Searching for the Lost City of Natounia

Situated on the southwest flanks of Mt. Piramagrun in the Zagros Mountains, in Iraqi Kurdistan, is the stone fortress of Rabana-Merquly. The fortifications are almost 4 kilometre long. There are also two smaller settlements on the site.

Excavation of the perimeter wall at the entrance to Rabana valley. Image credit: Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project

Archaeologists from Heidelberg University, studying the remains of this amazing fortress so high up in the mountains, say that this was one of the major regional centres of the Parthian Empire, which extended over parts of Iran and Mesopotamia approximately 2,000 years ago. The researchers also suggest that Rabana-Merquly may be the lost city of Natounia.

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. The researchers also found a religious complex possibly dedicated to the Zoroastrian Iranian goddess Anahita.

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 BC. 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.

Because of its high position on the mountain, mapping the site was possible only with drones.

The rock reliefs at the entrance to the fortress are of special significance, along with the geographic location of the fortification in the catchment area of the Lower Zab River, known in antiquity by its Greek name of Kapros. The wall reliefs could depict the city’s founder, either Natounissar or a direct descendant. The relief resembles a likeness of a king that was found approximately 230 kilometres away in 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. 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.

Dr Michael Brown, a researcher at the Institute of Prehistory, Protohistory and Near-Eastern Archaeology of Heidelberg University, who led led the international team said:

“The considerable effort that must have gone into planning, building, and maintaining a fortress of this size points to governmental activities.”

During the latest excavations at Rabana-Merquly, Dr Brown collaborated with colleagues from the Directorate of Antiquities in Sulaymaniyah, a city in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The results of the Heidelberg investigations were published in the journal “Antiquity”.

The current research in Rabana-Merquly is being funded by the German Research Foundation as part of priority programme 2176 “The Iranian Highlands: Resilience and Integration of Premodern Societies”. The aim of the research project is to investigate Parthian settlements and society in the Zagros highlands on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border.

Click on this link to access the report: Rabana-Merquly: a fortress in the kingdom of Adiabene in the Zagros Mountains

Watch: The Parthian Empire: Introduction and Historiography

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