Persia's Imperial Power in Late Antiquity: The Great Wall of Gorgan and Frontier Landscapes of Sasanian Iran. By EBERHARD W. SAUER; HAMID OMRANI REKAVANDI; TONY J. WILKINSON; and JEBRAEL NOKANDEH. British Institute of Persian Studies Archaeological Monographs. Oxford: OXBOW BOOKS, 2013. Pp. xvi + 711, illus. $150. [Distributed by the David Brown Book Co., Oakville, CT.]
This book reports the results of a multi-year study of the Great Wall of Gorgan, in the northeast corner of modern Iran to the east of the Caspian Sea and just south of Iran's border with Turkmenistan. Although the Gorgan Wall was an enormous edifice, it is little known even among specialists, so this collection of linked studies is welcome for what it reveals about the wall's setting, construction, and fortification. The book is more important, however, for how the authors use their study of the wall to explicate the power, organization, functioning, and collapse of the Sasanian Empire that built it.
The Gorgan Wall was actually a complex assemblage of features and structures. The wall itself, some two meters wide, at least three meters high, and over 195 km long, was built of fired bricks. It was connected to a second, shorter wall--the 11 km long Tammisheh Wall--at its western end. Over thirty forts were integrated into the main wall's structure and a wide trench along the wall's northern face was actually a canal rather than a simple ditch. There were large arched kilns every thirty to a hundred meters along the length of the wall, used to fire the bricks the wall was built of. And a series of large enclosed settlements south of the wall are interpreted as campaign bases serving to support the garrisons along the wall if they came under attack. The enormous effort required to build and maintain this complex demonstrates both the power of the Sasanian Empire and the degree of threat they faced in this corner of their territory.
The first question this book resolves is the dating of the wall's construction and abandonment. It was built during the reign of the Sasanians, who ruled a vast swath of the Middle East from the early third to the mid-seventh centuries AD. More specifically, the wall appears to have been built during the fifth or possibly early sixth century and to have been abandoned somewhere between 612 and the 650s, during the time of the Islamic conquest. The date of construction has been determined through carbon dates from charcoal in the kilns along the...