Darband-i Gawr Relief

Alternative Names

Darband-i-Gawr, Darbandi Gawr; Derbend-i Gawr


ca. 2090 BC

MMM Documentation Dates
Spring 2017
Site Type
Rock Reliefs and Tombs
Sulaymaniyah Governorate

    Entrance to Darband-i Gawr Pass

    Darband-i Gawr Relief (Detail Views)

    Interior of Darband-i Gawr Pass (General Views)

    Details of Features within Darband-i Gawr Pass

    Historical Photographs

    This enormous rock relief is sited at Darband-i Gawr (“Pagan’s Pass”) within the Qara Dagh, one of the western ranges of the Zagros Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan. Sited in a gorge created by a stream running down a steep hill, it was carved high up into a limestone cliff marked by sloping sedimentary layers (see the panorama). This gorge provides something of a pass through the mountain, but it is rocky and precipitous—an almost forbidding landscape remote from any major settlements. Although in earlier publications it was dated to Naramsin of Akkad, the relief, which depicts a triumphant ruler, is now dated on the basis of style to the Third Dynasty of Ur (late 3rd millennium BC). 

    The relief at Darband-i Gawr is massive in scale, over 3 m in height. The rock wall into which it has been carved is not flat but fairly irregular (see the photogrammetric reconstruction); rippling sedimentary layers run diagonally across the surface, and the image is positioned next to a large concavity. The compositional field of the relief has been dug deep into the cliff face in order to form a flat background, but it still bulges along its center and tilts slightly toward the ground. The field’s border is curved at the top, probably imitating the stele format prevalent in the ancient Near East. At the time of the MMM team’s documentation of the relief in 2017, the upper border was lined with a protective bar placed here during restoration work conducted by the Sulaymaniyah/Slemani Directorate of Antiquities. 

    The subject of the image—clearly a ruler—is shown mainly in profile, though his broad shoulders and muscular torso are rendered frontally. He strides rightward and upward in accordance with the slope, his right leg stiff and his left leg bent at the knee. The ruler’s beard curls tightly at the chin but lengthens into 14 thin, vertical waves. He wears a cap with a folded edge. His kilt or robe is belted at the waist and is detailed with four parallel lines; a band or object hangs from it towards the rear. He is further adorned with necklaces and armbands. In his left hand, he holds a bow across his chest; his lowered right hand carries another weapon, probably an ax, in a horizontal position. Two figures, significantly smaller than the ruler, lie in splayed, defeated poses beneath a steplike ground line. They are characterized mainly by their hairstyle with a single plait or pigtail. There is no defined border around this lower portion of the relief. As there is no inscription accompanying it, the monument cannot be attributed to a particular ruler, and its precise dating has been debated; iconographic and stylistic considerations favor a date in the Ur III period (see further in “History”). 

    The subject of the relief, with the victorious ruler trampling smaller victims, has often been compared with the famous Naram-Sin stele; it is one of several such rock reliefs that take up the same basic theme of the triumphant ruler (including, e.g., that at Darband-i Balula, 50 km to the southeast).1 However, these reliefs are all very different in their compositional particularities and in style. The Darband-i Gawr relief is one of the closest to the Naram-Sin stele, yet important differences can be observed. Of special note, this ruler does not wear the horned headdress of divinities. Additionally, it was unnecessary to portray the locale in the Darband-i Gawr relief—though it was carefully depicted in the Naram-Sin stele—since the sculptor has carefully integrated the carving into the real landscape. The king’s upward stride follows the slope, a sense of movement reinforced by the sedimentation of the limestone layers—a quality that became apparent through direct observation of the relief during MMM fieldwork.2 It may also be noted that the figures below the king’s feet, lacking a lower border, appear to slide down the slope.3 The relief’s sophisticated integration of image and landscape may be significant to interpretations of its function (see “History”). 

    • 1. On these reliefs and their relationships to the Naram-Sin stele and each other, see esp. Postgate and Roaf 1997, 150–154; Eppihimer 2019, 57–61.
    • 2. Bahrani 2017, 172; Bahrani 2018, 177–181.
    • 3. Eppihimer 2019, 62.

    “Description & Iconography” general references: Debevoise 1942, 82–83; Strommenger 1963; Braun-Holzinger 2007, 149 (cat. AB 14); Marf Zamua 2007; Bahrani 2017, 170–172; Eppihimer 2019, 61–67.

    Owing to its lack of an inscription, the date of the relief and the dynasty to which the depicted king belonged has been much discussed. Given its general similarity to the Naram-Sin stele, it was once taken as Akkadian; however, several iconographic features indicate a date significantly later in the millennium, within the period of the Ur III kings.1 This includes the type of cap and jewelry worn by the ruler, as well as the style of the beard, with curls near the face and wavy extensions falling below. For a number of reasons, many scholars have favored an attribution of the relief to the ruler Shulgi (r. 2094–2047 BC).2 However, this identification remains provisional given the current state of the evidence, and the possibility that it was carved by a local ruler also remains open. Supporting the idea of the representation of a local ruler, we can observe that the kings of the mountainous areas east of the Tigris were known to carve rock reliefs drawing on iconographic conventions of Mesopotamian kingship (as in the well-known group of carvings at Sarpol-i Zohab in modern Iran).

