The Great Wall of Gorgan

The Great Wall of China is well known as the largest wall in Asia (or indeed the world). Less known is the Wall of Gorgan in northeastern Iran (specifically the plain of Gorgan) attributed to the Sassanian era (224-651 AD). The structure is yet another testament to Sassanian engineering capabilities.

According to the Science Daily News (February 26, 2008) the Wall of Gorgan is::

“…more than 1000 years older than the Great Wall of China, and longer than Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall put together.”

The Science Daily report is significant as it was generally believed that the Gorgan Wall and Wall of China had been been built around the time of the Parthian dynasty. The Parhtian origin hypothesis had been postulated by Dr. Kiani in 1917 (see further below).

The Great Wall of Gorgan is the world’s largest defense wall, second only to the famed Wall of China. The Gorgan Wall measures approximately at a length of 155 kilometers and spans a range of 6-10 meters in width. The Gorgan Wall begins from the coast of the Caspian Sea, meandering to the north of Gonbade Kâvous. The Gorgan Wall stretches  to the northwest and terminates to the rear of mountains of Piškamar.

An Iranian map of the Gorgan wall. The works of Dr. Kiani in 1971 were invaluable in helping lay the basis of mapping the structure. The Gorgan Wall is second only to the Great Wall of China in length.

Before examing the Gorgan Wall, we briefly examine the territory, etymyology and settlements of the ancient Iranian province of Gorgan.

The Territory, Terminology and ancient Cities of Gorgan

The Gorgân Wall is known by numerous names. Some of these include the Dam of Anushirvan, the Dam of Alexander, the Dam of Firuz and Qizil Yilan.

The inhabitants of this region are generally believed to have been the ancient Hyrcanians. Gorgan itself is one of Iran’s most ancient regions and is situated just to the Caspian Sea’s southeast. Gorgan has been a part of the Median, Achaemenid (559-333 BC), Seleucid, Parthian (247 BC-224 AD) and Sassanian empires in the pre-Islamic era. The term Gorgan is derived from Old Iranian VARKANA (lit. The Land of the Wolf). Interesitngly the term Gorgan linguistically corresponds to modern Persian’s “Gorg-an” or “The Wolves”.

The capital of ancient Gorgan was known as Zadrakarta, which later became Astarabad. This city can be traced back to at least the Achaemenid era. Another historical city of importance was ancient Jorjan.

An aerial map of ancient Jorjan or Gorgan by Dr. Kiani.

The Gorgan Wall and the Savaran

The first serious expedition to the site occurred in 1971 by an archaeological team led by Dr. Kiani. The second thorough analysis of the structure was made by an archaeological survey team in the 1990s. This was part of the activieities related to the development of the Golestân Dam. The most recent expedition occurred in early 2008 by an international archaeological team composed of specialists from Iran and England (the Universities of Edinburgh and Durham).

An excavation team at the Gorgan Wall. The most recent expeditions have been conducted by an Iranian-British team in late 2007-early 2008.

The Sassanian dynastry continued to construct, improve and fortify the site. What was unique in the Partho-Sassanian system was the construction of castles along the wall at predetermined distances. The shortest distance between the castles was 10 kilometers with the longest being 50 kilometers. It is noteworthy that all of these were supported by an aqueduct and various water channels.

The majority of these fortresses are of the square-shape type and had barrack-type buildings that could house up to 30-36,000 Savaran (Sassanian Elite cavalry). Up to forty of these castles have been identified thus far. The Savaran of the Sassanian Gund (Army) were a highly trained and effective force, who more than made up for their small numbers with rigorous training and military effectiveness. They were able to rapidly deploy to threatened sectors of the Sassanian kingdom, and the system of castle-networks was highly integral in the basing and deployment of the Savaran. Castle-systems were in evidence in the Caucasus as well as the western frontier against the formidable Romano-Byzantines.

 Aerial view-Gorgan WallAn aerial view of a portion of the wall of Gorgan (Courtesy of Iran Review Website). The Savaran (Elite Sassanian Cavalry) units were housed in a system of fortresses that guarded nearly 200 kilometers of ancient Iran’s northeastern frontiers.

The system of castles was developed by the Sassanians into a system of fluid defense. This meant that the Gorgan Wall was not part of a purely static system of defense. The main emphasis was in a system of fluid defense-attack system. This entailed holding off potential invaders along the line and in the event of a breakthrough, the Sassanian high command would first observe the strength and direction of the invading forces. Then the elite Sassanian cavalry (the Savaran) would be deployed out of the castles closest to the invading force. The invaders would then be trapped behind Iranian lines with the Gorgan Wall to their north and the Savaran attacking at their van and flanks. It was essentially this system of defense that allowed Sassanian Persia to defeat the menacing Hun-Hephthalite invasions of the 6-7th centuries AD.

