The mountain fortress of Rabana-Merquly was one of the major regional centers of the Parthian Empire, according to new research led by Heidelberg University.
During the late 1st millennium BCE and early 1st millennium CE, the foothills and mountains of the north-central Zagros constituted an internal hinterland of the Parthian Empire (also known as the Arsacid Empire).
This region was marked by distinct cultural and political characteristics — in many respects determined by its geography — and bounded by the Mesopotamian Plain in the west and the Iranian Plateau to the east.
The fortress of Rabana-Merquly is located on the south-western flanks of Mount Piramagrun, near the village of Qarachatan in the Zagros Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The site overlooks the floodplain of the river Charmaga, a major left-bank tributary of the Lower Zab River, known in antiquity by its Greek name of Kapros.
The construction of the perimeter fortifications took advantage of the rugged highland terrain to encircle two neighboring settlements, one in the Rabana Valley and the other on the Merquly Plateau.
A defining feature of the Rabana-Merquly fortress is the two rock-reliefs carved into the cliff-face adjacent to two gated entrances, depicting an unnamed ruler in ornate attire.
While the identity of this individual is a matter of conjecture, Rabana-Merquly would have been close to the south-eastern frontier of the vassal kingdom of Adiabene, within the dominion of the Parthian Empire.
“Within the framework of multiple excavation campaigns conducted from 2009 and most recently between 2019 and 2022, we were able to study the archaeological remains on site,” said Heidelberg University archaeologist Michael Brown and his colleagues from Iraqi Kurdistan’s Sulaymaniyah Directorate of Antiquities and Slemani Museum.
“Structures that have survived to this day suggest a military use and include the remains of several rectangular buildings that may have served as barracks.”
“We also found a religious complex possibly dedicated to the Zoroastrian Iranian goddess Anahita.”
The archaeologists suspect that the Rabana-Merquly fortress may be the lost city of Natounia.
“Until now, the existence of the royal city known as Natounia on the Kapros, or alternatively as Natounissarokerta, has been documented only on a few coins dating from the first century BCE,” they explained.
“According to one scientific interpretation, the place name Natounissarokerta is composed of the royal name Natounissar, the founder of the Adiabene royal dynasty, and the Parthian word for moat or fortification.”
“This description could apply to Rabana-Merquly. The wall reliefs at the entrance to the fortress could depict the city’s founder, either Natounissar or a direct descendant.”
According to the team, the unnamed ruler(s) depicted in relief at Rabana-Merquly has iconographic similarities with the statue of King ’tlw/Attalos at the city of Hatra, a location rich in finds from the Parthian era.
“The Rabana-Merquly mountain fortress is located on the eastern border of Adiabene, which was governed by the kings of a local dynasty dependent on the Parthians,” the researchers said.
“It may have been used, among other things, to conduct trade with the pastoral tribes in the back country, maintain diplomatic relations, or exert military pressure.”
“The considerable effort that must have gone into planning, building, and maintaining a fortress of this size points to governmental activities.”
A paper on the findings was published in the journal Antiquity.
Michael Brown et al. Rabana-Merquly: a fortress in the kingdom of Adiabene in the Zagros Mountains. Antiquity, published online July 20, 2022; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2022.74