Given how there were Orcs guarding the Tower of Círith Ungol at the top of the stairs, we can infer that the existence of these stairways was definitely not a secret. Perhaps the path was meant to be used or being used at the time of the events of the LoTR by Orcs running errands? It could be that the name Círith Ungol was given after the discovery of the spider Shelob's presence. My question is who created the passage of the Secret Stairs into Mordor and for what purpose? Who else knew of the existence of the passage? I'm looking for answers well supported in the canon material.
They were likely built by Sauron's servants to quickly go from Minas Morgul to the Tower of Cirith Ungol
But there's not much to go on. It would appear that the Tower was built at the beginning of the Third Age, but that the pass is much older, probably a natural feature of the mountain range. It seems likely to me that the Witch-king had the stairs built after the capture of Minas Morgul.
In the following, I go through the writing history of Cirith Ungol, from early notes to drafts. I also added a description of the region, the stairs and tunnel. I conclude with some of the in-universe history and a few hypotheses about who constructed the stairs and when.
The germ of the capture of Frodo in Cirith Ungol can be found in a very early note titled "Plot from XII" (1939), which was supposed to outline the plot after Rivendell:
Have to wait till Spring? Or have to go at once.
They go south along the Mountains. Later or early? Snowstorm in the Red Pass. Journey down the R. Redway. Adventure with Giant Tree Beard in Forest.
Mines of Moria. These again deserted - except for Goblins.
Land of Ond. Siege of the City.
They draw near the borders of Mordor.
In dark Gollum comes up. He feigns reform? Or tries to throttle Frodo? - but Gollum has now a magic ring given by Lord and is invisible. Frodo dare not use his own.
Cavalcade of evil led by seven Black Riders.
See Dark Tower on the horizon. Horrible feeling of an Eye searching for him.
Eruption of Fiery Mountain causes destruction of Tower.
The History of Middle Earth: The Return of the Shadow, Volume 6, New Uncertainties and New Projections, p. 381
More details (and spiders) emerge from additional notes titled "Sketch of Plot" (1939):
How can Sam get hold of Ring? He keeps watch at night and hears Gollum muttering to himself, words of hatred for Frodo. He draws his sword and leaps on Gollum, [?dragging] him off. He tries to [insert utter] horrible words over Frodo - incantation of sleep. A spider charm, or does Gollum get spiders' help? There is a ravine, a spiders' glen, they have to pass at entrance to Gorgoroth. Gollum gets spiders to put spell of sleep on Frodo. Sam drives them off. But cannot wake him. He then gets idea of taking Ring.
The History of Middle Earth: The Treason of Isengard, Volume 7, The Story Foreseen From Moria, p. 209
Christopher Tolkien says:
At this stage, as will be seen later, the entry into Mordor by way of the Stairs of Cirith Ungol did not exist, and when that name appears it will bear a different geographical sense.
ibid, p. 214
Indeed, the first time Kirith1 Ungol is mentioned, it is in fact the name of a pass that leads into Mordor, but from the North, where the Black Gate (Morannon) would later be:
The wind blows from the East there, for they look out over the Dead Marshes and the Nomenlands [...] to the passes of Mordor: Kirith Ungol.
The History of Middle Earth: The Treason of Isengard, Volume 7, Farewell to Lórien, p. 283
What exactly Kirith Ungol is at this point is unclear and quickly changing from draft to draft. It seems to freely switch between a ravine that leads to Gorgoroth (the land inside Mordor), a side passage or Gorgoroth itself. The parley between Gandalf and, at the time, Sauron (later replaced by The Mouth of Sauron) would also take place at the "gates of Kirith Ungol". Minas Morgul also moves around a lot, even ending up to the east of the Black Gate for a while.
