Ancient Staircase

Site Type
City Gates and Fortifications
Duhok Governorate

    General Views of the Ascent

    Gate Interior/View of Gate and Staircase from within the Citadel

    Pathway to the Citadel (Stone Staircase)

    Gate Interior/View of Gate and Staircase from within the Citadel

    Citadel Exterior and Surrounding Landscape Viewed from the Vicinity of the Mosul Gate

    The natural acropolis of Amadiya/Amedi was settled by the Parthian period if not earlier, with later occupation phases extending to the present day. It was traditionally ascended by two footpaths, one to the east and one to the west. Both of these were paved with stone staircases along their upper reaches. While the path on the east has been replaced by a road for vehicular traffic, that on the west side is still in use, and a significant portion of the staircase survives. The staircase is contemporaneous with the Parthian-era reliefs carved into the cliffside along its final stretch. It was retained when the citadel was refortified under the Zengid dynast Imad al-Din Zengi (r. 1085–1146 AD) and in the following century, it was integrated into the monumental gate constructed under the ruler Badr ad-Din Lu’lu’ (r. 1225–1259 AD). 

    The western approach to the city of Amadiya/Amedi—an elliptical acropolis with its long axis running north-south—is set toward the southern end of the citadel. The ascending footpath involves numerous switchbacks, and it requires upwards of an hour to climb from the base to the Mosul Gate at the top. It takes the form of a simple dirt path along its lower reaches, though some apparently worked stones are found sporadically along the route, possibly indicating some kind of architectural intervention here. The ascent was cobbled and stepped along its upper reaches, comprising the final few switchbacks; this becomes evident at a point marked by a group of boulders and a modern house. In the earlier stages, the cobblestones are placed rather loosely along the path, which is not of a uniform width or slope. Several spans of the cobbling either are more carefully arranged or—more likely—are better preserved; some areas appear to be simply paved rather than stepped. The same type of white stone was used consistently throughout the construction. Varying in size and shape, the cobbles are mainly unworked or only lightly worked, while the stretchers that form each step are larger blocks that are worked. Original post-holes can be recognized in several locations.

    The pathway is best preserved after the final switchback before the Mosul Gate, in the stepped span running south along the cliffside and carrying the visitor past the three rock-carved reliefs of the Parthian period—the first of which is placed precisely at the switchback, maximizing its visibility along the approach (see the diagram; see the panorama; see the photogrammetric reconstruction). Here, the front of each step is lined with a single course of oblong, roughly block-shaped stones (stretchers), while the cobbles filling the steps are smaller and less regularly placed. In recent decades, concrete has been poured into many of these steps to secure the stonework in areas close to the gate. A barrier extending along this final stretch was modified in the modern period, beginning in the 1970s when the Mosul Gate was reconstructed.1 Early photographs show that it was once composed of more loosely arranged stones. The staircase continues south through the Bahdinan Gate (see the panorama); after making a sharp turn east, it opens into the city (see the panorama).

    The staircase has been studied closely and a diagram has been created by the Columbia team, although no excavations have been conducted to date.2 It was clearly created during the same occupation phase as the Parthian reliefs. The acropolis may have been fortified at this time, though this question also revolves around the interpretation of the visible evidence. The massive retaining wall directly below the barrier of the upper staircase is built of roughly squared ashlar blocks laid in courses. A similar type of masonry is found higher up, adjacent to the Mosul Gate; here it has been overlain with a differently constructed wall—likely of the Zengid period, ca. 12th century AD—which it must thus antedate. It is not clear whether these earlier fortifications were built in antiquity, alongside the reliefs and staircase, or in another historical era prior to the Zengid occupation of the site: Amadiya/Amedi was an important fortress in the early medieval period as well (see the discussion in the Amadiya/Amedi site entry). However, given that the masonry below the barrier functions as a retaining wall, it is possible that it was built at the same time as the staircase that it supports.

    A stone staircase was also built along the upper approach to the east side of the citadel. Since this footpath was destroyed in the early 20th century, the structure has been largely lost. However, it was documented in a late 19th-century photograph taken toward the Zibari Gate. It appears to be built of a similar stone and technique, and it is almost certainly contemporaneous with the western staircase.