The Savaran counterattacking against invading Hun-Hephthalites in northeast Persia. The Sassanian High Command often channeled invading forces into “kill zones” and destroyed them by deploying Savaran units from castles along the Gorgan wall and other areas further east. The figure to the left is a Kushan warrior wielding the large east-Iranian straight two-edged swords. The central warrior (with armor and mail) is derived from the figure of Khosrow II and his steed Sabdiz at Tagh-e-Bostan in Kermanshah, western Iran. The right figure is a female warrior who is a local governess (Paygospanan-Banu). (Farrokh, 2005, pp.41-42, 53-54, Plate C).

As noted previously, the width of the Gorgan wall varies from 6 to 10 meters along its length. The wall’s thickness varied due to the varied geographical characteristics (climate, soil, terrain, etc.) of each region traversed by the structure.

There is little doubt that the Partho-Sassanians were endowed with a high level of engineering proficiency. As noted by a report by the Science Daily on February 26, 2008:

New discoveries unearthed at an ancient frontier wall in Iran provide compelling evidence that the Persians matched the Romans for military might and engineering prowess.


One of the views of the engineering works of the Gorgan Wall Courtesy of Yataahoo Website). . Iranian engineering skills were on par with those of Rome, China and India. Many of the structures of the Gorgan Wall have stood the test of time.

Post-Islamic Era

The city of Jorjan survived into post-Islamic times. when it acquired a high status in post-Islamic times (especially during the 9th century) but fell into decline and was obliterated by the Mongols by the 13th century. Gorgan had became a major venue for the inroads of Oghuz-Turkic tribes into Iran from the 11th century AD.

The Wall of Gorgan as depicted in a 15th century AD manuscript (Nasr, 1976, Plate 19).

The city of Astarabad (or ancient Zadrakarta) also survived into post-Islamic times. By the time of Nader Shah ( 1688-1747), a powerful defense wall had been constructed for protection against nomadic Turkmen raids. By the eve of the Qajar dynasty in the late 1700s had become a major bastion against Turkmen inroads into Iran;s northeast (along the Caspian). By late Qajar times the term “Gorgan” was used to designate the town of Astarabad. Gorgan grew rapidly into a thriving urban center during the 20th century.

Locals in modern Gorgan amuse themselves in the snow (Photo by Ebrahim Asghari).

As reported by the CHN news agency of Iran on November 14, 2006, the Great Wall of Gorgan has been nominated for UNESCO status.

Further Readings

Farrokh, K. (2005). Sassanian Elite Cavalry 224-651 AD. Oxford: Osprey Publications.

Kiani, M.Y. (1982). The Gurgan Plain. Archäologische  Mitteilungen aus Iran. Ergänzungsband 9.  Berlin. See also Gorgan IV Archaeology. Encyclopedia Iranica.

Nasr, S.H. (1976). Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study. London: World of Islam Festival Trust.

Omrani Rekavandi, H., Sauer, E., Wilkinson, T. & Nokandeh, J. (2008). The Enigma of the Red Snake: Revealing one of the World’s greatest Frontier Walls. Current World Archaeology, Number 27, February-March, pp.12-22.

Daily Mail Article: Wikipedia or “Wicked-Pedia”?


The title of the article by Jonathon Margolis of the Daily Mail on February 15th, 2009 succinctly states the danger:

Wicked-Pedia! Millions trust its every word. But Wikipedia, the error-ridden encyclopaedia, has become a dangerous tool

This quote from Margolis is also revealing:

Iranian history is now a MAJOR target by those who harbor politicaly-motivated agendae. Unfortunatley, it is also a venue for a number of historians and their students (interestingly in the Iranian Studies field) who wish to change the history and legacy of Iran. There are also powerful lobbies of pan-Turks and pan-Arabo-Islamists who often insert anti-Iranian propaganda into the Wikipedia.  Examples of these actions will be discussed below.

Wikipedia: The case of attacks against Cyrus the Great

Saam Safavi-Zadeh and Anna Djakashvili-Bloehm had also warned in the early part of 2009 of the dangers of Wikipedia being used by Eurocentrists (or neo-Orientalists) in their efforts to attack the character of Cyrus the Great and the Cyrus Cylinder.


The Cyrus Cylinder. The wikipedia has been used as a venue by Eurocentric or neo-Orientalists in an attempt at presenting the Cylinder and Cyrus the Great in a more negative light.

There is now evidence that the Spiegel and Daily Telegraph’s racist articles against Cyrus the Great last July were closely coordinated with efforts on Wikipedia against Cyrus the Great. Safavi-Zadeh and Djakashvili-Bloehm note the following in their article:

“…Note 19 in the Wikipedia article which links to:… it is very curious that the above occurred right after the Spiegel/Daily telegraph articles on July15-21.”

