Sanctuary of Persian water goddess Anahita found in fortress of Rabana-Merquly in Iraqi Kurdistan

March 12, 2024

Archaeologists excavating the mountain fortress of Rabana-Merquly in present-day Iraqi Kurdistan have uncovered evidence suggesting that the site may have also served as a sanctuary for the ancient Persian water goddess Anahita.

Sanctuary of Persian water goddess Anahita found in fortress of Rabana-Merquly in Iraqi Kurdistan

A view of the waterfall and staircase and boulevard in the fortress. Credit: Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project

Situated on the southwest slopes of Mt. Piramagrun in the Zagros Mountains, Rabana-Merquly was a pivotal regional center within the Parthian Empire approximately 2,000 years ago, spanning across Iran and Mesopotamia.

The excavations, led by Dr. Michael Brown from the Institute of Prehistory, Protohistory, and Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology at Heidelberg University, revealed architectural features and remnants of what could be a fire altar adjacent to a natural waterfall. These findings hint at the possibility of a sanctuary dedicated to Anahita, a deity revered as the divine source of earthly waters within the Zoroastrian religion.

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Aerial view of the Rabana sanctuary. Credit: Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project

Anahita’s significance during the Seleucid and Parthian periods, particularly in western Iraq, is underscored by her portrayal in the Avesta as a majestic figure capable of transforming into a flowing stream or cascading waterfall. Dr. Brown notes the proximity of the waterfall to the architectural features, emphasizing the symbolic importance of fire and water elements in pre-Islamic Persian religion.

Sanctuary of Persian water goddess Anahita found in fortress of Rabana-Merquly in Iraqi Kurdistan

The rock relief at the entrance of the fortress. Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin / M. Brown / Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project

The hypothesis of an Anahita sanctuary at Rabana-Merquly is supported by discoveries of architectural extensions around a seasonal waterfall within the fortress complex. Additionally, an altar-like sculpture found nearby suggests ritualistic practices may have taken place at the site.