Parthian Reliefs


1st century BC–2nd century AD

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

    General Views of the Ascent

    Pathway to the Citadel (Stone Staircase)

    Relief 2

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

    Historical Photographs

    The citadel of Amadiya/Amedi is approached from the west along an ancient pathway that leads toward the Bahdinan Gate, a monumental entrance built in the 13th century AD. Along the final stretch of this long ascent, the visitor passes three ancient reliefs carved directly into the cliff walls (see the photogrammetric reconstruction). The sculptures all represent single human figures and are dated by style and iconography to the Parthian era.

    The position of the reliefs along the citadel’s cliff wall was already helpfully diagrammed by Walter Bachmann, who visited Amadiya/Amedi in 1911 (see the drawing) and a new diagram based on drone imaging has been produced by the Columbia team.1 All three are set within recessed niches without borders; they are arched at the top, in keeping with a Mesopotamian tradition of cutting rock reliefs in the form of stelae (narû) (cf. several reliefs of the Assyrian king Sennacherib at nearby Khinnis). They range in height between about 2.2–2.8 m, each depicting a single figure rendered at approximately life size or a bit larger. All are weathered—some more so than others—and none preserves any inscription or coloration. The sculptures are datable to the Parthian period on iconographic and stylistic grounds. For convenience, they are here numbered 1–3 based on their relative distance from the Bahdinan Gate, with no. 1 being closest (the numbering is not meant to designate a chronological sequence).

    Relief 1:

    This relief is carved in close proximity to the citadel entrance (see the panorama; see the photogrammetric reconstruction).2 The niche that frames it is 2.81 m high x 1.54 m at its widest point. Inside is a male figure rendered frontally in a contrapposto pose. The area around his head is quite worn, but he is clearly wearing a headdress, the fillets of which fall past his left shoulder; a semicircular object of uncertain relation to the headdress is visible above the fillets. Rounded bunches of hair emerge from below the headdress, extending to the shoulders; just below the neckline, a contour in the relief may indicate a beard. The figure’s upper garment is not discernable, and it is unclear whether he is belted (an unidentifiable feature, which may be related to a belt, protrudes slightly from the figure’s waist on his right side). He appears to be wearing long trousers that narrow at the ankles. His right arm is stretched out to hold a thick spear or staff, with the fist grasping the shaft just above the level of the elbow; his left arm is bent such that the hand grips the upper end of a sword attached at the waist. Another sword, the pommel of which appears in the space between the waist and elbow, hangs along the left leg; a third object, perhaps yet another weapon, rests just to the side of the lower right leg. The subject of this relief could be a regional ruler, but its interpretation as a divinity is equally plausible or even favorable.3 For one, the pose of regional reliefs representing rulers during this period tend to show the figure in a profile view with an upraised arm (cf. the images at Merquli, Rabbana, and Batas Harir); this relief has more in common, both stylistically and iconographically, with Hatrene sculptures depicting male deities. Thus, the figure may be identified as a martial god standing sentinel at the entrance into the citadel; such guardians are also known from inscriptions of this period.

    Relief 2:

    The next relief is carved several meters further down the slope and is slightly smaller than Relief 1, measuring 2.35 m high x 1.61 m wide (see the photogrammetric model).4 It is the most weathered of the three reliefs and thus the most difficult to interpret. Still, it is possible to make out the contours of another standing figure within the niche.5 The figure seems to be wearing a Greek style chiton and himation. The folds of the overlying himation are diagonally pleated across the body, pulled to the side and held with the left hand. Based on the figure’s garment and stance, it is very likely that the subject is female. Resting near her left leg, there is an oval object that can perhaps be identified as a shield. The sculpture around the head has been worn away, but due to the large space that has been left above the shoulder line, a tall headdress might be restored here. Considering the size of the compositional field to the figure’s right, it can be speculated that her right hand held something: perhaps a spear or standard, or a palm frond, as in representations of goddesses on Parthian coins. The figure may represent a type of city Tyche, or Fortune; however, an Allat-Athena type is probably more likely given the diagonal drapery and the possible shield at her side.6

    Relief 3:

    This relief is strategically positioned at the switchback where the staircase turns toward its final stretch to the Bahdinan Gate (view the panorama; view the photogrammetric reconstruction).7 Its border measures 2.21 m high x 1.79 m wide at the base; at 36 cm in depth, it is the deepest of the three niches. The relief portrays another male figure, this one in profile. He is shown striding, as if ascending the pathway toward the citadel. His upraised right arm is bent at the elbow, overlapping the chest. His left arm is raised before him, and his hand holds a pointed object that is likely a spear. The figure wears a short tunic that ends at the knees, along with a tight-fitting bodice or cuirass. A fillet or cloak hangs behind him, terminating below the right shoulder; traces of another garment or belt, and possibly a weapon, are visible at the rear waist and behind the right leg. Another object, the interpretation of which is difficult, protrudes from the front of his torso, below the upraised arm. The figure in this relief may represent a ruler, but the question of his identity remains open. 

