The ancient mountain settlement of Rabana-Merquly, situated in present-day Iraqi Kurdistan, was not merely a military fortress but may have also served as a “sanctuary” dedicated to the ancient Persian water goddess Anahita. The architectural structures near a natural waterfall and the remains of a possible fire altar suggest the existence of a place of worship, according to Dr. Michael Brown.

The researcher from the Institute of Prehistoric, Protohistoric and Near Eastern Archaeology at Heidelberg University has led excavations at the site for several years.

The Rabana-Merquly mountain fortress was a significant regional center of the Parthian Empire, which spanned parts of Iran and Mesopotamia approximately 2,000 years ago. Perched on the southwestern slopes of Mount Piramagrun in the Zagros Mountains, it encompasses not only the nearly four-kilometer-long fortifications but also two smaller settlements that give the site its name.

Through multiple excavation campaigns conducted since 2009 and, more recently, between 2019 and 2022, an international research team studied the archaeological remains in situ.

Above the fortified entrance of Rabana, there is a rock relief depicting an anonymous ruler, most likely a local Parthian vassal king credited with founding the site. Within the Rabana valley, researchers also uncovered a religious complex that could have been dedicated to the goddess Anahita.

The water goddess Anahita is first mentioned in the Avesta, a sacred text of the Zoroastrian religion, where she is portrayed as the celestial source of all waters on Earth, described as a woman of immense beauty who can take the form of a stream or waterfall. The cult of Anahita was highly venerated in the western regions of Iraq during the Seleucid and Parthian periods.

The hypothesis that a possible sanctuary of Anahita formed part of the Rabana-Merquly mountain fortress is primarily based on findings of architectural extensions in the natural setting of a seasonal waterfall located within the fortress complex.

Researchers also discovered a sculpture resembling an altar carved into a cliff face nearby, where offerings or oil may have been burned. The proximity of the waterfall is significant, as the association of the elements fire and water played an important role in pre-Islamic Persian religion, according to Michael Brown.

The site includes the remains of a building where archaeologists unearthed two characteristic funerary vessels in 2022, which were radiocarbon dated to the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. This suggests the sanctuary was in use during the period when the fortified settlements of Rabana and Merquly emerged.

Dr. Brown believes there may have been a pre-existing sanctuary that was absorbed into the Anahita cult during the Parthian era, which could have been pivotal in the occupation of the mountain. At that time, many religious sites also functioned as dynastic cult places honoring the king and his ancestors, explains the Heidelberg archaeologist.

Worshippers approaching the “sanctuary” would pass beneath the rock relief of the sovereign, undoubtedly aware of the strong connection between the place, royalty, and cult. Even if the place of worship cannot be definitively attributed to the water goddess Anahita due to the lack of comparable archaeological finds for direct comparison, the Rabana sanctuary still provides us with a fascinating insight into the sacred and geopolitical regional interconnections during the Parthian era, Dr. Brown states.

The current research at Rabana-Merquly is funded by the German Research Foundation. The latest excavations led by Michael Brown were conducted in cooperation with the Directorate of Antiquities in Slemani, Iraqi Kurdistan. The most recent findings have been published in the journal Iraq.


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