Sunday 30 June 2019

Cities of Fantasy: Tar Valon

From: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

Tar Valon is the largest, most populous and richest city-state in the Westlands, as well as the oldest city on the continent to have survived intact since its founding. An independent city-state located halfway between the Borderlands and the rich southern kingdoms of Andor and Cairhien, it is famed as the home and main stronghold of the Aes Sedai, the wielders of the One Power.


Tar Valon is located on an island in the middle of the River Erinin, approximately 400 miles north-west of the city of Cairhien and almost 1,600 miles upriver from the port city of Tear. The Erinin splits in half around the island city, with the western branch of the river called the Alindrelle Erinin and the eastern branch the Osendrelle Erinin.

The city sits on a relatively flat river plain, with the only major feature breaking the horizon being the mountain known as Dragonmount. Located more than thirty miles south-west of the city, Dragonmount is huge. The height of the mountain has not been firmly charted past twenty thousand feet, but it is known that it is very difficult to breathe high on the mountain. The peak is almost unreachable due to a massive rent in the side of the mountain, which spews lava and smoke into the sky on a regular basis. Dragonmount is believed to be the tallest mountain in the world, taller even than any peak in the Spine of the World and much more dramatic for the way it rises from the plains alone. There aren’t any other mountains or even significant highlands until the Black Hills some 250 miles west of Dragonmount.

Tar Valon sits at the centre of the northern half of the continent’s road and highway network, built over the past three millennia but accelerated under the rule of the High King, Artur Hawkwing (before he turned on Tar Valon late in his reign). Superb roads link Tar Valon directly with the cities of Caemlyn, Cairhien, Maradon, Chachin, Shol Arbela and Fal Moran. The Erinin and its tributaries, particularly the Mora and Alguenya, link the city by ship with many other trading partners.

Tar Valon and the surrounding region.

Physical Description
The city of Tar Valon fills the entire island of the same name, which is eight miles long and three miles wide at its widest point. The entire island is surrounded by thick, impressive walls, approximately 50 feet tall and punctuated by sixty-four guard towers, each around 100 feet high. The walls are smooth, but there are river gates at the base of the towers which allow small ships to dock; these alleviate passenger pressure on the bridges. The river gates can be sealed very easily in times of war, so as not to make a weak point in the defences. The walls, guard towers and many of the buildings within Tar Valon are made of a beautiful white stone, the result of Ogier workmanship. Tar Valon has a long-standing contract with Stedding Jentoine (located 300 miles to the west, in the Black Hills) for the upkeep and maintenance of the city. The site of the walls from afar is breathtaking, and led to them being dubbed the Shining Walls.

Six long, arching bridges link the city to the mainland; even the shortest of these bridges is still over a mile long. At the foot of each bridge is a town or village which has sprung up to support trade: clockwise from the north-east, these are Luagde, Daghain, Osenrein, Alindaer, Darein and Jualdhe. Some speculate that in time these towns may grow into cities of their own, suburbs of a greater Tar Valon metropolitan area. Each bridge (and each gate it leads to) are named for the town in question, and each bridge is heavily fortified by gatehouses at both ends. The towns themselves have been sacked, occupied and burned several times in war.

At the northern and southern tips of the islands are two great harbours, named Northharbor and Southharbor. The Shining Walls extend in massive white circular arcs around each harbour, with a gap for entry and exit. Larger ships, up to Sea Folk rakers, can dock in these ports. There are also additional docks along the inland banks of the river for larger cargo vessels, or if the main harbours are full. Each harbour possesses a massive chain and winch-houses (elegantly hidden in the walls) to seal the harbour off in times of siege.