    • 1. Bachmann 1913, p. 1.
    • 2. See the more complete description in Bahrani et al. 2019, 52–54 and 57–58.
    • 3. For a fuller argument with references, see Bahrani et al. 2019, 58.
    • 4. See the more complete description in Bahrani et al. 2019, 54–55 and 58.
    • 5. First recognized by Marf Zamua (2008, 116); Bachmann and others have considered the niche to be empty.
    • 6. Bahrani et al. 2019, 58.
    • 7. See the more complete description in Bahrani et al. 2019, 55–56, 58–59.

    The information presented here has been adapted from Bahrani et al. 2019. See also see Mathiesen 1992 (2), 183–194 (nos. 142–143); Marf Zamua 2008, 115–116; Miglus et al. 2018.

    The iconographic and stylistic features of the Amadiya/Amedi rock reliefs clearly indicate that they were carved during the Parthian period, ca. 1st century BC–2nd century AD.1 At this time, much of northern Mesopotamia was ruled by various vassal kingdoms—such as Hatra, where some of the closest sculptural parallels were created. Although the political status of Amadiya/Amedi during the period in question is unknown, the general area seems to have been controlled by Adiabene (see further in the Amadiya/Amedi site entry).2 However—as with most rock-carved reliefs from this period—the sculptures lack inscriptions that would place them within the reign of a particular ruler. It is also uncertain as to whether they were all carved around the same approximate timespan, or whether they were added at different stages during the centuries of the Parthian era. It may be noted that there are significant variations in their stylistic qualities. Relief 3 features naturalistic modeling and dynamic movement of the body; this may suggest an early date in the Parthian period, when Greek Hellenistic influences were stronger—possibly during the 1st century BC. The female figure of Relief 2 could be of the same early date. The style of Relief 1, with its frontal figure, is more in keeping with the art of the first two centuries AD. Nonetheless, different styles coexisted in Mesopotamia during the entirety of the Parthian era, so it is not impossible that the reliefs were carved around the same time. 

    Interestingly, the reliefs, along with the contemporaneous staircase, were preserved through Amadiya/Amedi’s centuries of post-antique occupation. Even as the religious spectrum of the city’s population became predominantly Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, the sculptures show no evidence of deliberate effacement or iconoclastic activity. The Zengid-era defensive walls and the Bahdinan Gate, 12th–13th centuries AD, were built without any attempt to remove these highly visible pre-Islamic images; the resulting ensemble enacted a dialogue between the citadel’s past and present.3  

    • 1. See the more extended argumentation in Bahrani et al. 2019, 57–59.
    • 2. See further comments on the reliefs’ geopolitical context in Miglus et al., 122–125.
    • 3. Bahrani et al. 2019, 59–60.

    Although Amadiya/Amedi was described by geographers and travelers from the medieval period on, the reliefs outside the Bahdinan Gate were not formally documented until the 19th and early 20th centuries (at least according to the preserved sources). William Ainsworth, who only noted the relief closest to the Bahdinan Gate, compared the figure’s dress to images of Shapur I and assigned it to the Sasanian era (1842).1 Ainsworth’s conjecture was relatively close to the mark; some commentators were much vaguer in their speculations, perhaps in part due to the fact that the sculptures were apparently already very worn. When Mark Sykes noticed the relief closest to the Bahdinan Gate, he responded that this “curious figure…may be of the Misty Hittites or later, but [is] so defaced that only the most learned and boldest of antiquaries would dare to give a date” (1904).2 In fact, Austen Henry Layard had already hit upon the date now agreed on by scholars, assigning the same relief to the period of “the Arsacian kings” (1849).3 None of these visitors made any sketches of the sculptures. However, in 1911 Walter Bachmann marked the position of all three niches in his diagram of the staircase and gate. He also took photographs of Relief 1 and Relief 3 (see the historical photographs; he apparently did not recognize that the middle niche held a very worn figure (Relief 2).4

    • 1. Ainsworth 1842 (1), 196.
    • 2. Sykes 1904, 166.
    • 3. Layard 1849 (1), 161.
    • 4. Bachmann 1913, 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.

    Layard, Austen Henry. 1849. Nineveh and Its Remains. 2 vols. London: J. Murray.

    Marf Zamua, D. 2008. “Al Manhutat al Sakhriya al Qadima fi Madinat (Amedi) Al Amediyah.” Subartu 2008 (2): 113–121 (in Arabic).

    Mathiesen, Hans E. 1992. Sculpture in the Parthian Empire. 2 vols. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

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

    Sykes, Mark. 1904. Dar-ul-Islam: A Record of a Journey through Ten of the Asiatic Provinces of Turkey. London: Bickers.

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    Matthew Peebles (2020)