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. 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).
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; 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. The figure’s costume is typical of Parthian rulers from the 1st century AD. 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”). 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. 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. 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; 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.