Alternative Names

Merquli Relief and Citadel; Merquly; Merculi; Mirquli; Mir Quli; Mirquri; Mir Quri; Qimmat Mirquri


1st–3rd century AD

MMM Documentation Dates
Spring 2017
Site Type
Citadels and Cities
Sulaymaniyah Governorate

    The archaeological site of Merquli is located just west of the modern village of Zewe, 40 km to the northwest of Sulaymaniyah/Slemani. Its main features are a rock-carved relief and the foundations of a large building, likely a fortress, situated on a high peak of Mount Piramagrun. Merquli is less than 2 km southeast of the site of Rabbana, with its similar relief, on a nearby slope of the same mountain (though the Merquli relief is at a much higher location at the summit of the mountain, while the Rabbana relief is much lower elevation within a valley). The complex at Merquli likely dates to the later Parthian period; at this time, it was near the border between the satrapy of Media and the vassal kingdom of Adiabene. 

    In addition to its rock-cut relief, the archaeological site at Merquli includes fortification walls, terraces, and building foundations, covering roughly 20 hectares on one of Mt. Piramagrun’s most imposing peaks.1 The peak is dominated by an outcrop upon which lie the foundations of a large structure—the only one that has been investigated archaeologically as of 2020—nicknamed the “citadel” by the excavation team (led by the Sulaymaniyah/Slemani Directorate of Antiquities).2 

    The modern approach to the citadel involves a climb up the southern slope of the peak above Zewe Village; the climb takes two hours to reach the beginning of the area of the settlement near the summit. Several stone-built constructions along this approach, including numerous terraces and a low, curving wall aligned to a protrusion over the cliffside, may be post-antique in date. Of special interest is a group of troughs built on a small plateau (concrete has been poured over them for preservation reasons). Nearby is a small cave partially defined by stone-built walls, possibly used by local shepherds.

    The rock relief is located on a cliff wall just beyond this plateau to the northwest (see the panorama). Carved into a shallow rectangular niche about 97 cm in width and 2.3 m in height, it is slightly larger than the similar relief at Rabbana. Although the contours are worn in places, and there are a few thin cracks across the compositional field, the relief is in fairly good condition. It should be noted that at the time of the MMM team’s documentation, the relief was wet on one side, explaining the variation in the color of the stone. As to whether the surface was originally painted, this question must remain open. There is evidence for the coloration of some outdoor rock-carved monuments in the ancient Near East, but the full extent of this practice has not been ascertained;3 here at Merquli, no traces of pigment are visible.

    The relief’s style and iconography clearly indicate that it dates to the Parthian period. The subject, a bearded male figure standing rightward, is almost certainly a ruler. He shown in a composite viewpoint: his face is rendered at a slightly oblique angle, his torso is closer to a three-quarter view, and his legs are in profile. His right arm is raised from the elbow, and he appears to gesture with his open hand.4 The figure’s costume is typical of Parthian rulers from the 1st century AD.5 He wears a cloak and a tunic that reaches below his knees. The cloak is tied at the sternum with an elaborate clasp. The tunic’s belt is also knotted, its loose ends hanging freely below. It is likely that the figure wears trousers or leggings below the tunic, while the faint line at the ankles probably demarcates shoes. Above, the figure is adorned with a torc and a pointed tiara (kolah) with upturned earflaps; the base of the cap is wrapped with a knotted diadem, the prominent ends of which fall behind the shoulders. The two thin horizontal lines behind the ear are unusual, but they must represent a continuation of the headdress. Based on numismatic parallels, a rear flap or cluster of curls would be expected in the open space behind the neck; if the relief was once colored, perhaps such a feature was represented in this way. The overall rendering of the figure is rather linear, with clearly defined contours and mainly broad, uninterrupted planes. Still, there are certain areas of finer detail and rounded modeling, including along the ear and eye socket, and in the striated tufts of the beard (see a closeup of the figure’s face). 

    The relief is clearly aligned with the imagery of Parthian kingship; more specifically, it has been argued that the particular combination of diadem and tiara distinguish the figure as an Arsacid king (rather than a vassal ruler), though it is not certain which one (see further in “History”).6 Overall, the Merquli relief is very similar to that at Rabbana, though it should be noted that there are some iconographic and stylistic differences between the two (see further in the Rabbana entry). Given their general resemblance, it seems likely that they represent the same ruler.7 However, there are possible explanations as to why different patrons could have been responsible for the two images—for instance, the succeeding member of a dynasty may have sought to emphasize a connection with his predecessor.

    Merquli’s citadel is sited about 200 m up the mountain to the northeast of the relief; the climb from the location of the relief to the summit with the citadel takes another 20 minutes. The remains of fortification walls are present around this area; the relative positions of these features may suggest that the relief marked an entrance to the complex.8 The citadel overlooks both the broad valley to the west of Mt. Piramagrun as well as a small interior valley to the east (see the panorama). The structure included a courtyard and several rooms laid out on different levels along the sloping terrain;9 concrete has been laid over the building’s foundations by the excavators. The foundations of another architectural complex are visible on the slope to the citadel’s north. 