Sketch of the entrance to Mordor, viewed from the North. The text reads: "Kirith Ungol is not the main entrance but a narrow cleft to [S(outh) >] West". Left: "Minas Morghul". Center: "Mordor Gates". Right: "K. U (Kirith Ungol)" The History of Middle Earth: The War of the Ring, Volume 8, The Passage of the Marshes, p. 108
Eventually Tolkien would move Minas Morgul to the south where it belonged and Kirith Ungol would follow. Cirith Gorgor ("the Haunted Pass, the entrance to the land of the Enemy") and the Morannon (the Black Gate) would appear in their place. The pass of Cirith Ungol had finally settled down, but the Tower of Cirith Ungol would not appear yet:
The famous pass of [Ennyn (Dur) > Morennyn >] Mornennyn the Gates of Mordor was guarded by two towers: the Teeth of Mordor [Nelig Morn Mel >] Nelig Myrn. Built by Gondorians long ago: now ceaselessly manned. Owing to ceaseless passage of arms they dare not try to enter so they turn W. and South. Gollum tells them of Kirith Ungol beneath shadow [of] M. Morgul. It is a high pass. He does not tell them of the Spiders. They creep in to M[inas] M[orgul].
ibid, p. 113
Stairs and tower
This is the first mention of the stairs, in an early draft of The Black Gate is Closed:
'What did you find?' said Frodo. 'A stair and path leading up into the mountains south of the pass,' said Gollum, 'and then a tunnel, and then more stairs and then a cleft high above the main pass: and it was that way Smeagol got out of Mordor long ago. But it may [?have vanished]...'
The History of Middle Earth: The War of the Ring, Volume 8, The Black Gate is Closed, p. 124
The appearance of the tower is less clear. There are several drafts where spiders (plural) seem to be the only danger in the pass and that it is unguarded. Even the introduction of the "Silent Watchers" seems to be at Minas Morgul.
The development of the stairs themselves is messy. It starts as stairs — tunnel — stairs:
Pass up the first stair safely. But tunnel is black with webs [of] spiders. ... force way and get up second stair. They [??had] reach[ed] Kirith Ungol. Spiders are aroused and hunt them. They are exhausted.
ibid, p. 125
Then the notion of a single spider emerges (at the time named Ungoliant[e], as in the Silmarillion, not Shelob), requiring yet another change:
Must be stair — stair — tunnel. Tunnel is Ungoliante's lair. The tunnel has unseen passages off. One goes right up to dungeons of tower [Minas Morgul]. But orcs don't use it much because of Ungoliant.
The History of Middle Earth: The War of the Ring, Volume 8, Kirith Ungol, p. 199
The problem seems to have been that if Ungoliante's lair is in the tunnel, making her attack at the top of the stairs makes no sense. The original story had spiders crawling everywhere. I hate spiders.
There is yet another note titled "Plan of Shelob's Lair":
Must be Stair — Stair — Tunnel. Tunnel is Ungoliante's Lair. This tunnel is of orc-make (?) and has the usual branching passages. One goes right up into the dungeons of the Tower [Minas Morgul] — but orcs don't use it much because of Ungoliante. Ungoliante has made a hole and a trap in the middle of the floor of the main path.
The first mention of the tower is in 1944, in an outline of the whole "Kirith Ungol" story:
They come out at last to the head of the stair. The road opens a little. There is still an ominous glare. They see the road [?clearly] .. through a [?narrow] cleft and now the right wall sinks and they look down into a vast darkness, the great cleft which was the head of Morghul Vale. On the left sharp jagged pinnacles full of black crevices. And high upon one tip a small black tower.
What is that tower? said Frodo full of suspicion. Is there a guard? Then they found Gollum had slipped away and vanished.
ibid, p. 187
From that point on, the final geography of Kirith Ungol was mostly attained, except for the exact layout of the tunnel.
The path to Cirith Ungol
East of Osgiliath is the Cross-roads, the intersection of the Morgul-road and the Southward Road. Past the Cross-roads to the east on the Morgul-road stands Minas Morgul.
