The Great Wall of Gorgan: Red Snake of Iran Saw Empires Rise and Civilizations Crumble
The Great Wall of Gorgan, also known as the ‘Red Snake’, is a defense system located in the northern Iranian province of Golestan. This defensive wall dates to the Sassanian period, and is believed to have been manned by Sassanian troops up to at least the first half of the 7th century AD. The Great Wall of Gorgan is an engineering marvel due to its enormous length and its technical sophistication. It was an effective defensive structure for the Sassanians to successfully defend their northern border against invading enemies.
Construction Begins on the Great Wall of Gorgan
Prior to the advent of scientific dating, various dates were proposed for the construction of the Great Wall of Gorgan. Some scholars, for instance, proposed that the wall was built during the time of Alexander the Great, i.e. the 4th century BC, whilst others believe that it dates to the reign of the Sassanian king Khosrow I, i.e. the 6th century AD. The majority of scholars, however, were of the opinion that the wall was constructed sometime during the 2nd or 1st century BC, when the area was part of the Parthian Empire.
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In recent times, scientific dating has shown that the wall was built during the 5th / 6th century AD. Ancient authors, notably the Byzantine scholar Procopius, wrote about the wars fought by the Sassanians against their northern neighbors during this period. Hence, it is plausible that the Sassanians built the Great Wall of Gorgan during this time.
Great Wall of Gorgan Measurements
The Great Wall of Gorgan stretches almost 200 km (124 miles), starting from the coast of the Caspian Sea in the west, and ending in the Pishkamar Mountains in the east. As a comparison, Hadrian’s Wall in northern England is about 117 km (72.7 miles), whilst the Antonine Wall further north of it spans a distance of about 63 km (39.15 miles). Thus, the Great Wall of Gorgan is longer than the length of these two Roman wall combined.
Indeed, as a defensive wall, the length of this Sassanian wall is surpassed only by the Great Wall of China. It may be said that the latter’s construction varies greatly in terms of size, quality, and material, as it was adapted to the local terrain. The Great Wall of Gorgan, on the other hand, displays a consistency in construction along its entirety.
A section of the Great Wall of Gorgan. Source: Secret Real Truth/ CC BY ND
It has been found that the Great Wall of Gorgan is 10 meters (32.81 ft.) wide and 3 meters (9.84 ft.) tall for the majority of its length. Additionally, this uniformity is evident in the size and shape of its bricks. This had a practical function, as it allowed the Sassanian builders to construct the wall quickly and easily, and at the same time maintain its quality. This was crucial, as the Sassanian Empire’s northern enemies could raid their territory at any given moment. The remains of kilns along the course of the wall are another indication of the logistical efficiency of the Sassanian builders, as the bricks were produced on-site, and could be used immediately for construction. Furthermore, a network of canals was also dug along the wall, to supply water to the kilns. Incidentally, it was due to the red color of these bricks that the Great Wall of Gorgan is known also as the ‘Red Snake’.
Excavation site at Qareh Deeb. ( Yelhispressing)
Keeping Enemies Out
The Great Wall of Gorgan served the Sassanians well, as it protected their northern border first against the Hephthalites, also known as the White Huns, and later against the Turks. These peoples were a threat to the Sassanians, as they frequently conducted raids across the border.
Apart from the high walls, which would have itself been a formidable barrier against these raiders (who would have mainly been horsemen), the Great Wall of Gorgan was lined with up to 38 forts, each of which was filled with barracks. Additionally, it has been estimated that up to 30,000 soldiers could be deployed along the length of this wall.
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Shahnameh illustration of the Sasanian general Sukhra fighting the Hephthalites (484). ( Public Domain )
Based on radiocarbon dating, it has been found that the occupation of the Great Wall of Gorgan continued to be in use until at least the first half of the 7th century AD. Whilst it is unclear if the wall was abandoned at that time, we do know that the Byzantine-Sassanian War took place between 602 and 628 AD, whilst the Arab invasion of Persia began in 633 AD. Thus, it is plausible that these troops who were stationed along the northern frontier of the empire were sent to fight against the Byzantines or Arabs.
Evidence from more recent investigations of the wall, however, suggest that it continued to serve as a defensive structure for another century or two. In any case, the Great Wall of Gorgan eventually fell into ruins, and was swallowed up by the shifting sands.
Top Image: Great Wall of Gorgan. (Lars Holmer/ CC BY 3.0 )
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