From the harbours, massive boulevards (capable of handling at least six wagons abreast) lead to the very centre of the city. Larger boulevards also radiate out from the centre to each of the bridges. These boulevards are the city’s main thoroughfares, sometimes lined with trees but mostly lined with impressive buildings. The city is dotted with beautiful structures constructed by the Ogier over 3,000 years ago, including a building in the shape of a cat and another as a shoal of fish. Many of these buildings are filled with businesses reflecting the nature of the building; the cat building is now the home of the Blue Cat Inn, for example, and the shoal of fish building is the home of the Great Fish Market.

At the very centre of the city is the White Tower. The tallest building constructed in the Westlands since the Breaking (although the Stone of Tear contains a greater volume), the White Tower is 600 feet tall and over 300 feet wide at its base, tapering to 200 feet wide at the top. The central tower is divided into 40 levels above ground (with an unknown number of basements and subbasements), with the lower twenty containing classrooms, lecture halls, meeting rooms, administration, services and the Hall of the Tower. The upper twenty contain the living quarters for the seven Ajahs. Two wings extend out some 300 feet on either side of the central tower, one containing living quarters for the Accepted and the other for the novices. The White Tower was built to house some 3,000 Aes Sedai (on the assumption that many more would be out working in the world), but with only 400-500 sisters present at any one time and only forty novices currently enrolled in the Tower (as of early 998 NE), the building can feel strangely empty.

Behind the White Tower is a palatial building which houses the Tower Library, the greatest accumulation of knowledge in the known world (only challenged by the Great Library of Cairhien, although even this is generally considered to be inferior). Other buildings dot the Tower grounds, including the quarters and practice yards for the Warders and several surprisingly elaborate stables, which are multi-level affairs with impressive facilities for the upkeep and care of the Tower’s huge number of horses (since each sister and Warder require a riding horse each, alongside pack animals). The Tower grounds are surrounded by their own walls and gates, although the gates are usually left open (albeit guarded at all times). The Sunrise Gate and Tarlomen’s Gate are two of the gates through the walls.

Dotted throughout the city are more towers of varying height, although even the tallest do not challenge the White Tower. These towers are sometimes solitary but occasionally are linked to nearby towers via skybridges. These towers serve a variety of functions, some being homes but others being places of trade or commerce.

Commerce is the lifeblood of Tar Valon; with no nation to support the city, it instead relies heavily on its status as an independent city-state with reasonable taxes and a commanding position on transcontinental trade routes. Merchants’ guild halls dot the city (including an elaborate branch of the Kandori Guild), as do banks. House Dormaile of Cairhien has made an impressive profit from the Tar Valon establishment, which is so trusted that it does extensive business with the Aes Sedai themselves. This is also why the city is packed with inns, fine eateries and other places where business can be conducted.

Tar Valon is an extremely safe city, with the streets well-lit and frequently patrolled by the Tower Guard. The areas near the docks but away from the boulevards, where the buildings crowd more closely together and there are back-alleys and narrow lanes, are the closest Tar Valon gets to rough quarters, but even these are very safe compared to similar districts in, say, Tanchico or Tear (and nothing in Tar Valon or the surrounding towns comes close to the Rahad of Ebou Dar).

Tar Valon is notable for the amount of greenery within its walls, considering that space is at a premium. There are several small parks and several noble families and rich businesses maintain small estates even within the city walls. Most notable, however, is the Ogier Grove. Located in the south-east of the city and over two miles wide, the Grove also acts as a park and meeting place. It is surrounded by white walls, but these are penetrated by frequent arches, allowing people in and out of the grove at their leisure rather than having to search for a specific gate. Near the heart of the Grove is a Waygate, which, according to rumour, can allow people to travel from the Grove in Tar Valon to those in other cities (although some have been destroyed, buried or built over) via the Ways. The Ways have become dangerous to travel, so the Waygate has been sealed off by thick gates and is guarded at all times.

A map of the city of Tar Valon.


As of 998 NE (New Era), the population of Tar Valon stands at approximately 500,000, accounting for the bridge town populations and seasonal visitors. This makes Tar Valon the most populous city on the continent, with its nearest rivals being Caemlyn, Cairhien and Illian (all estimated with populations around 300,000).


