Ancient fortification was also a sanctuary

Rabana-Merquly

Remains of stairs at the base of the seasonal waterfall of Rabana-Merquly. © Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project

The fortification of Rabana-Merquly in modern-day Iraq was intended to control an important trade route through the Zagros Mountains during the time of the ancient Parthian Empire. But at the same time, this fortress built on the mountain also served as a sanctuary, as archaeologists have discovered. Ruins at the foot of a waterfall and a fire altar carved into the mountainside indicate that there was a place of worship for the water goddess Anahita.

In the period around 2200 to 1900 years ago, the Parthians ruled over Iran and parts of Mesopotamia and Central Asia. This people, which emerged from a tribe of Scythians, was divided into various regional sub-kingdoms, which in ancient times fought battles with the Hellenistic-influenced Seleucids and later the Romans in the west and Central Asian steppe nomads in the east.

One of the Parthian Empire's important regional centers was the mountain fortress of Rabana-Merquly in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. This complex on the southern slope of the Piramagrun in the Zagros Mountains included two settlements and an almost four kilometer long fortification wall that rose more than 720 meters in altitude. Strategically, the upper part of the complex with the town of Merquly overlooked what was then an important route through the Zagros Mountains, which led from Erbil to the south. At the foot of the mountain, the Parthian fortifications included the settlement of Rabana as well as the northeastern end of the valley, where a narrow mountain gorge opens. After heavy rainfall and when the snow melted, the water flowing down through this gorge temporarily formed a waterfall.

Military base and place of worship

As part of several excavation campaigns carried out starting in 2009 and most recently between 2019 and 2022, an international research team examined the remains of Rabana-Merquly in more detail. They discovered a rock relief above the fortified entrances to both settlements that shows an as yet unknown ruler. It is probably a local Parthian vassal king who is credited with founding the site, as archaeologists led by Michael Brown from the University of Heidelberg report. The presence of the fortification and the troops stationed primarily in the upper part of the complex probably served to control this area and especially the important trade route.

But the excavations suggest that the fortifications of Rabana-Merquly had more than just strategic and military importance: the complex could also have served as a sanctuary and pilgrimage site. This is indicated by the remains of buildings at the foot of the seasonal waterfall, which could come from a religious place of worship. In part of these ruins, archaeologists discovered, among other things, two burial vessels in 2022. Near the waterfall there is also a sculpture carved into the steep slope that is reminiscent of an altar. Offerings or oil may have been burned on it.

Dedicated to the water goddess Anahita?

“The proximity to the waterfall is significant because the combination of the elements fire and water played an important role in pre-Islamic Persian religion,” says Michael Brown. He and his team suspect that it could have been a sanctuary of the water goddess Anahita. In a collection of writings from the Zoroastrian religion, the so-called Avesta, Anahita is described as the heavenly source of all water on earth. The goddess could therefore take the form of a flowing stream or waterfall. Their cult was particularly revered in the western regions of Iraq during the Seleucid and Parthian times, as the scientists explain.

“Even if the cult site cannot be assigned with absolute certainty to the water goddess Anahita, as there is a lack of similar archaeological finds for a direct comparison, the sanctuary in Rabana still gives us a fascinating insight into the regional sacral and geopolitical connections during the Parthian period,” says Brown. The ruler reliefs at the entrances also fit the interpretation of Rabana-Merquly as a fortification and religious complex: many religious sites at the time also functioned as dynastic cult sites that served to venerate the king and his ancestors, explains Brown. Pilgrims approaching the shrine had to walk under the rock carving of the ruler, no doubt aware of the close connection between place, royalty and cult.

Source: University of Heidelberg; Specialist article: Iraq, doi: 10.1017/irq.2023.6

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