April 23, 2024

The ancient fortification was also a sanctuary

The purpose of the Rabana-Merkuli fortification in modern-day Iraq was to control an important trade route through the Zagros Mountains during the period of the ancient Parthian Empire. But at the same time, this castle built on the mountain served as a sanctuary, as archaeologists have discovered. The ruins at the foot of the waterfall and the fire altar carved into the mountainside indicate the existence of a place of worship of the water goddess Anahita.

From 2,200 to 1,900 years ago, the Parthians ruled Iran and parts of Mesopotamia and Central Asia. This people, which originated from the Scythians, was divided into various regional sub-kingdoms, which in ancient times fought battles with the Hellenistic Seleucids and later the Romans in the west and the nomads of the Central Asian steppes in the east.

An important regional center of the Parthian Empire was the mountain fortress of Rabana-Merkuli in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. This complex on the southern slope of the Peramagron Mountains in the Zagros Mountains includes two settlements and a fortification wall nearly four kilometers long and more than 720 meters high. Strategically, the upper part of the complex with the town of Mirqli overlooked what was then an important route through the Zagros Mountains, which ran from Erbil to the south. At the foot of the mountain, Parthian fortifications included the settlement of Rapana as well as the north-eastern end of the valley, where a narrow mountain pass opened. After heavy rains and melting snow, the water flowing through this valley formed a temporary waterfall.

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Military base and place of worship

As part of several excavation campaigns carried out starting in 2009 and more recently between 2019 and 2022, an international research team has examined the remains of Rapana-Mercoli in more detail. They discovered a petroglyph above the fortified entrances to both settlements showing a heretofore unknown ruler. It is likely that a local King of Parthia is credited with founding the site, according to archaeologists led by Michael Brown of Heidelberg University. The presence of the fortification and troops mainly stationed at the top of the complex likely helped control this area and especially the important trade route.

But excavations suggest that the Rapana-Merkuli fortifications had more than just strategic and military importance: it is possible that the complex also served as a sanctuary and pilgrimage site. This is evidenced 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 ships in 2022. Near the waterfall there is also a statue carved into the steep cliff resembling an altar. Offerings or oil may have been burned on them.

Dedicated to the water goddess Anahita?

“The proximity to the waterfall is important because the combination of the elements of fire and water played an important role in pre-Islamic Persian religion,” says Michael Brown. He and his team suspect it could be a sanctuary for 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. Thus the goddess can take the form of a flowing stream or a waterfall. Their worship was especially respected in the western regions of Iraq during the Seleucid and Parthian eras, as scholars explain.

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“Even if the cult site cannot be assigned with certainty to the water goddess Anahita, since there are no similar archaeological finds to make a direct comparison, the sanctuary at Rapana still gives us a fascinating insight into regional sacred and geopolitical connections during the Parthian period,” says Brown. The ruler's inscriptions at the entrances also fit with the interpretation of Rabbana-Merkuli as a fortress and religious complex: many religious sites of the time also served as sites of worship for ruling dynasties that served as veneration for the king and his ancestors, explains Brown. Pilgrims approaching the shrine had to walk under The rock carving of the ruler, and there is no doubt that they are aware of the close relationship between the place, royalty and worship.

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