Post with 2 notes
There are several walls in antiquity which receive much attention in history books and scholarly works. The first and foremost is the Great Wall of China which was put together as a whole during the Ming Dynasty, between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries CE. Part of the wall was built much earlier, but no such thing existed in a contiguous manner till the Ming period. The other is the famous Hadrian’s Wall and the more northern Antonine Wall built in the second century CE by the Romans. Both had similar function in that it attempted to keep outsider away from their empires. But the longest continuous wall built in antiquity was not in China or Rome, but in Iran in Late Antiquity! This wall is called of Sadd-e Iskandar (Barrier of Alexander) or otherwise known as Gizil Yilan (Red Snake).
There have been several studies on wall systems in Iran dealing with the Sadd-ī Iskandar as well (Frye 1977; Bivar & Fehèrvéri 1966). Sadd-e Iskandar runs across the Turkmen steppe from the Caspian Sea to the mountains and it has been the subject of a very good study by a group of Iranian and Western archaeologists in the past decade. According to the recent excavators, the wall is some 195 km. long with some 33 forts, and in fact is the longest ancient wall built in antiquity! (Nokandeh & Sauer 2006: 127), a huge engineering feat for its period. The wall has been dated to the fifth century and early sixth CE, no doubt being built as a defensive mechanism against the Hephthalites and other nomadic people trying to enter Iranshahr (Empire or Realm of the Iranians) (163). As Nokandeh, Sauer et. al., have correctly stated the wall “bears the hallmarks of a powerful demonstration of military superiority and an effective security measure against future threats.” (167). The Hephthalites were one of these forces which threatened the Sasanian Empire in the Fifth century CE.
I was able to see the wall some years ago with the late Iraj Afshar and Khodadad Rezakhani. Once you stand by the wall you can see the clear division between the Sasanian Empire as they saw it and that of the steppes where the nomads and later other settled people appeared. Not only the management and upkeep of the wall must have taken much money and manpower, but its protection was expensive. There are a number of klin workshops along as well which tell us that they made the bricks for the wall right at the site, and some of these workshops have been excavated. There also was a canal and body of rivers which supplied water, another hydraulic project by the Sasanians. Forts which housed soldiers were created along the wall, and according to some estimates they kept some 37,000 (166) soldiers at any time! We simply did not know about such forts as being able to hold so many soldiers, although other Sasanian forts are known (I will discuss one of them in another note on travels with Iraj Afshar).
But of course like any other historical tradition from the Parthian and the Sasanian periods, the wall(s) are unknown or are ignored in the West. What needs to be done now is to have a workshop on comparative wall study in the pre-modern period and / or for that of the Sasanian period. This way we can further study and understand the Sasanian walls and their significance, function and engineering method. We should remember that this is only one of the four walls constructed by the Sasanians in Late Antiquity and the other also merits attention at such a workshop.
A.D.H. Bivar & G. Fehèrvéri, “The Walls of Tammisha,” Iran, vol. 4, 1966, pp. 35-50.
R.N. Frye, “The Sasanian System of Walls for Defense,” in Studies in memory of Gaston Wiet, ed. Rosen-Ayalon, Jerusalem, 1977, pp. 7-15.
H. Mahamdedi, “Wall as a System of Frontier Defense,” in The Spirit of Wisdom. Essays in Memory of Ahmad Tafazzoli, eds. T. Daryaee & M. Omidsalar, Costa Mesa, 2004.
J. Nokandeh, E.W. Sauer et. al., “Linear Barriers of Northern Iran: The Great Wall of Gorgan and the Wall of Tammishe,” Iran, vol. 44, 2006, pp. 127-173.