 4.0 4.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B, "The Great Years"
  5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Choices of Master Samwise"
  6. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Land of Shadow"
  7. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Sauron Defeated, "Part One: The End of the Third Age: II. The Tower of Kirith Ungol", pp. 18, 19, 20
  8. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, pp. 171, 172, 173
  9. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, p. 174