The link mentioned by Safavi-Zadeh and Djakashvili-Bloehm states that the entire history of the Cyrus Cylinder being associated with Human Rights is all “imperial propaganda of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

This is exactly what the Spiegel and Daily Telegraph articles said in their aforementioned articles. There are other parallels between Wikipedia and the Spiegel-Daily Telegraph as cited by Safavi-Zadeh and Djakashvili-Bloehm in their article.

Perhaps most remarkable are the tactics that are being used by Orientalist or Eurocentrist students, professors and lay-persons against Iranian history (in this case the history of Cyrus the Great). Safavi-Zadeh and Djakashvili-Bloehm cite the following tactics:

1) Ignoring or sidelining any references or researchers that contradict them (including character assassination)

2) Using (or recruiting) as many sympathetic Wikipedia users as possible to enforce a point of view

3) Tireless repetition of particular viewpoints

The good news is that academics are now alert to the fact that Wikipedia has become unreliable, especially in topics related to the Humaities, Social Sciences, History and biographies of persons. Margolis notes that:

One, Professor Tara Brabazon of the University of Brighton, has explicitly banned first-year students from using Wikipedia  –  or Google  –  and insists on them sticking to reading lists.

Too many students don’t use their own brains enough,’ she says. ‘We need to bring back the important values of research and analysis.’

Other colleges have followed suit not only here in Britain but also in America, where the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the University of California in Los Angeles and Syracuse University in New York have all banned the use of Wikipedia as a source for material.


Wikipedia and attacks against Professor Richard Nelson Frye

The TalkPage section of the Wikipedia link for Professor Richard Frye has become a virtual battleground. This doyen of Iranian Studies has been accused of being “an Iranian secular nationalist“, a characterization which is unfair, unbalanced and misleading. This is because Professor Frye quotes Arab historian Ibn Khaldun’s observations on the mighty influence of Persian culture on Arabo-Islamic civilization (see article by Kaveh Farrokh on pan-Arabism).  

Professor Richard Frye has also witnessed incisive comments against him in Wikipedia. As noted by Safavi-Zadeh and BloehmWikipedia forums are not monitored or refereed by qualified academics on a full-time basis. Any person (objective or otherwise) can open an account in Wikipedia, enter themselves into any topic and start writing or revising that topic. ”

The frustration against such abusive tactics is duly expressed by a Wikipedia editor who often monitors the actions of revisionists against Iranian history topics and personalities:

Wikepdia is a big headache.. specially countries that do not have a history will find a perfect way to make history and will actually pay editors and organizations to support their edits …”

Examples of abuse cited by the Daily Mail

At this time any historical item and any person (living or deceased) can easily be targeted for character assasination and ridicule via Wikipedia. Note the following four examples cited by Margolis:

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was attacked on Wikipedia when he was falsely accused of having pictures of Adolf Hitler in his room as a teenager. The writer of this false accusation cannot be bought to account thanks to complex Wikipedia forum rules.

Sacha Baron Cohen, the famous comical character of “Borat” who was cited as the president of Kazakestan in Wikipedia.

Former US Presdient George Bush has had his entry changed 40,000 times due to false claims being continually posted against him. As noted by Safavi-Zadeh and Djakashvili-Bloehm, abusers in Wikipedia often rely on “tireless repetition” to enfore their points of view.

David Beckam has been described in Wikipedia as an 18th century Chinese goal-keeper. It is perhaps no exaggeration to state that any person can now open an account in Wikipedia and write whatever she or he wishes to write against any other topic or person.

Cartoon showing the anguish of “Gary” seeing his information distorted on Wikipedia. Margolis as well as Safavi-Zadeh and Djakashvili-Bloehm have worked hard to expose the maladaptive processes now seen in the Wikipedia venue.

New Course: Art and Architecure of Ancient Persia


Kaveh Farrokh will be offering a summer course (commencing June 15, 2009) at the University of British Columbia entitled:

One of the topics discussed in the course will be the Arch of Ctesiphon (located about 40 kilometers from modern Baghdad) and its influence on European architecutre.   



 The Church of Saint-Pierre built in the 5th Century AD located in modern Isere, Austria. The archways of this structure are parallele to the ancient Sassanian capital at Ctesiphon.

For further information on registration and offerings, kindly contact Ms. Joanne Savory at the University of British Columbia at:

The Forgotten and Ancient City of Dastova


One of the most interesting ancient sites at Khuzestan is the virtually forgotten city of Dastova. This ancient city is situated approximately 2 kilometers to the south of Shushtar in the province of Khuzestan along the Dariyoon stream.