In the very centre four ways met. Behind them lay the road to the Morannon; before them it ran out again upon its long journey south; to their right the road from old Osgiliath came climbing up, and crossing, passed out eastward into darkness: the fourth way, the road they were to take.
Frodo, Sam and Gollum coming to the Cross-roads from the North. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Journey to the Cross-roads, p. 386_
Map from the Cross-roads in the West to the Tower of Cirith Ungol in the East. Osgiliath would be be about 10 miles West along the Morgul-road and Minas Tirith a further 15 miles. The Atlas of Middle-Earth, p. 143
The road passes over a white bridge, crossing over to the south bank and goes to Minas Morgul, but Frodo did not go this way (although he tried, only to be held back by Gollum and Sam). The trio continued on the north bank, on a path that leads up into the mountains:
Not far from the near bank of the stream there was a gap in the stone-wall beside the road. Through this they passed, and Sam saw that they were on a narrow path that gleamed faintly at first, as the main road did, until climbing above the meads of deadly flowers it faded and went dark, winding its crooked way up into the northern sides of the valley. [...]
Ahead of them there was a bay in the valley-side, and round the head of this the path went on, no more than a wide ledge with a chasm on the right; across the sheer southward face of the mountain it crawled upwards, until it disappeared into the blackness above.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Stairs of Cirith Ungol, p. 390-391
The Straight Stair
After the army lead by the Witch-king exits from the Morgul Vale, they continue on to the first set of stairs:
Soon the path reached a rounded angle where the mountain-side swelled out again, and there it suddenly entered a narrow opening in the rock. They had come to the first stair that Gollum had spoken of. The darkness was almost complete, and they could see nothing much beyond their hands’ stretch[...]
Frodo and Sam at first felt easier, having now a wall on either side, but the stairway was almost as steep as a ladder, and as they climbed up and up, they became more and more aware of the long black fall behind them. And the steps were narrow, spaced unevenly, and often treacherous: they were worn and smooth at the edges, and some were broken, and some cracked as foot was set upon them. The hobbits struggled on, until at last they were clinging with desperate fingers to the steps ahead, and forcing their aching knees to bend and straighten; and ever as the stair cut its way deeper into the sheer mountain the rocky walls rose higher and higher above their heads.
Between the two sets of stairs is a dark passage that gently goes up for miles, without steps.
They only knew that they had come to the end, when suddenly they felt no wall at their right hand. [...] They seemed to have climbed up many hundreds of feet, on to a wide shelf. A cliff was on their left and a chasm on their right. [...] For the present they were no longer climbing, but the ground was now more broken and dangerous in the dark, and there were blocks and lumps of fallen stone in the way. [...] At length they were once more aware of a wall looming up, and once more a stairway opened before them.
ibid, p. 396
The Winding Stair
The second set of stairs is much longer than the first one, although not as steep. It is carved into the mountain side instead of delving into it.
Here the huge cliff-face sloped backwards, and the path like a snake wound to and fro across it. At one point it crawled sideways right to the edge of the dark chasm, and Frodo glancing down saw below him as a vast deep pit the great ravine at the head of the Morgul Valley. [...]
Still on and up the stairway bent and crawled, until at last with a final flight, short and straight, it climbed out again on to another level. The path had veered away from the main pass in the great ravine, and it now followed its own perilous course at the bottom of a lesser cleft among the higher regions of the Ephel Dúath. Dimly the hobbits could discern tall piers and jagged pinnacles of stone on either side, between which were great crevices and fissures blacker than the night, where forgotten winters had gnawed and carved the sunless stone
ibid, p. 397
The Tunnel, Torech Ungol
After the stairs, Frodo sees the Tower of Cirith Ungol looming in the distance:
Against the sullen redness of the eastern sky a cleft was outlined in the topmost ridge, narrow, deep-cloven between two black shoulders; and on either shoulder was a horn of stone.
