For something that is barely mentioned in the sources we usually say that it has been gone in oblivion and nobody will know about it, but in this case, despite the scarce written evidence, archaeologists have discovered the defensive wall which stretched all over from the south shores of the Caspian sea to the Pishkaran mountains to the east, where it disappears, which proves to us that this defensive fortification was bigger than the Hadrian and the Antonine wall combined and is the second largest and longest ancient building, surpassed only by the Great Wall of China.

One of the big questions regarding this ancient fortification, often called by archaeologists “Red Snake“, is who built this wall, because throughout the history of the Great Wall of Gorgan’s excavation numerous researchers claimed different rulers as his builders. H.L. Rabino once attributed the wall to Khusrau I. (A.D. 531-79) and once to Alexander the Great. Even today, the Wall is called Alexander’s barrier (who had reached the area in 330 B.C.), even though it was rebuilt some nine centuries later under Khusrau I. Erich F. Schmidt, to whom we owe the first aerial survey of the monument, dated it to have been built “between the conquests of the Macedonians and the Arabs”. Others were more specific and often postulated a late Sasanian construction date, such as Mohammed Youssuf Kiani who claimed that the wall was built during the Parthian Empire (2nd century B.C.). But arguably more widely held is the view that the wall was the work of king Khusrau I, the shahanshah of the Sassanid Empire. This Persian dynasty has created one of the most powerful empires in the ancient world, centred on Iran and stretching from modern Iraq to southern Russia, Central Asia and Pakistan. (1) (2)

The Great wall of Gorgan was at least 195 km long and 6 to 10  m wide, featuring over 40 castles spaced at intervals between 10 and 50 km. A 5 m deep canal conducted water along most of its lenght. Its continuous gradient, designed to ensure regular water flow, bears witness to the skills of the land-surveyors responsible for the marking of the wall’s route. What is most important regarding this defence fortification system is that it formed the border of Hyrcannia and, as well as the more famous defense walls such as Hadrian’s Wall, Antonine’s Wall or even the Great Wall of China, it served as a barrier. It thus separated the Sassanid Empire from the northen tribes, which proved that the Persians had no desire whatsoever to spread their territory further to the north. Unlike the Persians, White Huns, the people who were living north of the Great Wall of Gorgan were one of the main reasons why the Wall was built because it took Sassanid Empire a long period of time to finally defeat them. We know that the Persian king Peroz (AD 459-484), when campaigning against the White Huns, repeatedly spent time at ancient Gorgan (next to modern Gonbad-e Kavus). Eventually he had to pay with his life for venturing into the lands of the White Huns. (4) (5) (2)

Regarding the question on the purpose of the Wall (heavily defended frontier for centuries or an ambitious engineering project?) the Fort no. 4 was selected for magnetometer survey in 2006, which revealed three buildings of cca. 228 m length, that are described as barrack blocks. According to the archaeologist report, so much detail was visible on the plots that they could see individual rooms. Prior to that finding, researchers virtually didn’t have any knowledge on the interior of the Sassanian fort. (3)

As for the number of stationed soldiers, assuming that the forts were occupied as densely as those on Hadrian’s Wall, then the garrison would have been around 30000 soldiers. Taking into account the size and room number of the barrack blocks in the Gorgan Wall, forts and occupation density, then we can produce figures between 15000 and 36000 soldiers. The Wall did not exist in a vacuum. The dense occupation of its fertile hinterland explains why it was built and how its garrison was fed side of the Wall. Although the ditch was evidently a defensive feature, it must also have been used as the source of the soil for the bricks used in the Wall. Clearly the 195 km long “Red Snake“ required a huge amount of labour for its construction. But what was not generally known until 2008 is that from the excavation results a large dam was found and, along with it, associated canals, which tells us that the process of wall construction was even more labour intensive. This is because a huge landscape engineering project was initiated at the time of the wall’s construction to capture and divert water into the ditch that ran along the north side of the Wall. Not only did the rulers of the Sassanid Empire create a brand new landscape by the construction of water supply canals, but they also cut through the pre-existing Parthian and Sasanian landscapes, which resulted in the Wall severing preexisting landscape features such as a canal that had probably provided the essential supply of irrigation water to the neighbouring tribes. (1) (3)

When talking specifically about the Great Wall of Gorgan we can now, with no doubt, more clearly understand how the Sassanid Empire managed to be the Roman Empire’s best adversary and, according to these recent findings, even surpass the Roman Empire in army strength, organisational skills, engineering and water management, which gives a clear understanding of an ancient super power that dominated from Indus valley to the Mesopotamia and later on posed a great threat to the very existence of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) in the 7th century. With this discovery we are getting more convinced about the fact that the history is step by step stopping to be euro-centric and reveals the great mysteries of the ancient empires of the East.

Cited Works

  1. Abbasi, Ghorban Ali, Ershadi, Mohammad, Fattahi, Morteza, Gale, Rowena, Mahmoudi, Majid, Nokandeh, Jebrael, Parker, David, Ratcliffe, James, Rekavandi, Hamid Omrani, Sauer, Eberhard W., Schwenninger, Jean-Luc, Wilkinson, Tony, Usher-Wilson, Lucian Stephen, Linear Barriers of Northern Iran: The Great Wall of Gorgan and the Wall of Tammishe, Iran, Vol. 44, pg. 121-173, British Institute of Persian studies, 2006
  2. Kiyānī, Muḥammad Yūsuf. Parthian sites in Hyrcania: the Gurgan plain, Archäologische  Mitteilungen aus Iran. Ergänzungsband 9, Berlin, Reimer, 1982
  3. Rekavandi, H. Omrani, Sauer, E., Wilkinson, T. & Nokandeh, The enigma of the red snake: revealing one of the world’s greatest frontier walls, Current World Archaeology, No. 27, pg. 12-22, 2008

Photo Source: Rekavandi, H. Omrani, Sauer, E., Wilkinson, T. & Nokandeh, The enigma of the red snake: revealing one of the world’s greatest frontier walls, Current World Archaeology, No. 27, pg. 12-22, 2008)