    It is possible that like the Naram-Sin stele, the Darband-i Gawr relief was carved in reference to a particular battle as a commemorative monument; the Ur III kings (particularly Shulgi) did conduct campaigns in this region.3 Alternatively, a local ruler could be claiming victory over a neighboring foe. However, the relief’s lack of an inscription, among other factors, may point to a more general interpretation. Its iconography, its colossal scale, and its integration into the natural features of the landscape constructed an image of the king’s power as it extended into this rough and rocky terrain. The relief cannot be viewed simply as a propagandistic image, given its isolated location. Embedding the presence of the king in this awesome landscape in such a way as to transcend time, the image might be understood according to the philosophical concept of the sublime.4

    • 1. As late as the 1960s, most scholars tended to date the relief to the Akkadian period, following the original suggestion of Sidney Smith (e.g. Strommenger 1963, 87–88). Boese (1973) was the first to argue systematically for the Ur III period, following the briefer proposal of Anton Moortgat. See the overview of the various attributions in Börker-Klähn 1982, 137–138.
    • 2. Moortgat 1967, 74 and notes 255, 347; Boese 1973, 42–48; more recently, Eppihimer 2019, 65.
    • 3. Boese 1973, 45–46; cf. Eppihimer 2019, 65.
    • 4. Bahrani 2018, esp. 177–181.

    In 1902, the archaeologist Vincent Scheil published a brief, second-hand description of the Darband-i Gawr relief.1 Since the gorge was already referred to as “Pagan’s Pass” by the time Scheil’s source noted the relief in 1895, it must have been long known to local people. In the early 1920s, Cecil J. Edmonds—who was at this date an officer in the British administration of Iraq—visited Darband-i Gawr, publishing his description and photographs of the relief in 1925.2 Among the scholars who studied the relief throughout the 20th century were Tariq Madhloom and Walid Yasin, providing analysis and photographs in the Arabic language section of Sumer in 1970.3

    • 1. Scheil 1902, 14; see further Debevoise 1942, n. 18. The information was provided to Scheil by Emile Jacquerez, a French engineer working in the service of the Ottoman government; after traveling through the Mosul Vilayet in 1895, Jacquerez passed on his impression of a relief corresponding with the monument in question.
    • 2. Edmonds 1925.
    • 3. Madhloom and Yasin 1970, 347ff. and pls. 1–4. For a bibliography through 1982, see Börker-Klähn 1982, 137–138.

    Bahrani, Zainab. 2017. Art of Mesopotamia. New York: Thames & Hudson.

    Bahrani, Zainab. 2018. “The Phenomenal Sublime: Time, Matter, Image in Mesopotamian Antiquity.” In Time in the History of Art: Temporality, Chronology, and Anachrony, edited by Dan Karlholm and Keith Moxey, 171–183. New York: Routledge.

    Boese, Johannes. 1973. “Zur stilistischen und historischen Einordnung des Felsreliefs von Darband-i Gaur.” Studia Iranica 2: 3–48.

    Börker-Klähn, Jutta. 1982. Altvorderasiatische Bildstelen und vergleichbare Felsreliefs. Baghdader Forschungen 4. Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern.

    Braun-Holzinger, Eva A. 2007. Das Herrscherbild in Mesopotamien und Elam: Spätes 4. bis frühes 2. Jt. v. Chr. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.  

    Debevoise, Neilson C. 1942. “The Rock Reliefs of Ancient Iran.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 1 (1): 76–105. 

    Edmonds, Cecil J. 1925. “Two Ancient Monuments in Southern Kurdistan.” Geographical Journal 65 (1): 63–64.

    Eppihimer, Melissa. 2019. Exemplars of Kingship: Art, Tradition, and the Legacy of the Akkadians. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

    Madhloom, Tariq, and Walid Yasin. 1970. “Archaeological Excavations at Sulaimaniya Area.” Sumer 26: 347–359 (in Arabic).

    Marf Zamua, Dlshad A. 2007. “The Rock Relief of Darband Gawr and the Analysis of the Artistic Evidences for Specifying Its Period.” Subartu 15 (in Kurdish).

    Moortgat, Anton. 1967. Die Kunst des alten Mesopotamien: Die klassische Kunst Vorderasiens. Cologne: M. DuMont Schauberg.

    Postgate, J. Nicholas, and Michael D. Roaf. 1997. “The Shaikhan Relief.” Al Rāfidān 18: 143–156.

    Scheil, Vincent. 1902. Une saison de fouilles à Sippar. Mémoires publiés par les membres d’Institut français d’archéologie oriental du Caire 1. Cairo: Imprimerie de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale.

    Strommenger, Eva. 1963. “Das Felsrelief von Darband-i Gaur.” Baghdader Mitteilungen 2: 60–88.

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    Matthew Peebles (2020)