    • 1. Photos from 1972, before the rebuilding of the gate, show that the barrier was not in existence at this time. It appears in photographs of the 1990s, but not at its present height.
    • 2. The staircase is part of a second Columbia University project conducted in collaboration with the Dohuk Directorate of Antiquities and the Kurdish Archaeological Organization (KAO). The Amedi restoration project is also directed by Zainab Bahrani and began its first season of work in 2019. A preliminary report will follow.

    No excavations have yet been conducted in the area of the Amadiya/Amedi staircase, and no obvious comparanda can be identified, precluding an exact dating. It is one of only a few known structures around the citadel that are clearly ancient, but very little can be ascertained about the city’s history prior to the medieval period.1 The rock-carved building near the south of the citadel, probably created as a cistern, can be roughly dated to pre-Islamic antiquity, before several Early Christian graves were dug into its walls. The chronology is even less clear for the earliest fortification walls in the vicinity of the staircase. The main criterion for dating the staircase, alongside the technique of hewing and cobbling the stones, is the group of Parthian-era reliefs along its final stretch; the way in which the lowest relief is positioned directly at the final switchback indicates that it was carved with a view to its visibility along a preexisting pathway.2 During the 1st century BC–2nd century AD, Amadiya/Amedi was located near the northern reaches of the semi-independent kingdom of Adiabene. However, systematic archaeological research will be necessary before any more precise conclusions can be drawn around the date of the staircase and the dynasty responsible for the construction. 

    It is important to make note of the pathway’s long “afterlife” alongside the rock reliefs, as Zainab Bahrani has argued.3 The structure was retained through the medieval period, not having been replaced during the Zengids’ refortification of the citadel in the 12th century. When the ruler Badr ad-Din Lu’lu’ erected his monumental gateway in the following century, the staircase, by now of great antiquity, was carefully integrated into the design. It has seen significant deterioration due to the centuries, even millennia of its use, but apparently it has been modified very little; in modern times, concrete has been poured into the cobbling of the steps close to the gate, and the barrier wall along its cliffward side has been raised.

    • 1. On the date of the staircase, cf. Miglus et al. 2018, 122–125. Bahrani and the MMM team have also dated it to the Parthian period based on the related construction of the reliefs and the gate. Yaqut al-Rumi states that there was an earlier settlement that predates that of Imad al-Din Zengi; see Bahrani et al. 2019, 49–51.
    • 2. Bahrani et al. 2019, 59.
    • 3. Bahrani et al. 2019, 59–60.

    Amadiya/Amedi appears in many 19th-century travelogues, but the staircase attracted little attention among the writers. If it is mentioned, this is generally due to its length and arduous character rather than any antiquarian or scholarly interest.1 Henry Binder provides the only comments of any (limited) documentary value: “Le chemin est à moitié taillé dans le roc, et la descente ment périlleuse que nous devons mettre pied à terre; c’est un escalier à moitié détruit, formé des rochers et de galets usés et polis par les temps.”2 Walter Bachmann, visiting in the early 20th century, helpfully included the staircase’s upper portion in his diagram and photograph of the Bahdinan Gate.3 However, he did not venture any description or interpretation of the construction. By this time, Lord Warkworth had already photographed the eastern approach, also without commentary on the associated staircase.

    • 1. E.g. Ainsworth 1842 (2), 196.
    • 2. Binder 1887, 205.
    • 3. Bachmann 1913, fig. 1.

    Ainsworth, William. 1842. Travels and Researches in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Chaldea, and Armenia. 2 vols. London: J. W. Parker.

    Bachmann, Walter. 1913. Kirchen und Moscheen in Armenien und Kurdistan. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich.

    Bahrani, Zainab, with Haider Almamori, Helen Malko, Gabriel Rodriguez, and Serdar Yalcin. 2019. “The Parthian Rock Reliefs and Bahdinan Gate in Amadiya/Amedi: A Preliminary Report from the Columbia University Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments Survey.” Iraq 81: 47–62.

    Binder, Henry. 1887. Au Kurdistan en Mésopotamie et en Perse. Paris: Maison Quantin.

    Miglus, Peter, Michael Brown, and Juan Aguilar. 2018. “Parthian Rock Reliefs from Amādiya in Iraqi-Kurdistan.” Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 11: 110–129.

    Warkworth, Lord [Henry A. G. Percy]. 1898. Notes from a Diary in Asiatic Turkey. London: Arnold. 

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    Matthew Peebles (2020)