    • 1. Useful topographical plans of the site are found in Brown et al. 2018, figs. 2 and 8.
    • 2. Saber et al. 2014.
    • 3. It is generally thought that Neo-Assyrian rock reliefs, such as those at Khinnis, were originally painted (though this has not been scientifically confirmed as it has in the case of the indoor palace reliefs). Traces of pigment are still visible on the Achaemenid-era tombs at Qyzqapan and Naqsh-i Rustam. While there is no color left on the Sasanian reliefs of the latter site, certain panels at Bishapur show evidence for the application of a top coat of plaster, which may have been pigmented.
    • 4. A similar gesture is made by the subject of the relief at Batas Harir, though here the palm is partially closed.
    • 5. On the dress of Parthian kings generally, see Vesta S. Curtis, “The Parthian Costume and Headdress,” in Das Partherreich und seine Zeugnisse, ed. J. Wiesehöfer (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1998), 61–73.
    • 6. Brown et al. 2018, 69.
    • 7. Cf. Amedie and Zamua 2011, 236; Brown et al. 2018, 68.
    • 8. See Brown et al. 2018, 66 and fig. 8.
    • 9. See the plan in Saber et al., fig. 3.

    As with Rabbana, there is very little evidence for the history of Merquli. Positioned as it is in the westernmost range of the Zagros Mountains, in such a lofty position, it was surely associated with border defense—allowing visibility over a great distance. During the Parthian period, this area was a frontier between the empire’s western provinces and the vassal kingdom of Adiabene. Thus, scholars have identified the figure on the relief with a ruler from one or the other of these realms: some have suggested an Adiabenean king, while others prefer an Arsacid dynast—perhaps Vonones (r. 51 AD) or Vologaeses III (r. 108/9-147/8 AD), based on numismatic parallels for the headgear.1  

    Whoever this ruler was, the placement of his image along the approach to the citadel was certainly strategic, marking the entire site with an enduring figuration of his power. Since one encounters the relief of the king just before the upwards ascent to the citadel, it is likely that the relief relates to the entrance to the site. Given the similarity between the reliefs at Merquli and Rabbana, it may be that the same ruler (or succeeding members of a dynasty) sought to claim the possession of a group of fortifications and emphasize their interconnection by means of this pair of reliefs. In any case, the near replication of the images in fairly close proximity was surely meaningful in the context of the ancient Near East; it will have been understood as impressive and efficacious, with the repetition extending the ruler’s presence across multiple spatial contexts.2 

    The excavations conducted around Merquli’s citadel structure have revealed only a limited period of occupation, with only one main building phase and minor later modifications. Identifying the date of the citadel’s construction, based on excavated pottery types, has been difficult. One interpretation would place the earliest phase of the citadel in the Sasanian period—at odds with the clearly Parthian date of the rock relief; others have dated the pottery to ca. 1st–3rd centuries AD, which would allow for a Parthian-era construction corresponding with the relief.3 It is likely that future excavations will reveal a more nuanced chronology of the site.

    It seems that Merquli was abandoned in Late Antiquity. It was not reoccupied, though the area was at one point used as a camp by the modern Iraqi army, disturbing part of the archaeological remains. Beyond the citadel, the site has not been excavated.

    • 1. Amedie and Zamua 2011, 236 (Adiabenean king); Brown et al. 2018, 68–69, 71–74 (Arsacid dynast).
    • 2. For the efficacy and significance of repetition in ancient Near Eastern sculpture, see Zainab Bahrani, The Infinite Image (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 115–144.
    • 3. Saber et al. (2014, 236–241) date all of the excavated pottery to the Sasanian period and comment that this “could suggest the site was constructed after the relief had already been made” (the authors note, however, that future excavations could reveal a Parthian phase to the structure). Brown et al. (2018, 71), positing a Parthian date, focus on the site’s green-glazed ceramics, “diagnostic examples of which can be dated to between the first and third centuries A.D. based on Mesopotamian and Iranian parallels.”

    D. A. Zamua, and Amedie, E. M.. 2011. “The Rock Reliefs of Mirqulie and Rabanah in Piramagrun Mountain: An Analysis and Comparison.” Subartu 4–5: 230–239 (in Arabic).

    Brown, Michael, Peter Miglus, Kamal Rasheed, and Mustafa Ahmad. 2018. “Portraits of a Parthian King: Rock Reliefs and the Mountain Fortresses of Rabana-Merquly in Iraqi Kurdistan.” Iraq 80: 63–77. 

    Raheem, Kamal Rasheed. 2001. “The Project of Mountain Piramagroon’s Relief Replicas at Merquli and Rabana.” Hezar Merd 18: 153–163 (in Arabic).

    Saber, Ahmed S., Zuhair Rejeb, and Mark Altaweel. 2014. “Report on the Excavations at Merquly: The 2009 Season.” Iraq 76: 231–244.

    Content Manager
    Matthew Peebles (2019)