Tar Valon is administered by a city council which is under the authority of the Aes Sedai. Several sisters sit at the head of this council and are appointed by the Hall of the Tower. They in turn report to the Hall, the Keeper of the Chronicles and the Amyrlin Seat. The council is generally efficient enough that governance of the city is left to its hands without troubling the Aes Sedai’s upper hierarchy. The council also holds representatives from the guilds, banks, nobles, Tower Guard and businesses.


Tar Valon is defended by the Tower Guard, a highly-trained elite force whose modest name belies their capabilities. The Guard are a multi-disciplinary force consisting of crossbowmen, footsoldiers and cavalry. As well as defending the Tower itself, they police the city and patrol the outlying hinterlands of the city-state. During the Aiel War, other 12,000 soldiers served in the Tower Guard, although it is unclear if this is its peacetime strength as well.

A floor plan of the White Tower, the largest structure in the Westlands.

Tar Valon is the richest individual city in the Westlands and its economy may be stronger than that of some entire countries. The city’s lifeblood is trade, which comes from its control of the River Erinin. Trade from Tear, Andor and Cairhien flows northwards along the river and goods from Arafel and Shienar come south along the river, with substantial goods also coming overland from as far as Saldaea (whose capital, Maradon, is almost 1,200 miles from Tar Valon). Even the Sea Folk trade at Tar Valon, despite its discomforting distance (almost 1,700 miles) from the sea.

Tar Valon’s trade economy is bolstered by the presence of numerous banks, guilds and trading houses within the city, attracted by the city’s position athwart several key trade routes linking north and south, east and west, as well as its reputation for honesty, security and safety.

Tar Valon is also the home of the Aes Sedai. Although the Aes Sedai do not, as a rule, sell their use of the One Power to the highest bidder, they do entertain offers and requests from individuals and nations to lend their aid in particular endeavours of mutual interest. The low number of Aes Sedai and the growing distrust of them among more distant nations means that this it is a rare event, but occasionally the Aes Sedai will grant their services.

Finally, Tar Valon is a neutral and respected power (if not as respected as it once was), and its location makes an idea location for meetings between major governments. Andor, Cairhien and the Borderlands are all relatively nearby and enjoy good relations with Tar Valon, and use it (and, sometimes, Grey sisters) to mediate trade deals or peace treaties.


Tar Valon is a melting pot of peoples, cultures and representatives from every nation in the Westlands and beyond, to the Sea Folk islands. The streets at the height of the trading season can be a riot of colours, styles and different types of people. Still, the city tends to follow the Aes Sedai preference for more modest clothing and restrained behaviour, with licentiousness generally frowned upon.

The flag of Tar Valon, showing the Flame of Tar Valon surrounded by the colours of the seven Ajahs of the Aes Sedai.

In the Age of Legends, the Aes Sedai – “Servants of All” in the Old Tongue – were channellers of the One Power, both male and female. They were loosely organised in a guild, commanded by the Hall of the Servants. The Hall – both the body and the building in which it operated – was located in Paaran Disen, the largest and most beautiful city in the world.

At the end of the War of the Shadow, the Dark One’s curse tainted saidin, the male half of the True Source, driving all male channellers insane on the instant. In their insanity they destroyed civilisation and almost wiped out humanity in a series of tumultuous earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions known as the Breaking of the World. The Breaking lasted for some three centuries and was ended only when the last male Aes Sedai was killed or gentled (cut off from the Power).

In the aftermath of the Breaking, numerous organisations of women able to channel had formed. These had been begun by female Aes Sedai survivors of the Age of Legends, who had found and trained girls. The process had been complicated by the loss of the art of Travelling (able to travel thousands of miles in an instant with the Power), possibly due to the constantly shifting ground making it impossible to “learn” a location in the world and work out how to Travel to another. The groups trained others and so on. By the end of the Breaking it appears that few or no Aes Sedai from before the chaos survived.

