Comparing the find to a mythical ‘Lord of the Rings’ castle, archaeologists announce the discovery of an ancient fortress in Iraq

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Deep in the mountains of Iraq, archaeologists have discovered an ancient fortress that may be a remnant of the lost Parthian city of Natounia, whose existence is known only from coins.

German and Iraqi teams began investigating the ruins of the site, known as Rabana-Merquly, 13 years ago, excavating and surveying the 2.5-mile-long site in the Zagros Mountains by air with drone technology. Their findings were published this week in the journal antiquity.

“The spectacular setting of the Rabana-Merquly fortress, built on the western side of Mount Piragrun, which is one of the most important peaks in the Zagros region, really sets it apart from all the other places I have worked “said the lead author of the article. , Michael Brown, a researcher at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, told Artnet News in an email.

“If you’re familiar with The Lord of the Rings, it’s basically a real-life Helm’s Deep,” he added, referring to the curved mountainside fortifications imagined by author JRR Tolkien in The two towers.

Rabana “sanctuary”. Photo ©Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project.

The fortress includes buildings that may have served as barracks and other features that imply a military purpose. There is also what appears to be a Zoroastrian shrine, possibly worshiping the Iranian water goddess Anahita.

“A particular line of inquiry will be [Rabana-Merquly’s] role as a possible pilgrimage destination,” Brown said of avenues for further research.

However, perhaps the most striking feature is a pair of rock reliefs carved into the cliff face, depicting a life-size figure of a man in ornate costume.

The rocky relief of Merquly, the rocky relief of Rabana;  and a Hatra statue of King 'tlw/Attalos of Adiabene.  Image ©Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project;  Antiquity Journal Ltd., illustration by Michael Brown.

The rocky relief of Merquly, the rocky relief of Rabana; and a Hatra statue of King ‘tlw/Attalos of Adiabene. Image ©Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project; Antiquity Journal Ltd., illustration by Michael Brown.

“The two reliefs are located right next to the two gated entrances and were clearly designed to make a political statement,” Brown said. “They can be called old propaganda.”

His working theory is that he is a king of Adiabene, a vassal of the Parthian Empire who ruled near the fortress. The figures’ distinctive headgear closely matches that found on a statue from the ancient city of Hatra, some 140 miles to the west, which bears an inscription identifying an Adiabene king.

At Rabana-Merquly, King Adiabene immortalized on the rock walls may be Natounissar, founder of Natounia, also known as Natounissarokerta.

A part of Natounia.  Photo ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

A part of Natounia. Photo ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

The place name Natunissarokerta combines Natunissar, the king identified on ancient coin inscriptions as the founder of the city, with the Parthian word for moat or fortification, suggesting that it would have been a fortified city with elaborate defences, a much like the Rabana-Merquly site.

“Natounia is only really known for its rare pieces, there are no detailed historical references,” Brown said. “Rabana-Merquly is by far the largest and most impressive Parthian site in the region, and the only one with royal iconography, so it is by far the best candidate.”

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