He paused and looked more attentively. The horn upon the left was tall and slender; and in it burned a red light, or else the red light in the land beyond was shining through a hole. He saw now: it was a black tower poised above the outer pass.
ibid, p. 398
Continuing onwards, they reach the entrance of the tunnel:
They passed on, Gollum in front and the hobbits now side by side, up the long ravine between the piers and columns of torn and weathered rock, standing like huge unshapen statues on either hand. There was no sound. Some way ahead, a mile or so, perhaps, was a great grey wall, a last huge upthrusting mass of mountain-stone. Darker it loomed, and steadily it rose as they approached, until it towered up high above them, shutting out the view of all that lay beyond. [...] Presently they were under the shadow, and there in the midst of it they saw the opening of a cave.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Shelob's Lair, p. 406
After Frodo gets stung, Sam wanders alone and reaches the tower, still above him. He hears Orcs back in the tunnel, taking Frodo prisoner and entering the tunnel. Sam retraces his steps and re-enters the tunnel to follow them. Why the Orcs decide to go through a side entrance from within the tunnel instead of walking up to where Sam was to find the main gates is unclear to me. It might just have been closer.
Orcs go fast in tunnels, and this tunnel they knew well; for in spite of Shelob they were forced to use it often as the swiftest way from the Dead City over the mountains. In what far-off time the main tunnel and the great round pit had been made, where Shelob had taken up her abode in ages past, they did not know; but many byways they had themselves delved about it on either side, so as to escape the lair in their goings to and fro on the business of their masters. Tonight they did not intend to go far down, but were hastening to find a side-passage that led back to their watch-tower on the cliff.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Choices of Master Samwise, p. 431
There was a large door made of stone that Sam had to go over, "probably only meant to be a stop against the intrusion of Shelob, fastened on the inside with some latch or bolt beyond the reach of her cunning". At the end of more passages he finally exits the tunnel and sees "great double doors, leading probably to deep chambers far below the high horn of the tower."
Kingdoms and Cities of the Númenoreans
After the Fall of Númenor in 3319 SA, Elendil and his sons Anárion and Isildur arrive in Middle-Earth. Elendil dwells in the North, in the Kingdom of Arnor, while Anárion and Isildur go South and found the Kingdom of Gondor. They build three cities:
- Minas Anor ("Tower of the Setting Sun") on the West side of the Anduin, where Anárion lived. It would be later be renamed Minas Tirith.
- Minas Ithil ("Tower of the Rising Moon") on the East side, near Mordor, where Isildur lived. It would later be renamed Minas Morgul.
- Osgiliath, square on the Anduin, with a bridge passing in the middle of the city, where both had a throne and reigned side by side. It would later be invaded and destroyed.
In 3429, Sauron captures Minas Ithil after a siege, but Anárion drives him back to "the mountains". Whether Minas Ithil is liberated at this time is unclear, but I think it is. Five years later in 3434, after the Battle of Dagorlad, the Siege of Barad-dûr begins. It would end seven years later in 3441, when Sauron is defeated, ending the Second Age.
The Pass itself seems to have existed before the tower. I would venture a guess and say that the cleft through the mountains, originally called Cirith Dúath (Pass, or Cleft of Shadow) was a natural formation. When the Siege of Barad-dûr begins, Isildur fears that Sauron might flee that way:
Aratan and Ciryon [sons of Isildur] had not been in the invasion of Mordor and the siege of Barad-dûr, for Isildur had sent them to man his fortress of Minas Ithil, lest Sauron should escape Gil-galad and Elendil and seek to force away through Cirith Dúath (later called Cirith Ungol) and take vengeance on the Dúnedain before he was overcome.
Unfinished Tales, Disaster of the Gladden Fields, p. 362_
As for the Tower, it seems to have been built after the fall of Sauron:
It was indeed one of the works of Gondor long ago, an eastern outpost of the defences of Ithilien, made when, after the Last Alliance, Men of Westernesse kept watch on the evil land of Sauron where his creatures still lurked.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Tower of Cirith Ungol, p. 205
There remains the question of who built the stairs, and when. There are five possibilities.
