Gunduk Reliefs

Alternative Names

Nerem, Guppa d’Mar Yohanan


3200–2500 BC (Panel 1); 2700–2300 BC (Panels 2 & 3)

MMM Documentation Dates
Fall 2013
Site Type
Rock Reliefs and Tombs
Nineveh Governorate

    The Gunduk reliefs are associated with a hillside cave, having been carved into the surface of the rock beside it, at its entrance, and inside it. The cave is located to the west of the eponymous village, which is a few km northwest of Aqrah and just over 100 km southeast Dohuk. The prominent monastery of Mar Audisho still stands on a mound north of Gunduk.

    Panels 1 and 2 were carved high on the cliff, about 12 m to the left of the cave's entrance. Panel 1, the higher of the two, is situated about 15 m above the cave floor. Taken together, the two panels cover an area about 3 m wide x 6 m high. The right side of Panel 1 shows two figures in profile, including a standing hunter on the left and a kneeling wild goat on the right; the field to the left of the hunter is not flat and might have held other figures, now destroyed. Panel 2 includes a roughly horizontal series of smaller anthropomorphic figures arranged on a slightly projecting shelf of rock under Panel 1. Panel 3, featuring another register of figures, was carved inside the cave about 8 m to the right of the entrance; additionally, an animal was depicted slightly to the right of the register. Panel 3 is less damaged than the other two, but the details are not clear because of the calcium carbonate deposits left by the water tricking down the face of the rock.

    It is important to note that parts of Panel 1 and most of Panel 2 are missing due to an explosion in 1994 that was executed by a group of people, including antiquities dealers, who presumably hoped that the existence of the sculpture pointed to the presence of gold in the rock behind it. Some of the missing relief fragments are still scattered throughout the site, while others have been collected and are now kept in the museum at Dohuk. As a result, the following description of the reliefs is based on various scholarly analyses as well as historical drawings and photographs of the site.  

    Panel 1:

    Panel 1 is carved within an irregular frame. The aforementioned hunter stands facing right with outstretched and slightly bent arms. He wears a kilt held at the waist by a belt indicated by two horizontal lines. The hunter’s head (and his possible headdress) are missing. A spear thrown by the hunter projects upward from the back of the male goat before him. The goat is still standing on its hind legs but is falling forward on to its forelegs. This panel has been dated roughly to Late Uruk or early/middle Early Dynastic Period (ca. 3200–2500 BC) on the basis of comparative iconography and style. If this dating is correct, this panel would be one of the earliest major rock reliefs so far identified within the Near East. 

    Panel 2:

    Panel 2 shows a version of an Early Dynastic banquet scene. This type of scene is well attested on seals and other artifacts, especially those originating in southern Mesopotamia and Iran. The panel's most conspicuous subject is a bald figure, presumably male, seated facing leftward on a stool near the middle of the compositional field. He is most likely drinking through a straw, the end of which is traceable in front of his head. Further left, according to drawings published by Layard, al-Amin and Börker-Klähn, is another seated figure facing right. Traces of hair on this figure suggest identification as a female. Between the two figures is an object that might be a vessel. Above the vessel, there are possibly two small figures, which have been interpreted as children.

    On the left side of the seated pair, there is a standing figure facing right and holding something before the body, possibly a child. At the far left of the scene is another figure in a long robe, facing right and raising his or her hands. On the opposite side of the seated figures, to their right, there is another long-robed figure facing left, hands raised. It is possible that this figure is holding something on his or her head, perhaps bringing supplies to the banquet from a group further to the right. This group appears to represent two men butchering an animal.

    Panel 3:

    At the far left of Panel 3 is an animal (probably a feline) moving to the right. Next, there is a seated figure—beardless, with long hair, and presumably a woman—who is wearing a long robe and has two horns emerging from her head or headdress. She is facing right with her right arm on her lap and her left arm possibly touching the neck or beard of a wild goat. The goat is romping to the left with its hind legs on the ground; its the right foreleg may be resting on the female figure’s knee, while the left foreleg is below. This goat has a prominent horn that curls back to a point above its back or further down. Behind it there is a much smaller animal, perhaps a kid. It also faces left and seems to be prancing vertically on its hind legs, with its head bent back and its forelegs possibly resting on the larger goat’s rump.

