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Relief depicting an unknown man at the twin fortress of Rabana-Merquly. Was the site also a sanctuary to the water goddess Anahita? Source: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Parthian Fortress in Iraq May be a Sanctuary for Goddess Anahita


At the remote, ancient mountain fortress of Rabana-Merquly in Iraqi Kurdistan, German archaeologists have made a surprising discovery. Evidence has emerged that suggests the site had been used as a religious sanctuary in the first and second centuries BC, by settlers associated with the legendary Parthian Empire.

Researchers have concluded that a shrine found there had most likely been devoted to the ancient Persian water goddess Anahita, a popular deity from the Zoroastrian religion who was revered by the Parthians.

The excavations that produced the startling new information were led by Dr. Michael Brown, an archaeologist from the Institute of Prehistory, Protohistory and Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology at Heidelberg University in Germany, and were supervised by the Iraqi Kurdistan Directorate of Antiquities. The German archaeological team has just published the results of their study in the historical journal Iraq, detailing a find that helps clarify the rich history of the cult of Anahita, which was wildly popular in Mesopotamian lands in the latter half of the first millennium BC.  

Seeking the Blessings of the Divine Feminine

Among their many fascinating discoveries at the site of the fortress complex, Dr. Brown and his team uncovered what appears to have been a fire altar or shrine, located adjacent to a natural waterfall. Typically, such an altar would have been used to burn oil or make offerings to the deity to which it was dedicated.

Aerial view of the Rabana sanctuary, believed to be dedicated to the goddess Anahita ( Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project / University of Heidelberg)

Aerial view of the Rabana sanctuary, believed to be dedicated to the goddess Anahita ( Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project / University of Heidelberg)

“The proximity to the waterfall is significant, because the association of fire and water elements played an important role in pre-Islamic Persian religion,” Dr. Brown stated in a University of Heidelberg press release announcing his team’s findings.

The presence of the shrine strongly suggests that Anahita was worshipped here, as she was distinctly associated with all the forces of nature to one degree or another and was a frequently worshipped figure at the time when the mountain fortress was installed (in the second or third century BC).

Dr. Brown and his team also found architectural extensions around the waterfall, showing that it had been used as the centerpiece of a public gathering spot. The altar in the center of the space would have been reserved for important ritualistic practices, which would have been designed to pay homage to Anahita, a goddess who was associated with fertility, wisdom and healing.

Anahita was first referenced in a collection of ancient religious manuscripts known as the Avesta. This body of ancient writings functioned as scripture for Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of fire with its roots in the second millennium BC which inspired Judaism and Christianity.

What appears to be an altar carved into the rock near the waterfall believed to be associated with Anahita ( Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project / University of Heidelberg)

What appears to be an altar carved into the rock near the waterfall believed to be associated with Anahita ( Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project / University of Heidelberg)

As the representative of the Divine Feminine in the Zoroastrian pantheon, Anahita (who was more formally known as Aredvi Sura Anahita) was believed to be the heavenly source of all the waters on Earth. She was represented by the Lotus flower, which has long been associated with spiritual regeneration and rebirth.

Anahita’s power was so great that she was credited with providing vital assistance to Ahura Mazda, the primary Zoroastrian god. Ahura Mazda relied on her blessings to ensure the success and prosperity of his devoted followers on Earth.

 Portrayed as a women of unearthly beauty, Anahita could supposedly take on the shape of a waterfall or a raging river, emphasizing her relationship with water in its most powerful and awe-inspiring forms. The fire altar would have represented a sacred union between fire and water, as both were core elements that made human life possible.

Military Outpost  and Spiritual Mecca?

Located on the southwestern slopes of Mt. Piramagrun in the Zagros Mountains of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, the twin settlements of Rabana and Merquly functioned as military strongholds during the days of the formidable Parthian Empire, which ruled the region from their seat of power in ancient Iran from 247 BC to 224 AD. The mountain fortress constructed there was part of a greater complex of structures at the heavily defended site.

“Twin rock reliefs at the entrances to Rabana-Merquly indicate that the fortress was likely associated with the ruling dynasty of Adiabene, a vassal kingdom of the Parthian (or Arsacid) Empire in north-east Mesopotamia,” the archaeologists wrote in their journal article.

Ruling much of the surrounding region in addition to the lands of their native Iran (Persia), the Parthian Empire and their allies enthusiastically embraced the cult of Anahita, which is believed to have been introduced into Persia in the fourth century BC. The worship of Anahita remained a fixture of Persian spiritual life until the end of the Parthian reign; after this it was suppressed in the early days of the Sassanid Empire, the last of the pre-Islamic ruling dynasties to hold power in the region.

Dr. Brown speculates that Mt. Piramagrun may have been chosen as the site for a Parthian fortress because the mountain was already considered sacred. The shrine to Anahita might have been constructed in recognition of this fact, but Dr. Brown suggests the altar may have already been there and had simply been repurposed by followers of the Anahita cult after the Parthians moved in.

In the latter first millennium BC, many religious shrines were also recognized as dynastic cult sites honoring the current king and his ancestors. Worshippers understood the dual purpose of such a site, knowing they were paying tribute to a powerful god or goddess and to one of their representatives in human form.

In this case the goddess is believed to be Anahita, although Dr. Brown admits this cannot be stated with 100-percent certainty. At the very least, the presence of the religious sanctuary next to the mountain fortress does highlight the complexities of ancient Mesopotamian cultures, where spiritual and earthly concerns were routinely merged.

 “Even if the cult site cannot be definitively attributed to the water goddess Anahita due to the lack of similar archaeological finds for direct comparison,” Dr. Brown explained, “the Rabana sanctuary still provides us with a fascinating glimpse into the regional sacral and geopolitical interconnections during the Parthian era.”

Top image: Relief depicting an unknown man at the twin fortress of Rabana-Merquly. Was the site also a sanctuary to the water goddess Anahita? Source: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) / CC BY-SA 4.0.

By Nathan Falde

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Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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