Scientists Think They've Found a Huge Goddess-Worshiping Lost City In Iraq

The ancient lost city of Natounia is only known to exist from references on ancient coins, and archaeologists have identified its likely location.
Scientists Think They've Found a Huge Goddess-Worshiping Lost City In Iraq
Left: Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project. Right: Bulgac via Getty Images

The Parthian Empire was a power in ancient Iran for hundreds of years, but not much is known about it due to a lack of primary historical sources. Now, researchers believe they may have identified the lost Parthian city of Natounia in the Zagros Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Natounia is only known to exist thanks to references on ancient coins, from which archaeologists infer it was named after a Parthian king and was located "on the Kapros," which today is the Lower Zab river. A study published on Tuesday in Antiquity by researchers in Germany and Iraq makes the case for this ancient city likely being the mountain fortress of Rabana-Merquly, which they say meets the known criteria. 

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Rabana-Merquly has been excavated over the years, and evidence shows the fortress was occupied over millennia by different groups, from the time of the Parthians to the Sasanian era, through a period of Islamic occupation, and into the modern era. The new study analyzed the site and came up with some surprising conclusions. 

They established that numerous defensive structures built into the mountain are connected as part of the whole site, which sprawls over 100 hectares. They also conclude that it is likely Natounia based on rock-reliefs of an anonymous king they believe was a member of the ruling Parthian dynasty of the ancient kingdom of Adiabene, and the site's location on the Lower Zab.

​​"The twin rock-reliefs at the two entrances to the settlement appear to depict an anonymous King of Adiabene, based on the dress of the figure, in particular his hat. So we think that the fortress was built by the ruling dynasty of Adiabene close to the kingdom's eastern border," said study lead author Dr. Michael Brown of the University of Heidelberg in an email. "The more specific association with the city of Natounia, an important city in Adiabene, comes from the epithet on rare coins from Natounia, found elsewhere, which locate it 'on the Kapros'—the modern Lower Zab river. Rabana-Merquly is by far the largest and most impressive site of the Parthian era in the region, and the only one with royal iconography, so it's definitely the best candidate." 

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The rock-reliefs in Rabana-Merquly.

The rock-reliefs in Rabana-Merquly. Image: Brown et. al.

According to Brown, a complicating factor is that Rabana-Merquly is located on a tributary of the Lower Zab, rather than the main channel, however "this is unusual but not unique in ancient toponyms of this type," he said. 

As for what life in Natounia was like, the researchers surmise it had multiple facets. Chiefly, the fortress was a military installation aimed at securing the Parthian Empire's hinterlands amid a landscape of independent tribes. The authors say this was achieved through "military coercion, diplomatic contacts, and trade." But that's not all; the fortress was also the site of worship for a religious cult. It features a sanctuary complex and a waterfall that would appear after heavy rainfall and which was canalized with stone monuments, "with the prominence of water suggesting a cultic link to the Iranian goddess Anahita," a syncretic goddess whose cult spread widely before being suppressed. 

The sanctuary at Rabana-Merqulay.

The sanctuary at Rabana-Merquly. Image: Brown et. al.

"Our recent investigations have also shown how the site served a variety of functions in addition to defense—e.g. the main architecture inside Rabana valley seems to be a sanctuary, plausibly associated with the Iranian water goddess Anahita," Brown said. "We also think Rabana was a trading venue, in addition to acting as a place of refuge in times of crisis—a true regional center."

The researchers plan to continue to investigate Rabana-Merquly's possible identity as Natounia "as new discoveries allow," Brown said. Regardless, there is much more to uncover in Rabana-Merquly, from the occupations outside the city walls to its possible role as a destination for pilgrims.