The site has witnessed human construction activities since at least the Elamite period (3400-550 BC). One recent study undertaken in late 2004-mid 2005 was led by Dr. Mehdi Rahbar which investigated burial practices at the site dated to the Parthian era (250 BC-224 AD). A number of these findings were reported by the Payvand News of Iran (citing from original reports by the Cultural heritage News of Iran or CHN) in April 25, 2005. The Payvand News/CHN reports the following:

Social class segregated even the dead of the ancient city of Dastova, near Shushtar: the rich were buried along their precious objects in beautiful caskets and the poor in dingy conditions somewhere far away from the rich.” 


A skeleton at Dastova. The inhabitants of Dastova retained their social status even in the grave. The more affluent dead are seen with superior burial regalia and caskets in contrast to the more “humble” members of Dastovian society. The 2005 archaeological expeditions reveal that the rich and the poor were buried in different graveyards.


Dr. Mehdi Rahbar who led the 2005 expedition, noted that:

“…social class played an important role in the city formation, as much as separating the rich and poor even when dead and buried…

Some sources suggest that construction at Dastova city during the Parthian era was mainly undertaken by a certain “Shilhak Inshushinak“.


A Parthian pillar in human form at the Shush Museum in Khuzestan, Iran.

More recent archaeological excavations at Dastova can be dated to late 2006 which led to the discovery of a raised platform of brocks and a large structure attributed to the Elamite era. Research continues at this site by a team of students who continue excavation work. Unfortunately, parts of that site have been destroyed by local farmers working on irrigation projects.

There is a general consensus among archaeologists that the Dastova structures may have been intended to accommodate religious ceremonies or possibly sacrificial rites. As noted by Professor Ali Heidari, an archaeologist at Azad University in the city of Shushtar:

Regarding the size of the platform, it could not have been the base of a pillar or the pier of a wall. Most possibly, the place was used during religious rituals. 30 by 30 by 70 centimeter bricks and stucco were used in its construction…Since ordinary people used raw adobe to build their houses, the high quality bricks and materials which were used in the construction of this complex indicate that it must have belonged to people with high social classes. Nevertheless, more studies are still needed for clarifying the case.”

In practice, the real purpose of the structure remains conjectural. Professor Heidari notes:

Our information about this historical site is not comprehensive, thus making us unable to carry out excavations in a specific area. We can only work on those hills which have not been leveled to the ground yet“.

The Elamites were to be eventually absorbed by the Indo-European Iranic arrivals, notably the ancient Persians who settled in the region. The Elamite language was respected by the Persians as indicated by archaeological discoveries revealing the existence of the Elamite language during the Achaemenid era. 


An ancient casket at Shush Museum in Iran’s Khuzestan province.


Interestingly, Dastova continued to flourish long after the fall of Achaemenid Persia to the Greek invasions of Alexander, and their Seleucid successors. As noted by Professor Heidari:

The inhabitants of Dastova city enjoyed a strong economy. They were mostly engaged in trade relations in 45 AD, and thus imposed a great influence on the economy and business of the region…”

By the early first century AD, the Iranian Parthian dynasty was ruling Iran having displaced the Seleucids from Iran and defeated the Roman invasions of Marcus Lucinius Crassus in 54 BC and Marc Antony in 37 BC.

By the early Islamic era, Dastova was gradually abandoned. The author of the text “Al Ansab” has cited Dastova as having been “A city in Khuzestan“. The same source mentions Dastova as the location from which its famed textiles came from.

9,000 yr old mysterious burial ritual discovered in Iran


As reported by the Discoveryon academic website on May 18, 2009, archeologists at Iran’s Sialk Mound recently discovered a mysterious burial ritual dated to approximately 9,000 years ago. Sialk is located in the center of Iran.

The ancient Sialk Ziggurat located near the city of Kashan, is generally acknowledged to be tone of the focal origins of technology, industry and even religious thought in Iran. Recentl discoveries have shed new light on the genesis of religious rituals in ancient Iran.

Iran’s Press TV reported on May 11, 2009 that an Iranian-Polish archeological team have come upon a fascinating discovery at Sialk: a mysterious burial ritual.

Hassan Fazeli (the director of Iran’s Archeology Research Center) has stated:

In this 9,000-year-old practice, four bodies were burned at a heat of 400 to 700 degrees. The ash and remains of the bodies were then buried in a jar…Traces of red petals were found in the jar. Archeologists believe red flowers signified life and eternity in ancient PersiaA burial ritual encompassing burning has never been observed in Iran…It makes the rare discovery of great importance

An ancient skeleton discovered at the Sialk site.

The recent exciting discoveries have resulted in the convergence of a larger archaeological team at the site. These include archaeologists not just from Iran but France, Italy, England and Germany. This new team has been examining the northern mound at the site for a week.

Pottery from Sialk. This particular item has been dated to 1000-800 BC and is now housed at the British Museum.