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Château d’If: A medieval fortress-prison, mostly known from the novel The Count of Monte Cristo

Bojan Ivanov

The Château d’If is a medieval fortress that was constructed on the island of If between 1524 and 1531.

The small 30,000 square meter island of If is the smallest island in the Mediterranean Frioul archipelago in the Bay of Marseille, near the city of Marseille in southeastern France. It is situated approximately 3.5 km west of the Vieux Port (Old Port) of Marseille.

The Château d’If and neighboring offshore islands seen from Marseille.

The Château d’If and neighboring offshore islands seen from Marseille.

At first, it was planned to serve as a coastal defense fortress. King Francis I, who visited the area in 1516, ordered the construction of the fortress on the small rocky island. The island was seen as a strategically important location for defending the coastal city of Marseille.

The King wanted Chateau d’If to have three functions: to protect the coastal region from naval attacks, to give cover for the royal fleet of ships, and to keep an eye on the city of Marseille, which had been conquered by France in 1480.

The Château d’If. Author: Jan Drewes (www.jandrewes.de) CC BY-SA 2.5

The Château d’If. Author: Jan Drewes (www.jandrewes.de) CC BY-SA 2.5

The Château d’If with Marseille in the background. Author: Stymphal CC BY-SA 3.0

The Château d’If with Marseille in the background. Author: Stymphal CC BY-SA 3.0

The fortress is a square, three-story structure 92 ft long on each side. The fortification was made carelessly with many imperfections. The walls look similar to the rocky substrate of the island. Three guard towers were also built within the walls.

The fortress was never attacked by enemy ships and perhaps for that reason, it was never strengthened and had its defense capacities improved. Because it was never attacked, it survived untouched through the centuries.

1681 scale model of the Château d’If. Author: Myrabella CC BY-SA 3.0

1681 scale model of the Château d’If. Author: Myrabella CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1800s the island fortress was adapted into a prison. The position of the island made it a perfect location for a prison, and soon it became one of the most famous in Europe. Typical criminals were held there, but it also contained political prisoners and religious offenders, especially Republicans and Protestants. The Revolutionary hero Mirabeau and the surviving members of the Paris Commune of 1871 were imprisoned here.

View from a cell in the Château d’If.

View from a cell in the Château d’If.

The cells in the prison varied according to the class and wealth of the inmates. The poor and lower class convicts were held at the bottom of the fortress in overcrowded, windowless dungeon cells, where hunger and disease were a normal part of the imprisonment. The rich prisoners could pay for their cells, and thus their cells looked like small apartments: they had windows and were equipped with a fireplace.

The cell named after Edmond Dantès at the Château d’If. Author: Ask Nine CC0

The cell named after Edmond Dantès at the Château d’If. Author: Ask Nine CC0

The Château d’If became famous worldwide thanks to the author Alexandre Dimas. In his novel The Count of Monte Cristo the notorious island is the setting of the jail where his protagonist Edmond Dantès was imprisoned 14 years before escaping. In reality, there are no records that anyone ever escaped from d’If.

The fortress today.

The fortress today.

 

Tourists explore the château’s courtyard. Author: Sholybonoly CC BY-SA 2.5

Tourists explore the château’s courtyard. Author: Sholybonoly CC BY-SA 2.5

The prison was closed at the end of the 19th century and was opened to the public in 1890. Today it works as a museum and there are guided tours. One of the former cells has been made to look like as if it were the cell of Edmond Dantès’s in spite of the fact that he was an entirely fictional character.