Iran's ancient frontier walls

Prof Eberhard Sauer has been exploring Northern Iran’s late antique frontier walls since 2005.

Insights into Persia's Imperial Power in Late Antiquity

A joint venture with Hamid Omrani Rekavandi and Dr Jebrael Nokandeh (Iranian Cultural Heritage, Handcraft and Tourism Organisation) and Professor Tony Wilkinson (University of Durham), the project has yielded new insights into one of the ancient world’s largest and most long-lived empires.

The Sasanian Empire, lasting for over four centuries (from the 3rd to the 7th), was centred on modern Iran and stretched from Mesopotamia (Iraq) in the west to the western parts of the Indian Subcontinent in the east. In the north it reached into the area of modern Dagestan (Russia), Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan; in the south, into the Arabian Peninsula.

Our recent joint fieldwork has uncovered some of the reasons for the Empire’s success. The c. 200 km long Gorgan Wall, with over 30 associated forts, has now been firmly dated to the 5th/ early 6th century AD and thus to the period of Sasanian rule. The northern frontier of this mega-empire was not only protected by the towering Caucasus, Alborz and Hindu Kush Mountains, but the gaps in this formidable natural barrier were skilfully closed through a series of linear frontier walls.

The Gorgan Wall, the longest and most sophisticated ancient defensive wall between central Europe and China, helped to keep the Empire’s economic assets by and large safe from the threat posed by its northern neighbours. Successful frontier defence boosted prosperity and urbanism in the interior, as is powerfully demonstrated by the foundation of a new city, covering three square kilometres, south the Gorgan Wall.

A sophisticated and resourceful empire

The Gorgan Wall exceeds contemporary barriers in late antique Europe and the Mediterranean in scale. Perhaps even more remarkably, the Sasanian Empire had the resources to build rectangular compounds, each covering 40 hectares, densely filled with tents in neat rows. These military bases, evidently occupied by a strong and well-disciplined army, are significantly larger than any contemporary late Roman fortresses and are of distinctly independent design.

The Sasanian Empire, long neglected and underrated, was astonishingly resourceful and well organised. At the time when the Western Roman Empire was carved up by its northern enemies, the Sasanian Empire was not only able to hold its ground, but had gone in the lead in terms of military innovation.


We are grateful to our generous sponsors:

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • British Institute of Persian Studies
  • Iranian Center for Archaeological Research
  • Iranian Cultural Heritage, Handcraft and Tourism Organisation
  • British Academy
  • Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland
  • Iran Heritage Foundation
  • British Academy’s Stein Arnold Exploration Fund
  • Ancient Persia Fund
  • University of Edinburgh