How many groups of female channellers emerged from the chaos of the Breaking is unknown. What is known is that these groups soon began jostling for power and influence with one another, sometimes violently. It may well be that the Westlands may have gone the way of Seanchan, a shifting quilt of kingdoms ruled by Aes Sedai warlords, had not reason prevailed.

In 47 AB (After the Breaking) a grand convocation was held of female channellers. Approximately sixteen factions were represented, possibly more, and the names of twelve representatives are recorded: Elisane Tishar, Mistora Caal, Karella Fanway, Azille Narof, Saraline Amerano, Dumera Alman, Salindi Casolan, Catlynde Artein, Biranca Hasad, Mailaine Harvole, Nemaira Eldros and Lideine Rajan. It appears that each woman represented a separate group or organisation claiming to be Aes Sedai. During this conference it appears there was an agreement to ally these factions into one “true” Aes Sedai organisation. Each one of the separate factions was to become an ajah, a political alliance within the larger organisation. Ajah were a creation of the Aes Sedai in the Age of Legends, temporary groups which came together on certain issues. It appears they were prevented from becoming permanent factions due to the divisiveness, factionalism and tribalism this encouraged (believed by some to have resulted in significant chaos in the period before the Age of Legends began). Groups such as the Hundred Companions and the Fateful Concord were ajah of the War of the Shadow, for example.

Once the agreement was made to ally the Aes Sedai together, it was also decided they would need a base of operations. The wide island on the River Erinin within sight of Dragonmount, the burial mound of Lews Therin Telamon and reportedly the place where he would be reborn, was a natural choice. However, the amalgamation of the Aes Sedai was not smooth. It appears that, at a certain point, Lideine Rajan and Mailaine Harvole rebelled against the way things were being handled and tried to break away from the nascent organisation. At the end of the resulting conflict, circa 77 AB, Lideine was stilled and Mailaine forced to surrender.

In 98 AB construction of both the city of Tar Valon and the White Tower began. Ogier stonemasons were contracted and the One Power was employed in both endeavours. By this year the organisation of the Aes Sedai had become established, with Elisane Tishar listed as the first Amyrlin Seat (a title descended from the First Among Equals of the Age of Legends Aes Sedai, who wore the ring of Tamyrlin). The Hall of the Tower had been established to advise her, consisting of seven advisors: Caal, Fanway, Narof, Amerano, Almoan, Casolan and a newcomer, Kiam Lopiang. This suggests that the earlier twelve ajah had by now amalgamated into seven, with Lopiang perhaps representing Mailaine Harvole’s now-reconciled faction.

During this period the Aes Sedai carried out a purge of other groups claiming the title. This purge was thorough and widespread. During this period the Aes Sedai also established firm influence through the nascent city-states and nations, with several Aes Sedai rising to command these polities as governors and sometimes Queens.

By the time Tar Valon was completed in 202 AB, the current formal organisation of the White Tower had come into being. The Aes Sedai were split into seven permanent Ajah, each represented by a colour: Blue, Brown, Green, Grey, Red, Yellow and White. Each Ajah is represented in the Hall of the Tower by three Sitters, for twenty-one Sitters in total. The Amyrlin Seat is the head of the Tower, the first among equals, with the Keeper of the Chronicles serving as her aide-de-camp.

This organisation remains in place today, despite the numbers of Aes Sedai falling. The White Tower was designed to hold 3,000 women, with room for future expansion, meaning the original number of Aes Sedai was likely between 2,000 and 2,500. That number was approximately 1,250 during the Aiel War, some 3,254 years after Tar Valon’s completion. The reduction in numbers is slow, but steady. Some Aes Sedai believe this is down to the Aes Sedai practice of gentling or killing male channellers “winnowing” the ability to channel out of the human race, whilst others point to the lack of proactive Aes Sedai recruitment: since far more women can learn to channel than have the inborn spark, the majority of these will go undetected unless found by an Aes Sedai. The potential number of Aes Sedai sisters, given the population of the Westlands, is likely in the tens of thousands at least, but the White Tower prefers a smaller, more flexible organisation.

