An Imperial Frontier and its Landscape: the Gorgan and Tammisha Walls in North-East Iran

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Classics

Abstract

The Gorgan Wall is c. 195 km long, and it is possible that it continues in the west and east beyond the section known so far. It is, to our knowledge, the longest ancient barrier in Asia, outside China. The Great Wall of China (in fact not a single wall), made of, or faced with, stones or bricks, dates to 16th and 17th c. AD and not, as commonly thought, to the 3rd c. BC. Its ancient predecessors by contrast did not use ashlar or bricks. Little, incidentally, is known about these ancient Chinese linear earthworks, but it is possible that some of them exceeded the Gorgan Wall in length. The scale of the Wall of Gorgan compares also favourably with its most elaborate ancient counterparts in Europe. Being longer than its two famous British counterparts, Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall, only the 548 km-long German 'Limes' reaches a greater length than the Gorgan Wall. It is worth noting that the German 'Limes' consisted in its most developed form of a rampart, ditch and palisade in the west and a 166 km-long thin wall, presumably without walkway, in the east. If we exclude earthworks, it thus appears that the Gorgan Wall may have been the longest wall anywhere in the ancient world.

Like some of its Roman counterparts, it is lined by a chain of forts. 36 such military compounds are known along the Wall, ranging in size from c. 1.4 to 7.2 ha. This suggests that this massive linear barrier was designed for a substantial standing army. While linear military barriers are today the very epitomes of Roman military architecture, they were matched, if not exceeded, in scale and sophistication by a monument created by Rome's eastern neighbour.

The geographic location of the Gorgan Wall, running from, presumably, the ancient shore line of the Caspian Sea into the Elburz Mountains in the East, leaves little doubt that one of its principal purposes was to protect the Gorgan Plain and its hinterland from incursions from the north. Another function, only recognized in the past five years by our Iranian colleagues, and confirmed and elaborated by our 2005 landscape survey, was that a major irrigation canal led along much of its north side. As a result the spoil from the canal could be used for the construction works. The sheer scale of the irrigation system, which was fed by one of the largest artificial reservoirs in the ancient Near East, provides an impressive testimony to the organisational skills of the state which had created it. Prior to the robbing of its bricks, ancient Persia's largest monument, must have left a deep impression on those who saw it. It was thought (almost certainly erroneously) to have been erected by one of the most famous personalities in Ancient History, Alexander the Great, and is known as Sadd-i Iskandar (Alexander's Wall). Whether a passage in the Holy Koran (18, 94-7) refers to this or to a different border wall remains disputed.

Yet our knowledge of the Gorgan Wall is sketchy. No complete plan of any interior building in any of the forts is known, nor is there agreement on the date of its construction. Suggestions range from the 2nd c. BC to the 6th c. AD. While a 6th-c. date has been suggested for the nearby Wall of Tammisha, the evidence is even less conclusive.

Our project will explore one of the most sophisticated, yet least known, barriers in the ancient world. It promises to reveal the date of construction and occupation of the walls and of associated installations and settlements, their architecture, function and natural environment. To achieve this, we will employ scientific dating and other modern techniques, ranging from magnetometer survey and the study of satellite images to the analysis of mortar, charcoal, other plant remains and bones. The project will provide major insights into the culture and history of the Partho-Sasanian Empires and into the evolution of advanced linear barrier and water supply systems in a global context.

Publications

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Omrani Rekavandi, The Archaeology of Sasanian Frontier Troops: Recent Fieldwork on Frontier Walls in Northern Iran in Proceedings of the XXIst International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 2009

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Omrani Rekavandi, H. (2010) At the frontiers of the Sasanian Empire: the Gorgan and Tammishe Walls in northern Iran in Proceedings of the 6th International Congress of the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, 5 May - 10 May 2008

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Sauer, E.W. Innovation at Persia's frontiers: Sasanian Campaign Bases and Defensive Barriers in Limes XXII. Proceedings of the XXIInd International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, Ruse 2012.

 
Description British Institute for Persian Studies Award
Amount £2,100 (GBP)
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2007 
End 08/2007
 
Description British Institute for Persian Studies Award
Amount £3,700 (GBP)
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2008 
End 08/2008
 
Description ERC Advanced Grant
Amount € 2,488,003 (EUR)
Funding ID 295375 
Organisation European Research Council (ERC) 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 05/2012 
End 04/2017
 
Description Magnetic studies of the Gorgan Wall, Northern Iran (Universities of Bradford and Edinburgh, funded by the British Academy) 
Organisation The British Academy
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Information taken from Final Report
 
Description Magnetic studies of the Gorgan Wall, Northern Iran (Universities of Bradford and Edinburgh, funded by the British Academy) 
Organisation University of Bradford
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Information taken from Final Report
 
Description Magnetic studies of the Gorgan Wall, Northern Iran (Universities of Bradford and Edinburgh, funded by the British Academy) 
Organisation University of Edinburgh
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Information taken from Final Report
 
Description 'Ancient cities, fortresses and frontier walls in the Gorgan Plain - the 2008 season on the Gorgan and Tammishe Walls', British Institute of Persian Studies Newsletter 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Supporters
Results and Impact Article published in The British Institute of Persian Studies Newsletter 35, April 2009

Information made available to peers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009
 
Description 'Linear Barriers of Northern Iran: The Great Wall of Gorgan', British Institute of Persian Studies Newsletter 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Article published in BIPS newsletter.

Information on research project made available to peers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2006
 
Description 'Sasanian hinterland fortresses, linear barriers and frontier landscapes: The 2007 season at the Great Wall of Gorgan and the Wall of Tammishe', British Institute of Persian Studies Newsletter 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Article published in The British Institute of Persian Studies Newsletter 33, May 2008

Information made available to peers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2008
 
Description 'Tamiša Wall' article in Encylopaedia Iranica 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Article on the Tamiša Wall written for the online resource 'Encyclopaedia Iranica' (http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/tamisa-wall), an international collaborative project based at Columbia University.

Information is now available to the general public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Current World Archaeology article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Cover story and 11-page illustrated article in a popular archaeology magazine.

Unknown
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2008
URL http://www.shca.ed.ac.uk/staff/academic/esauer/pubs/iranian_walls.pdf
 
Description Great Wall of Gorgan brochure 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Illustrated brochure published in English and Persian with information on research findings

Unknown
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2007