    Vertically above the kid there is a bird with its beak to the left and with outstretched wings, and possibly holding something in each talon. To the right of the kid there is another animal with large head and small prominent ears, standing and facing left. Under its belly, facing right is a smaller animal or pair of animals, evidently suckling in the classic type of cow-and-calf composition. The shape of the animal’s snout and ear, together with its height in relation to the human figure standing behind it, suggests that it may be a sow. A human figure wearing a long robe, faces left behind the animal, probably a woman with a long hair indicated by the lines behind its shoulders. She stretches out her arms behind the animal.

    Many Early Dynastic cylinder seals combine the themes of Gunduk Panels 2 and 3, with a banquet above in an upper register and a group of animals in a lower register. 


    'Description & Iconography' general sources: Layard 1853, 368–369; Bachmann 1927, 28–31; al-Amin 1948; Börker-Klähn 1982, 75–76, 234 (nos. 274–276); Reade and Anderson 2013, 84–92.

    The cave and spring at Gunduk are natural features typically associated with sacredness and the supernatural in the ancient Near Eastern context. This would accord with the apparently religious themes of the relief panels. The addition of these reliefs during the third millennium BC/BCE suggests that Gunduk functioned as a sacred place at this time. It may be speculated that Gunduk remained a religious site during the Middle and Neo-Assyrian periods. 

    Gunduk seems to have retained its sacred character well beyond the end of antiquity. As reported by Austen Henry Layard in 1853, the Assyrian Christian inhabitants of Gunduk village associated the cave with St. John—reflected in the local name “Guppa d’Mar Yohanan” (Cave of St. John). They also interpreted the upper sculpture as a representation of St. John with his horse and the lower register as a depiction of a church ceremony. Today, the cave is used by local shepherds, though without any religious or spiritual associations.

    'History' general sources: Layard 1853, 368–369; Reade and Anderson 2013, 92–97.

    George Percy Badger visited Gunduk in April 1850, reporting of a cave with sculptures depicting a man in the act of spearing a wild sheep or ibex, and beneath this a procession of six figures standing in various attitudes.1 Austen Henry Layard passed through in July 1850 and described two relief sculptures carved at the mouth of a spacious natural cave.2 A half century later, in May 1914, Walter Bachmann visited the cave, providing a sketch of the area and photographing the reliefs.3 Several archaeologists and photographers visited the site between 1937 to 1947, at which time the third panel was documented.4 

    • 1. Badger 1852.
    • 2. Layard 1853.
    • 3. Bachmann 1927, 28–33 and pl. 32.
    • 4. First published in al-Amin 1948; see the discussion in Reade and Anderson 2013, 83.

    On the early studies of this site, see also Reade and Anderson 2013, 78–83.

    Al-Amin, M. 1948. “Archaeological Discoveries in the North of Iraq.” Sumer 4: 180–219. 

    Al-Haik, Albert R., Henry Field, and Edith M. Laird. 1968. Key Lists of Archaeological Excavations in Iraq, 1842–1965. Coconut Grove, FL: Field Research Projects.

    Bachmann, Walter. 1927. Felsreliefs in Assyria, Bawian, Maltai und Gundük. Wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichung der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 52. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs.

    Badger, George Percy. 1852. The Nestorians and Their Rituals. London: J. Masters. 

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

    Calmeyer, Peter. 1971. “Gunduk.” Reallexikon der Assyriologie 3: 722.

    Layard, Austen Henry. 1853. Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon. New York: G. P. Putnam.

    Reade, Julian E., and Julie R. Anderson. 2013. “Gunduk, Khanes, Gaugamela, Gali Zardak - Notes on Navkur and Nearby Rock-Cut Sculptures in Kurdistan.” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 103: 69–123. 

    Content Manager
    Helen Malko (2016)
    Content Modification
    Matthew Peebles (12/3/19)