In 209 AB Mabriam en Shareed of Aramaelle, both Queen and Aes Sedai, called a meeting at Tar Valon between the rulers of the ten nations that had arisen. At this meeting was signed the Compact of the Ten Nations, binding them to peaceful coexistence and mutual trade and alliance in face of the Shadowspawn threat. The Aes Sedai likely played a key role in mediating this treaty. The treaty held for eight centuries, through the rise of the false Dragon Raolin Darksbane in 335 AB (whose followers mounted the first assault on Tar Valon when he was captured, which was repulsed) until the Westlands were invaded by Shadowspawn hordes in 1000 AB, marking the beginning of the Trolloc Wars.

The Aes Sedai proved key in defeating the Shadow during the wars, particularly the leadership and impressive military acumen displayed by Rashima Kerenmosa, the Soldier Amyrlin. Rashima’s bold leadership saw the Fourth Siege of Tar Valon (1290 AB), which saw Shadowspawn storming the city, end in a stunning victory, followed by her planning for the Battle of Maighande (1301 AB), the largest battle fought since the War of the Shadow. The surviving armies of the Ten Nations crushed the Shadow, slaughtering so many Myrddraal and Dreadlords that the Trollocs went out of control and lost all battle discipline. This reduced the rest of the war to a prolonged mopping-up exercise. Rashima gave her life and that of her five Warders in the battle, personally slaying nine Dreadlords in direct combat.

During the Free Year period, Aes Sedai influenced remained key but somewhat dwindled. After Queen Sulmara of Masenashar (c. FY 450) no Aes Sedai are reported as ruling nations and respect for the organisation, although still present, was less all-encompassing. A particular blow to the organisation was the Black Fever, which swept across the continent in FY 937-939 and killed millions of people. Although the Aes Sedai helped where they could, the number of sick people was too high and the number of Aes Sedai (particularly Yellow sisters, who specialised in Healing) too low. This was followed by the opportunistic rise of Guaire Amalasan, a false Dragon. Seizing control of the Kingdom of Darmovan (in modern Tarabon and Almoth Plain) in FY 939, he embarked on a campaign of conquest which, by the spring of FY 943, had delivered a third of the continent into his hands. He was defeated by Artur Hawkwing at the Battle of Jolvaine Pass in FY 943, who then delivered him to Tar Valon to be gentled. Hawkwing then had to help defend Tar Valon from a counter-attack by Amalasan’s followers in a fierce battle that reached the White Tower itself. Hawkwing was credited with saving Tar Valon, to the unmitigated fury of the Amyrlin Seat, Bonwhin Meraighdin, who could not countenance the idea of a man saving the White Tower. Bonwhin spent almost fifty years trying to destroy Hawkwing, including manipulating other nations into attacking him and – as certainly Hawkwing believed – arranging the deaths of his wife and children. The latter incident (although doubted by historians and Aes Sedai) inspired Hawkwing to break all ties with Tar Valon and besiege the city in starting in FY 975. In FY 992 Deane Aryman, a Sitter for the Blue Ajah, exposed evidence confirming that Bonwhin had tried to manipulate and control Hawkwing against the Hall of the Tower’s command. Bonwhin was deposed and stilled only two years before Hawkwing’s own death from advanced age.

On Hawkwing’s death, his general Souran Maravaile lifted the siege of Tar Valon and marched to aid Ishara Casalain in securing the Lion Throne of the newly-declared sovereign kingdom of Andor. Within days, Aes Sedai sisters were riding to every corner of the Westlands, hoping to forestall that chaos they sensed was coming. They failed.