Unknown forces before the foundation of Gondor
Gondor was founded in 3320 SA. We know that Númenóreans did establish outposts and colonies in that region during the Second Age, particularly in Pelargir, south of the future Minas Tirith. We also know there were Black Númenóreans in Umbar, the "Corsairs" that were intercepted by Aragorn.
There were of course Men and, probably, a few Elves in that region, but I couldn't find any details on them. In any case, none of the settlements during that period were anywhere close to the Ephel Dúath, the mountain range where Cirith Ungol was situated. I find it unlikely that would have built stairs in a cleft.
Gondor before the Fall of Sauron
Isildur built Minas Ithil (Minas Morgul) sometime between 3320 and 3429 SA, while Gondor was still being established. At this time, the Tower of Cirith Dúath (Cirith Ungol) didn't exist yet. I see no reason why Isildur would build stairs that lead to nowhere.
Gondor after the Fall of Sauron, but before the Great Plague
The exact date of construction of the Tower of Cirith Ungol is unclear, but it must be after the Fall of Sauron in the first year of the Third Age (see the quote above), but before the Great Plague of 1636 TA. After the Plague, Gondor never really had control of that particular region.
This is basically Gondor's Golden Age. It is possible they built the stairs during that period, but the description of the stairs (narrow, winding and dangerous) doesn't strike me as very Gondorian. The tunnel also doesn't seem to have been modified or made safer, and if Shelob was already present, it seems unlikely to me that Gondor would have let her remain. This is not a huge tunnel and I don't see how she could have remained hidden. It sounds to me as if Gondor just ignored the cleft altogether.
Unknown forces after the Plague, but before Minas Morgul is captured
There is a 400 year period during which Gondor loses control of the region around Mordor. The Great Plague of 1636 TA decimated the region and Gondor stopped manning the borders of Mordor. This is when the Nazgûl (and many bad things) were able to renter that region.
Many things happen to Gondor during this period: a civil war in 1432 (the "Kin-strife"), the burning of Osgiliath in 1437, the loss of Umbar in 1448, the Plague of 1636 and the attacks of the Wainriders in 1851, which would last for a century.
Gondor did not have the time or resources to build stairs in Cirith Ungol. The only somewhat organized force that could have done so were the Wainriders, who forced Gondorian forces to retreat West of the Anduin and controlled the region around the Ephel Dúath for about a century.
The Wainriders were a group composed mostly of Easterlings, Haradrim and Men of Khand. They were stirred up by emissaries of Sauron and mostly interested in pillaging the region. Indeed, they were caught and destroyed while "feasting and revelling, believing that Gondor was overthrown and that nothing remained but to take the spoil."
It is possible that the Wainriders built the stairs, but I see no reason for them to have done so in a cleft leading to a place they didn't care about. Although they did control the region, they never crossed into Mordor and had their eyes fixed on Minas Tirith the whole time.
The Witch-king after conquering Minas Ithil
The Nazgûl had already re-entered Mordor after the Plague of 1636 and eventually assaulted and conquered Minas Ithil in 2002. It was afterwards called Minas Morgul.
I would therefore guess that the stairs were built by the Witch-king's army, sometime after 2002 TA. It seems to have been a much faster path than taking the Morgul-road, even with the stairs. The map above doesn't necessarily agree with this, since the road is fairly straight, but it is also exposed. Orcs do not normally travel by day. The stairs and tunnel might have given them enough cover so that they could use this route at any time.
This would explain why the stairs were so dangerous to climb, as Sauron's forces don't have a reputation of building structures that were safe and sound. It would also explain why the tunnel was left as it was instead of secured. They seem to have built the minimum required to pass through the cleft unhindered, regardless of safety, appearances and spiders.
