Thursday, May 5, 2016


Eberhard W. Sauer, Hamid Omrani Rekavandi, Tony J. Wilkinson, Jebrael Nokandeh, Persia's Imperial Power in Late Antiquity: the Great Wall of Gorgan and the Frontier Landscapes of Sasanian Iran. British Institute of Persian Studies. Archaeological monographs series, 2. Oxford; Oakville, CT: Oxbow Books, 2013. Pp. xvi, 712. ISBN 9781842175194. $150.00.

Reviewed by Josef Wiesehöfer (

Version at BMCR home site

The book under review here is not only a significant contribution to the study of the dating, origins, and function of the Great Wall of Gorgan in northeastern Iran. It also touches on broader themes in Sasanian history, including economic, administrative, and military matters as well as the question of the empire's cohesiveness.

Archaeologists and historians have long tried to uncover the secrets of the so-called Wall of Alexander, i.e., the Great Wall of Gorgan, a structure that was protected in antiquity by 30 forts and ran from the Kopet Dagh mountains in the East to the Caspian Sea in the West, thereby separating the fertile lands in the South from the steppes in the North. However, both the rudimentary state of research as well as underdeveloped survey, excavation and dating methods have prevented scholars from generating reliable insights. The same holds true for the remains of the neighbouring Tammisha Wall, another structure discussed in the present volume, which ran north from the Elburz to the Caspian Sea. Little wonder, then, that attempts at dating have varied considerably: one estimate put the construction of the walls between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD, i.e., during the Parthian period; another dated them to the 5th century AD, when the Sasanian Empire was threatened by the Hephthalites; and yet another assigned them to the time of Husraw I in the 6th century AD.

The research of an Irano-British mission between 2005 and 2009, which adopted a methodologically versatile approach to landscape archaeology and whose results are published in this impressive book, has clarified this issue. But this work has also shown that the construction of the (probably connected) walls, the most monumental border defenses between Central Europe and China, not only served to prevent invasions, but also regulated agriculture and transhumance in the land north of the Elburz as well as trans-Caspian trade. The channel accompanying the Gorgan Wall was not simply another obstacle; it also aided in the manufacture of the millions of bricks that were needed for the construction of the wall. Moreover, it helped supply water to guards and civilians, and finally, with the help of secondary channels, it contributed to the irrigation of the hinterland. Also impressive are the studies of the fortified settlements and cities of this hinterland, one of which, Dasht-e Kaleh (near present-day Gonbad-e Kavus), was at least twice as large as the famous city of Bishabuhr and served as a military and political centre for some 30,000 border troops. The land behind the walls with its forts and fortified settlements was therefore well suited for the projection of military force. As regards the chronology of the walls, archaeometric analyses have made it unequivocally clear that they were built in the 5th century CE, under Yazdgerd II (438-457) or Peroz (457-484), and were abandoned between 600-630 (or shortly thereafter).

These results, obtained from satellite, surface, geophysical and underwater surveys and from archaeometric, zooarchaeological, palynological and other investigations, are impressive in their own right. Also valuable are the broader historical conclusions drawn by the authors, many of which can be found in the concluding chapter. These arguments provide deep and surprising new insights into Sasanian military organisation, and they make clear that the middle and late Sasanian realm was economically, politically, administratively, and socially far from an underdeveloped empire; this was no loosely organized confederation, nor a polity in which regional noble houses could operate without supervision from the centre. The huge investment in the walls; the 'economized' and 'militarized landscape' of Hyrcania; the urbanization policy of the kings in the same region: all of these initiatives illustrate, in connection with recent archaeological and historical studies from other parts of the empire (Azerbaijan, Merv, etc.), how the Sasanian Empire was able to become a potent rival (and partner) of East Rome and of Iran's hostile neighbours in Central Asia (cf. the respective articles in the Journal of Ancient History 2.2, 2014; a review of that fascicle was prepared by this author for BMCR 2015.11.25). At the same time, the authors' conclusions support the argument of J. Howard-Johnston in his masterpiece Witnesses to a World Crisis that the end of Sasanian rule in the Near East was surprising and hardly predictable.

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