The Red Snake: The Great Wall of Iran

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Firouzeh Mirrazavi

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The ‘Red Snake’ in northern Iran, which owes its name to the red colour of its bricks, is at least 195km long. A canal, 5m deep or more, conducted water along most of the Wall. Its continuous gradient, designed to ensure regular water flow, bears witness to the skills of the land-surveyors responsible for marking out the Wall's route. Over 30 forts are lined up along this massive structure.

Their combined size is about three times that of those on Hadrian's Wall. Yet these forts are small in comparison with contemporary fortifications in the hinterland, some of which are around ten times larger than the largest Wall forts. The 'Red Snake' is unmatched in so many respects and an enigma in yet more. Even its length is unclear: its western terminal was flooded by the rising waters of the Caspian Sea, while to the east it runs into the unexplored mountainous landscape of the Elburz Mountains. An Iranian team, under the direction of Jebrael Nokandeh, has been exploring this Great Wall since 1999. In 2005 it became a joint Iranian and British project.

Until recently, nobody knew who had built the Wall. Theories ranged from Alexander the Great, in the 4th century BC, to the Persian king Khusrau I in the 6th century AD. Most scholars favoured a 2nd or 1st century BC construction. Scientific dating has now shown that the Wall was built in the 5th, or possibly, 6th century AD, by the Sasanian Persians. 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.

Modern survey techniques and satellite images have revealed that the forts were densely occupied with military style barrack blocks. Numerous finds discovered during the latest excavations indicate that the frontier bustled with life. Researchers estimate that some 30,000 soldiers could have been stationed at this Wall alone. It is thought that the 'Red Snake'was a defence system against the White Huns, who lived in Central Asia.

With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see why the walls  would have been constructed at this later date. It was near the northern boundary of one of the most powerful empires in the ancient world, that of the Sasanian Persians. Centred in modern Iran, it also encompassed the territory of modern Iraq, stretched into the Caucasus Mountains in the north-west and into central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent in the east. The Persian kings repeatedly invaded the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. Yet, they also faced fierce enemies at their northern frontier. Mountain passes in the Caucasus and the coastal route along the Caspian Sea were closed off by walls, probably to prevent the Huns from penetrating south. Those further east may have been directed against the Hephthalites or White Huns. Ancient writers, notably Procopius, provide graphic descriptions of the wars Persia fought in the 5th and 6th century against its northern opponents. The Persian king Peroz (AD 459-484), when campaigning against the White Huns, spent time repeatedly at ancient Gorgan. Eventually he had to pay with his life for venturing into the lands of the White Huns. It would have made perfect sense for Peroz, or perhaps another Persian king shortly before or after, to protect the fertile and rich Gorgan Plain from this northerly threat through a defensive barrier.

Radiocarbon dates indicate that the fort remained occupied until at least the first half of the 7th century. It is too early to tell whether or not the Wall was abandoned then, perhaps because troops were needed for a major assault against the Byzantine Empire, fighting off the Byzantine counter-offensive or against the Arab invasion from AD 636 onwards. The evidence is mounting, however, that the Wall functioned as a military barrier for at least a century and probably closer to two.

If one assumed that the forts were occupied as densely as those on Hadrian's Wall, then the garrison on the Gorgan Wall would have been in the order of 30,000 men. Models, taking into account the size and room number of the barrack blocks in the Gorgan Wall forts and likely occupation density, produce figures between 15,000 and 36,000 soldiers.

The 'Red Snake' is by far the longest and most elaborate Persian defensive wall, but it has several smaller counterparts. The land corridor between the Caucasus Mountains and the west coast of the Caspian Sea is closed off by a series of walls. The most famous is the Wall of Derbent in modern Dagestan (Russia). Then, much closer to the 'Red Snake' is the contemporary Wall of Tammishe, which runs from the south-east corner of the Caspian Sea into the Elburz Mountains. The Caspian Sea is the world's largest inland sea and depends on inflowing rivers for its water. Its water level has thus fluctuated much more over the centuries than that of the oceans.

This project is seriously challenging the traditional Euro-centric world view. At the time when the Western Roman Empire is collapsing and even the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire under great external pressure, the Sasanian Persian Empire musters the manpower to build and garrison a monument of greater scale than anything comparable in the west. The Persians seem to match, or more than match, their Late Roman rivals in army strength, organizational skills, engineering and water management. Archaeology is beginning to paint a clearer picture of an ancient super power at its apogee.


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