Excavations have been ongoing on at the Sasanian Empire’s Great Wall of Gorgan, a 125-mile (200-kilometer) long defensive fortification built across Golestan Province in northern Iran in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. During the most recent round of explorations, a team of archaeologists discovered new and fascinating facts about the lives and lifestyles of the Persian citizens and soldiers who occupied the Sasanian Empire region along the wall more than 1,000 years ago.
Rediscovering a Thriving Sasanian Empire Community
The Great Wall of Gorgan, which is also known as the Red Wall or Red Snake, was constructed under the authority of Persia’s Sasanian Empire , which lasted from 224 to 651 AD. The Sasanians were the Persian state’s final ruling dynasty, and they built the Red Wall to protect their nation’s northern border against rival empires with territorial ambitions.
The Red Wall (so named because of the colors of its bricks) stretched from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Pishkamar Mountains in the east. This formidable and continuous barrier was 10 feet (three meters) high and 33 feet (10 meters) wide and included 38 manned forts along its impressive length.
The Great Wall of Gorgan along much of its length blends into the landscape once dominated by the Persian Sasanian Empire. (Lars Holmer / CC BY 3.0 )
At peak occupancy, the Red Wall of Gorgan’s forts and associated barracks could hold up to 30,000 Sasanian Empire soldiers. In the sixth and seventh centuries, a thriving frontier society developed near the wall, comprised of communities that included a mixture of soldiers, ex-soldiers, government administrators, and ordinary Persian citizens.
The archaeologists responsible for seasonal excavations along the Great Wall of Gorgan have been unearthing artifacts and structural remains from these mixed communities for many years. Each new season brings fresh and exciting discoveries, and the latest digs have revealed some interesting data about the nutritional habits of sixth and seventh century Persians.
“During recent excavations, we conducted a study on the diet of Sasanian soldiers and native people of the region who lived adjacent to the wall and its associated structures,” Iranian archaeologist and perennial excavation leader Hamid Omrani Rakavandi told representatives of the media in Iran. “We have concluded that meat constituted their main diet. Excavations revealed [fossilized] remains of beef and mutton expected to constitute the main diet of the locals who also ate a kind of native deer existed nearby.”
Evidence revealed that pork was also eaten in Persia/Iran at that time, Omrani Rakavandi said. This is in sharp contrast to the later Muslim era, when the consumption of pork was either forbidden or severely restricted .
“Wheat, barley, grapes, walnuts and seabirds, and fish are other foods consumed by the people of the region,” Omrani Rakavandi continued. It is clear that agricultural production in the region was high in 600 AD, and that the people who lived there enjoyed a rich and diverse diet.
A look at the inside of the Great Wall of Gorgan built by the Sasanian Empire with bricks. (Mehr News Agency / CC BY 4.0 )
A Sasanian Empire Engineering Feat That Took 100 Years
Over the years, archaeological digs have produced ample evidence showing how the Great Wall of Gorgan was constructed, and what it and the surrounding area looked like after it was completed. The latest excavations produced more artifacts and remains of this type.
“There are remnants of moats, fortresses, brick kilns, water canals, embankment dams, and other structures, which were made along the Great Wall of Gorgan during the Sasanian era,” Omrani Rakavandi stated, summarizing his team’s recent discoveries. The Sasanian Empire builders were clearly serious about creating a wall that would be impenetrable, and they went to great lengths to ensure their massive wall would be as long as necessary and contain no weak spots.
The kilns Omrani Rakavandi references have been found up and down the length of the Great Wall. They were installed far and wide because the bricks used to build the wall were made onsite, so they could be stacked directly in place once they were finished. Meanwhile, the canals were used to supply those kilns with a steady supply of water, to make sure the brick-making process wouldn’t have to slow down while water was carried in.
This system of construction was streamlined and highly efficient. Yet it still took nearly a century to finish the wall completely, which highlights what a vast infrastructure project the wall represented.
The Great Wall of Gorgan of the Sasanian Empire looks like this today along much of its length and the Iranian government is intent on restoring the wall to its former glory. ( Tehran Times )
Regardless of how imposing the wall was, however, it still needed to be manned by soldiers to meet is defensive function. Signs of an extensive military presence in the region were also uncovered during the latest excavations.
“Next to the wall, we also discovered more than 25 military areas, which were used probably as the residence of the people and indigenous communities during peacetime,” Omrani Rakavandi said. “Yet, they were used as places for training Sasanian soldiers during wartime.”
Most of the wall is still hidden beneath the surface of the earth, waiting to be dug out and restored. Archaeologists should be kept busy working there for quite some time, uncovering more details about life in the ancient Persian state .
A similar Sasanian Empire defense wall and fortification lies on the opposite side of the Caspian Sea at the port of Derbent, in the Republic of Dagestan, Russia. There the remains of a line of fortifications run inland for some 3 km (1.9 miles) from the Caspian Sea coast to this extraordinarily well-preserved Sassanian fort. ( Public domain )
The Sasanian Empire Dies, but the Great Wall Remains
No one knows the exact year the Sasanians launched their wall building project. But there is no doubt they conceived the wall as a comprehensive barrier that would protect them from two groups of potential invaders in particular. These were the Hephthalites, or White Huns, and the Turks, two northern neighbors and powerful enemies that posed a constant threat to Persia’s territorial integrity.
The Sasanians ruled ancient Persia (modern Iran) for more than four centuries (224 to 651 AD), before falling victim to the Muslim invasions that ended the Persian state once and for all. It should be noted that those invasions did not come from the north, however.
The Great Wall of Gorgan worked like a charm. It kept the Hephthalites and Turks away and protected the Sasanians along one of their most vulnerable borders. But the territory the Sasanian Empire was forced to protect was too expansive to be completely sheltered, by a wall or any other type of structure or set of structures.
Sixteen Sword Bearers of Kizil Caves (detail), which depicts one of the enemies of the Sasanian Empire, the White Huns or the Hephthalites. ( Public domain )
Evidence collected by archaeologists over the years suggests the Great Wall of Gorgan was largely abandoned by the middle of the seventh century. Once the Arab invasion of Persian territory began in 633, the Persians would have needed all the soldiers they could gather to fight against their most dangerous and determined enemy. In that situation, keeping soldiers stationed at the Red Wall would have represented a vast misuse of resources.
Despite being impenetrable, the Great Wall served no useful purpose at this time. It was left empty and deserted, as the greatest threat Persia’s final imperial dynasty had ever faced came from the south and west rather than from the north.
The Sasanian Empire ultimately fell under the Arab Muslim onslaught. But its abandoned Great Wall remained, waiting to be rediscovered by future explorers who would search up and down its immense length looking for evidence that would tell them more about what life was really like in the long-extinct Persian state. In the end the Great Wall of Gorgan couldn’t save the Sasanians, but it was at least able to resist the ravages of time and nature. For this, modern archaeologists are eternally grateful.
Top image: A portion of the Great Wall of Gorgan digs, which are telling us more and more about the ancient Sasanian Empire of the Iranian Persians. Source: Iranian Labour News Agency
By Nathan Falde