Update: A Fortress Sanctuary

Digs & Discoveries July/August 2024


A sprawling 2,000-year-old fortress in the Zagros Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan appears to have included a sanctuary dedicated to the ancient Persian water goddess Anahita. The fortress of Rabana-Merquly stretched across some two miles of rugged terrain on the southeastern frontier of the vassal kingdom of Adiabene, within the domain of the Parthian Empire (247 B.C.A.D. 224). According to Michael Brown, an archaeologist at Heidelberg University, the settlement was intended to project authority into the highlands, which were home to rebellious pastoralist groups.

Evidence of what Brown believes to be an Anahita sanctuary includes a seasonal waterfall surrounded by a large terrace with monumental walls, a rock-covered escarpment, and staircases climbing the slope. The largest of the staircases leads from the waterfall’s base to a building where archaeologists have found two jar burials containing cremated human remains—most likely belonging to members of the ruling dynasty. “Just as the military aspect of this fortress is to project the power of this dynasty,” says Brown, “the sanctuary served a definite geopolitical purpose in suggesting the religious legitimacy of the dynasty.”

Radiocarbon dating of the human remains as well as of a burned area outside the building indicates the site was likely occupied for around 100 years in the second and first centuries B.C. Given the brevity of the settlement’s use, the burned area suggests it may have come to a violent end. “Is this a local group rejecting the authority of whoever built the fortress?” asks Brown. “It’s a bit of a whodunit, and one of the obvious candidates would be annoyed highland pastoralists.” To read the original article about the fortress of Rabana-Merquly, see “Royal Mountain Fortress.”

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