Iran – Khu-i Khwaja

Excavation campaigns at Kuh-i Khwaja
Seistan — Kuh-i Khwaja
Giorgio Gullini

The archaeological studies, conducted by the Centro Scavi di Torino (then called Centro Scavi dell’ISMEO e di Torino) from 1960 to 1961, concerned the Kuh-i Khwaja complex in Iran’s Seistan region.The study, which combined stratigraphic excavations and the analytical study of building techniques, showed how the site, in its construction stages spanning from the Achemenid to the Sasanian periods, is the clarifying element of the architecture of western Iran, a region of cultural upheaval and a meeting point of Greek and Iranian element.

The region around Lake Hamun, straddling the current border between Iran and Afghanistan, is known as Seistan, a toponym of Arab origin; in Achemenid times this area was known as Zranka or, in Greek, Dranjan, meaning “region near the lake”. Kuh-i Khwaja rises at the centre of the lake, on a basalt rock island.
Literary, archaeological and epigraphic accounts began to appear only from the Achaemenid age, but it seems plausible to believe that the first populations were of Iranic descent, originating from the Caspian sea, supplanted by Persian tribes, presumably even before the empire of Cyrus the Great, who conquered the area around mid-6th century BC.
With the Persian Empire, the region became considerably important from an agricultural point of view, and remained so up to its conquest by Alexander the Great. According to ancient literary tradition, the Macedonian king founded Prophtasia, meaning “the anticipation”, in memory of the averted threat posed by Philotas’ conspiracy. It is difficult to reconstruct the region’s archaeological history in Hellenistic times, although it is not unlikely that it was similar to that of nearby Arachosia, with which it always had strong ties, and which presumably became a frontier area with both the Maurya empire and the western Hellenistic territories in the 3rd century BC.
This situation lasted until the area’s conquest by the Parths, when Mithridates annexed the semi-nomadic Iranic tribes that lived there – the Saka – to his army: in fact, the creation in this period of a Saka kingdom that was formally autonomous but fully integrated in the Arsacid orbit seems likely. The Saka kingdoms succeeded one another until the 2nd century AD, when it is likely that, more than actually being conquered, they were influenced by the great Kushan expansion. With the advent of the Sasanids and the great accomplishments of Ardashir I (224-241 AD), central power was also reaffirmed in Iran’s eastern provinces, at the expense of independent principalities, and the issue of the eastern borders – and therefore of Dranjan – became especially important again.

The archaeological research conducted in the 1960s on the Kuh-i Khwaja hill allowed the monumental remains found there to be identified as being part of a very important sacred/religious centre. The monumental remains were subdivided into five groups: the Palace of Gondophares, composed of monumental structures arranged around a square courtyard; the residential area, immediately adjacent to the palace, between its ring of walls and a second outermost circle; a group of stone terracing structures, located northeast and west of the Palace, on which a considerable number of tombs were placed; a group of structures with basalt substitutions, placed at the top of the height, behind the Palace; and finally, what is known as the Chihil Dukhtaran (“the 40 maidens”) complex, on the hill’s southwest tip, relatively isolated, but with a commanding view of the entire region, that was in fact associated with a quadrangular fortress.
The research consisted in a systematic study of the area and in stratigraphic excavation, concentrated especially in the area of the Chihil Dukhtaran fortress.

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