There is also this quote, from an early draft:
In the darkness [of the tunnel] he seemed now more at home; but he could not overcome his weariness. He could see the light of torches a little way ahead, but he could not gain on them. Goblins go fast in tunnels, especially those which they have themselves made, and all the many passages in this region of the mountains were their work, even the main tunnel and the great deep pit where Shelob housed.
In the Dark Years they had been made, until Shelob came and made her lair there, and to escape her they had bored new passages, too narrow for her [as she slowly grew >] growth, that crossed and recrossed the straight way.
The History of Middle Earth: The War of the Ring, Volume 8, Kirith Ungol, p. 215
This particular passage would not survive and does not mention the stairs themselves, but it could confirm at least that Orcs created certain features in that area.
1About K and C: "Inconsistencies of spelling are due to me. It was only in the last stages that (in spite of my son's protests: he still holds that no one will ever pronounce Cirith right, it appears as Kirith in his map, as formerly also in the text) I decided to be consistent' and spell Elvish names and words throughout without k. There are no doubt other variations" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #187 From a latter to H. Cotton Minchin (draft), p. 247)
Return of the King, Book IV, Chapter I: The Tower of Cirith Ungol:
As he gazed at it suddenly Sam understood, almost with a shock, that this stronghold had been built not to keep enemies out of Mordor, but to keep them in. It was indeed one of the works of Gondor long ago, an eastern outpost of the defences of Ithilien, made when, after the Last Alliance, Men of Westernesse kept watch on the evil land of Sauron where his creatures still lurked.
This covers the Tower, but while there is no canon statement regarding the Stairs that I'm aware of, we may safely assume that they were part of the same fortification and were built by Gondor for access to the Tower from Ithilien.
Who else knew of it? Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 3: The Black Gate is Closed:
Its name was Cirith Ungol, a name of dreadful rumour. Aragorn could perhaps have told them that name and its significance: Gandalf would have warned them.
Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 6: The Forbidden Pool:
If Cirith Ungol is named, old men and masters of lore will blanch and fall silent.
So it seems to have been known by the Wise, and also to have been relatively common knowledge in Gondor.
Finally, it seems reasonable to ask why, if Shelob's Lair was close by, the Stairs were not built elsewhere. It does appear to have been the case that when the fortifications around Cirith Ungol were originally built, people did not know about Shelob; her discovery came at some time after.
Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 9: Shelob's Lair:
...and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts...
This, then, is evidence that Elves and Men had used the pass through the Lair, and further supporting the thesis that the Stairs were contemporary with the Tower and used for access to it. The only Elves and Men that would make sense in this context would be, of course, those travelling to the Tower from Gondor.
From all of this we can infer that Cirith Ungol was not an original name for the area, but was given to it at some later stage during the Third Age, before its abandonment but after the discovery of Shelob in the area.
As the LOTR wiki says:
Cirith Ungol was a pass or cleft through the Ephel Dúath located near Minas Morgul. It was also the name of an orc-stronghold that stood watch in that pass, and nearby within the mountains was located Shelob's lair.
Cirith Ungol passed through the western mountains of Mordor and paralleled the Morgul-road into Gondor to some degree. It was guarded by the Tower of Cirith Ungol, which was built by the Men of Gondor after the War of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men was fought. It is not known whether the pass and the tower were called Cirith Ungol when the Men of Gondor held it, though it is likely since Shelob "...was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dûr" was laid, and Cirith Ungol meant 'Spider's Cleft' in Sindarin.
It was founded/built probably in the Early Third Age and it was likely occupied by evil forces before Minas Ithil was besieged in TA 2000.
As it was a former outpost of Gondor at that time it was probablly well known but since then forgotten by most.
I always felt it was a natural feature of the mountain that was used as a back way into Mordor for men and elves that had dealings with Sauron. The stairway only came more pronounced through its repeated use. It also served as a hidden way to release spies into the various theaters the enemy were engaged in. The spiders ensure only the most insidious motives could make it through the gauntlet.