Alternative Names

Rabana, Rabana Relief and Citadel


1st–3rd century AD

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

    Stone Wall at Entrance to Rabbana Gully

    Features within Rabbana Gully

    Rabbana Relief and Its Surroundings

    Views of Landscape West of Mt. Piramagrun/Rabbana Gully

    Views of Mt. Piramagrun and Area to the West (General); Qarachatan Village

    The archaeological site of Rabbana is disposed around a wadi-carved valley cutting into the western slope of Mt. Piramagrun. The closest village, Qarachatan, is about 1 km to the west, and the site is about 40 km northwest of the city of Sulaymaniyah/Slemani. As at Merquli, 1.5 km to the southeast along the same side of Mt. Piramagrun, Rabbana is marked by a rock relief associated with a group of various architectural features, including defensive walls. However, the two sites are in very different positions—while Merquli is set on a high peak, Rabbana is much lower within the valley. In the Parthian period, when the pair of reliefs was likely carved, the sites lay near the border between the empire’s northwestern provinces and the vassal kingdom of Adiabene. 

    The valley of Rabbana opens directly into the southwestern slope of Mt. Piramagrun. Near its entrance are the remains of a large wall, over 2 m high, built of unhewn boulders. This seems to have functioned as part of a larger perimeter fortification of the ancient settlement.1 The valley interior, which is moderately sloping, is bounded with imposing, jagged cliffs on either side. 

    The rock relief is carved on the rightward cliff face just beyond the perimeter wall, a short way into the valley. As it is placed several meters above the ground, recent archaeologists have built a stone retaining wall in the area below it; as the cliff face is angled rather than perpendicular, the rectangular relief appears slightly skewed from ground level. At about 97 cm wide x 2 m high, the Rabbana relief is a bit smaller than the similar image at Merquli; it is also worth emphasizing its much lower elevation in the valley, as opposed to Merquli’s lofty position on a nearby peak. The relief is in fair condition and still legible, though it is more worn than Merquli’s. There is some cracking across the upper area of the design, and the surface is heavily pitted, particularly in the lower half (as with the surrounding cliff face). It is possible that the sculpture was once smoothed in plaster and painted, though there is no visible evidence for this.2 When the MMM team carried out its documentation, a few bits of canvas were stuck to the background, left over from the process of casting the sculpture (carried out by the Sulaymaniyah/Slemani Directorate of Antiquities and now on display in the city’s museum).

    The style and iconography of the relief indicate that it dates to the later Parthian period and represents a ruler. The depicted figure is quite similar to that of the Merquli relief overall, though some differences can be pointed out as well. The male figure stands facing rightward—toward the valley’s entrance—with his legs spread apart, raising his right arm before him.3 While the legs are in a proper profile, the torso and face are rendered from an oblique viewpoint. The figure’s headgear is of the same basic type as that seen in the Merquli relief—a high tiara (kolah) with upturned earflaps, tied with a diadem at the base—though it is more pointed in shape and the flap is more strongly contoured.4 Unlike the Merquli depiction, where two thin bands are rendered behind the ear, the area below and to the rear of the cap appears empty here. The rock surface is heavily textured in this area, and it may be wondered if the typical Parthian bunched curls could have been added in stucco or paint. The ruler’s beard, the strands of which have been carefully delineated, features a pronounced curve along the jaw (a curvature not observed in the Merquli figure’s beard). He wears a torc on his neck and a cloak over a long tunic. The cloak is clasped with a sinuous knot, and the belt around the tunic is tied with another elaborate knot; the double ends of the diadem, clasp, and belt all hang loosely. It is likely that the figure also wears trousers or pants, as well as shoes. The style of the relief is generally similar to Merquli, with broad planes and bold outlines; however, the sculptor has here taken a slightly finer and more curvilinear approach to certain areas—for instance, in the shape of the beard and more delicately rendered knots. The question of whether the sculptures were created by the same or different artists is open to debate.

    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”).5 Given the general resemblance between the Rabbana and Merquli reliefs, it seems likely that they represent the same ruler.6 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.

    The main settlement at Rabbana lay further within the valley.7 The limited investigations conducted in this area have revealed several interesting features. A rectangular niche enclosing an unfinished step-like projection (perhaps an altar) is carved into the cliff at the point where a watercourse flows into the wadi from the upper slopes of the mountain. Nearby, there is a rock-cut staircase that apparently connected the wadi to a lost building on higher ground; an adjacent, steeper staircase-like feature was perhaps designed as a water cascade. It has been suggested that this entire area served as a sanctuary complex, though its function has not been determined with certainty. Other visible ruins at Rabbana suggest that fortifications were constructed at strategic points around the valley. However, the site has not yet been systematically excavated or analyzed.

    • 1. The stretch photographed by MMM may have served as a foundation or a platform for a building related to the perimeter wall; see Brown et al. 2018, 65 and fig. 5.
    • 2. 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. A similar gesture is made by the subject of the relief at Batas Harir, though here the palm is partially closed.
    • 4. On the headgear and 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.
    • 5. Brown et al. 2018, 69.
    • 6. Cf. Amedie and Zamua 2011, 236; Brown et al. 2018, 68.
    • 7. For a discussion and images of this area, see Brown et al. 2018, 65.

    As with Merquli, there is very little evidence for the history of Rabbana. Positioned as it is in one of the western ranges of the Zagros Mountains, in an easily defensible valley, it was surely associated with border security. 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 II (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 at the entrance to the settlement was certainly strategic, marking the entire site with an enduring figuration of his power. Given the similarity between the reliefs at Rabbana and Merquli, it may be that the same ruler (or succeeding members of a dynasty) sought to claim the possession of a group of fortified sites 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 

    Preliminary investigations of the area within the perimeter wall have thus far revealed only one pottery phase datable to the Parthian era.3 Given the difficulties involved in dating the ceramic material, it is possible that occupation extended into the Sasanian period (as, apparently, at Merquli). Rabbana awaits systematic study and analysis before further conclusions can be reached regarding later or earlier utilizations of the site.

    • 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. Brown et al. 2018, 70.

    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. 

    Mahdi, A. 1950. “Archaeological Sites in the Surdash Region of Sulaimaniyah Province.” Sumer 6: 231–243 (in Arabic).

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

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    Matthew Peebles (2019)