The Ancient Caves of Karaftu and its Historical Treasures
The Caves of Karaftu are a series of chambers that were carved into the cliff face of a mountain in the Kurdistan Province of Iran. The caves were formed naturally, but were modified by inhabitants over the centuries. In ancient times, these caves were important from an economic point of view, as they were situated on the Silk Route. Today, the caves are also significant for a Greek inscription found in them, as this is one of the few examples of such a script preserved in situ in Iran.
The Caves of Karaftu are limestone caves, and believed to have been naturally formed several millions of years ago. Studies have shown that the region had been underwater during the Cretaceous period, and that the mountains emerged out of the waters during the late part of this geologic period. There is still water in certain parts of the cave, and these areas may be explored using small boats.
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Staircase at the Caraftu Cave. (Dopey Old Bloke)
The Caves of Karaftu are only accessible via a common entrance found on the southern side of the mountain. On this side, the cliff is said to rise almost vertically, and the entrance to the caves is said to be around 9 m (29 ft.) above the ground. In times past, the caves could only be reached by using ladders of ropes. Today, there is a long staircase leading up to the entrance. Until present times, the caves were known as Karaftu Castle, and were often used by the locals in times of danger as a refuge.
It is not known for certain when the modification of the caves began, but it has been initially suggested that this commenced during the Parthian period, i.e. between the 3 rd century BC and the 3 rd century AD. This is supported by the discovery of pottery from this period. Pottery from the subsequent Sassanian and Islamic periods indicate that usage of this cave continued during these periods. The Greek inscription from the caves may show that such modifications may have taken place in an earlier period of time.
Karafu Cave, Divandarreh, Iran (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Apart from the pottery from various points of the caves’ history, the Caves of Karaftu are also known for a Greek inscription that reads “Herakles resides here / Nothing evil may enter”. This inscription is said to have been first discovered in modern times by Sir Robert Ker Porter, who recorded the site and its inscription in 1819. An improved reading of the inscription was obtained by Sir Henry Rawlinson when he visited the caves in 1838. A copy of this reading was given to William Martin Leake, a well-known British topographer and antiquarian, who made several observations.
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The Cave of Karaftu. Photo Source: (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Firstly, Leake identified Herakles as the protector of the area. Secondly, the two lines may have been verses. Thirdly, the form of characters belonged to the 4 th or 3 rd century BC. The last of these was clarified about a century later. In the summer of 1936, Sir Aurel Stein, under the advice of W. W. Tarn, explored the Cave of Karaftu for three days. Apart from producing a plan of the chambers, Stein also made a copy of the inscription. This allowed Marcus N. Tod, a lecturer of Greek at Oriel College, Oxford at that time, to confirm that the inscription was from the early Hellenistic period, between the end of the 4 th century BC and the beginning of the 3 rd century BC.
In present times, the Caves of Karaftu have become a tourist attraction. In January 2015, it was reported that the caves were to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It was also asserted that with this prestigious status, more tourists, especially foreign ones, would visit the site.
Top image: Karaftu Cave (visitoiran.com)
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