The War of the Hundred Years was a particular low point for the Aes Sedai, who were unable to bring their influence to bear to mediate an end to the conflict. The war petered out by itself. A combination of the Aes Sedai’s failure and the rise of the Children of the Light, a military ascetic group who believed that the Aes Sedai were Darkfriends for their use of the Creator’s blessed power, saw Aes Sedai influence and respect tumble (along with their numbers) in the subsequent thousand years.

In 978 NE Tar Valon became the hinge on which the fate of the Westlands turned…or so it was popularly said. Two and a half years earlier, four clans of the Aiel had swarmed out of the Waste and sacked Cairhien. King Laman had retreated south into Haddon Mirk and fought a lengthy guerrilla war before finally winning support from Tear and Andor. His armed crossed the Erinin and fled north, pursued by the Aiel. It was realised that if the Aiel could be delayed enough, the Aes Sedai could negotiate a Grand Alliance between all the Westlands nations to meet the Aiel in battle at Tar Valon itself, which could be fortified and turned into a trap for the Aiel armies. After some tense negotiations (particularly with Amadicia and the Children of the Light), the Aes Sedai succeeded. More than 170,000 troops in official contingents from ten kingdoms, along with mercenaries and irregular forces (such as a band of Malkieri veterans led by Lan Mandragoran and a small force from Arad Doman under Rodel Ituralde), arrived to meet the Aiel force of approximately 70,000. The resulting battle was declared a victory, as the Aiel force withdrew and returned to the Waste. However, in reality the Aiel simply withdrew the second they had achieved their objective – killing King Laman for the crime of cutting down the tree Avendoraldera, a gift from the Aiel to the Cairhienin given five centuries earlier – and no longer had any need to press the attack.

This engagement – the Battle of the Shining Walls, sometimes called the Blood Snow – remains the largest battle fought since the War of the Hundred Years. The Aes Sedai hoped it would usher in a new age of cooperation between the nations, but alas this did not come to pass.

Origins and Influences
Tar Valon is a key location in The Wheel of Time fantasy series by Robert Jordan (and completed by Brandon Sanderson). Mentioned frequently in the first novel in the series, The Eye of the World, it appears for the first time in the second, The Great Hunt, and a map of the city is provided in the third, The Dragon Reborn. It goes on to play a major role in most of the books in the series.

The inspiration for Tar Valon’s name is, of course, Avalon from the Arthurian legend. In the Arthurian cycle, Avalon is an island located either off the coast of Britain or in the midst of a large lake or swamp. Early versions of the legend tended to place the island far out to sea, but later ones instead identify the island with Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, which was once an island surrounded by the marshland of the Somerset Levels. It is home to a powerful group of women, variously identified as priestesses, sorceresses or druids.

Near the end of the cycle, Arthur sustains injuries from fighting Mordred at the Battle of Camlann and is taken by a group of women by Morgana to Avalon to recover. In some versions he actually dies, in others is in a coma or deep sleep. Most versions of the legend agree that Arthur is prophecised to return in Britain’s greatest hour of need.

The analogy in The Wheel of Time is with Artur Hawkwing, High King of the Westlands, who initially allies with the Aes Sedai sisterhood to help bring justice to the land. However, he is betrayed by his councillor Jalwin Moerad (almost certainly the Forsaken Ishamael in disguise) and manipulated into betraying and going to war against Tar Valon, besieging it for twenty years. When Hawkwing is on his deathbed, the Aes Sedai offer to forgive him and give him the gift of healing so he might live on, but he refuses. Thus, the legend is inverted, with Tar Valon’s offer of healing refused and so Artur Hawkwing dies.

Jordan was deeply interested in Celtic and British history, particularly the role of the feminine in mythology, which probably explains why the island ended up looking the way it does!

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Alex said...

THAT aerial map of Tar Valon is a fanny (in the British sense) and not a subtle one either

bookrazy said...

Don't think it was ever meant to be subtle lol. And right next to it is Dragonmount, the giant phallus spewing hot fluids...