A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Massive fortifications on the Caspian Sea once kept nomadic warriors at bay
The fact that vegetation sprouts from the 60-foot-tall walls of Narin Kala does nothing to diminish the impression that the massive sixth-century A.D. fortress is impregnable. As we stride up the hill toward the citadel, archaeologist Murtazali Gadjiev calls my attention to sections that have been rebuilt, but he doesn't bother to conceal his pride that the monument has weathered 1,500 often tumultuous years more or less intact. Built by the shahanshahs ( "kings of kings") of Iran's Sasanian Empire, the eight-acre castle once anchored an elaborate array of fortifications.
Limestone walls more than 20 feet tall linked dozens of small fortresses and wound more than 30 miles from the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains to this citadel overlooking the Caspian Sea. Sometimes called the Great Wall of the Caucasus, it was built to keep the Sasanians safe from invasion by nomadic peoples to the north. It sealed off one of history's most strategic passes, a narrow strip of land in the modern-day Russian republic of Daghestan, and was so well constructed that it was used into the 19th century.
Gadjiev is on intimate terms with the fortifications; he dug at the citadel during his first field school in 1974. Now as a senior archaeologist at the Daghestan Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, he is in charge of excavations at the fortress. Gadjiev has also recently completed an intensive survey of the ruins of the inland fortifications, known locally as Dag Bahri, "the mountain wall." His love of military history has family roots: an uncle, Magomed Gadjiev, was a legendary submarine commander who was named a Hero of the Soviet Union after he was killed in World War II. (Stamps have been issued in his honor and a city in Arctic Russia was renamed for him.)
As we near Narin Kala, I can see that several different wedding parties are jostling one another as they try to get through the citadel's narrow gates. Eventually we make our way through the thicket of brides and enter the fortress. Gadjiev and I climb a set of steep stairs to the battlements. From here, it's clear that the town of Derbent was also part of the Sasanian defensive scheme. Two walls run from Narin Kala to the sea. Old Derbent, which has an eighth-century mosque and a number of other buildings that have survived for more than 1,000 years, lies between these two sturdy walls, both about 20 feet tall. The city gets its name from the Persian Dar Band, which means "barred gate."
"The Caspian plain narrows here dramatically," says Gadjiev, his long arm describing an arc from north to south. "That has made this a strategic point for millennia." The fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus was the first to put his finger on this geographic feature when he wrote about the Scythian invasions of the Near East. He noted that the nomads pushed their way into civilization's heartland through a Caspian corridor, riding their horses across the plain that lies between the sea and the Caucasus to the west. At Derbent, the mountains jut out toward the Caspian plain, coming within less than a mile of the sea, meaning the city sits atop a strategic chokepoint.
Eric A. Powell is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.