Iraq – Kifrin

Haditha Dam; international salvage project of the archaeological sites of the Euphrates dam’s basin
Scientific director:
Antonio Invernizzi
Field directors:
Paolo Fiorina, Antonio Invernizzi, Elisabetta Valtz, Roberta Venco Ricciardi

The surveys and excavations conducted in the site of Kifrin between 1980 and 1983 are Italian contribution to the rescue project that preceded the construction of the al-Qadissiya dam and the creation of the basin on the Euphrates upstream of Haditha (Haditha Project – State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq). Five excavation campaigns brought to light the structures of a large fortified settlement (Parthian and Roman phases of the 2nd and 3rd centuries), composed of a city and a citadel in a strategic sector that was of vital importance for controlling an advanced corridor of the Roman limes on the Middle Euphrates.

Kifrin is the Becchufrein of the Durene parchment and papyrus documents from the archives of the XX Cohors Palmyrenorum that mention the deployment of soldiers and garrisons to the outpost on the river. The site is located on the east bank (the “Parthian” one) of the Euphrates, between the fortified islands of Telbis and Bijan, approximately 130 km downstream from Dura Europos. Kifrin lies on a rocky spur that dominates the cultivated shore of the river and controls the ample bend towards ‘Ana. In Roman times, the site was part of a system of outposts and fortified centres (such as ‘Ana, Ertaje, Telbis and Bijan) that were key points of Rome’s defensive system along the river. The structures’ extension and monumentality make Kifrin the largest and most important fortified settlement downstream of Dura Europos.
The specific events that led to the stronghold’s abandonment and to the end of Kifrin remain obscure. The excavations did not find visible traces of destruction, although the many restorations of the wall and a mass grave attest to the battles, including violent ones, that took place here. The absence of coins after Gordian III (only one Ardashir coin originates from outside the walls) seems to back up the hypothesis that the stronghold was possibly abandoned as early as in Severus Alexander’s time, and anyhow before the second agoge of Shapur (around 250 AD) the presence of coins minted by Gordian III may possibly pertain to a temporary reoccupation of the site or to a final attempt to maintain dominance over this part of the river.
The site is distinctly subdivided into two sectors: the city, whose southwestern part is protected by the river and whose opposite side faces the Jazira, along which runs a long line of turreted walls, and the citadel at the western end of the rocky spur dominating the bend in the river. Although their construction techniques and structures differ, the city walls and the citadel are built with the emplecton technique using local materials, stones and conglomerate (occasionally pottery fragments) mixed with gypsum mortar. The two curtains have quadrangular towers that are slightly larger and distant from one another in the city’s curtain. Three moats outside the city walls, probably dug in one of the settlement’s final phases, run parallel to the walls and then make a 90 degree turn into the area inside the city, cutting across the defences. The preliminary analysis of the construction technique and of several structural relationships between the walls seems to back up the hypothesis that the citadel was built after the city. Anyhow, inside each sector, both city and citadel, several construction phases may be identified that cannot be dated with certainty due to the scarcity of material produced by the excavations whose date can be established for sure.

The city

The official centre of the city, investigated only in part, was composed of buildings A and B. of the two, the most monumental was building A, whose function is still debated and may be either civilian/military or religious. Outside the enclosure of building A, next to its north corner, excavations brought to light building B, which may have served a religious purpose. A third sector is the one near the northern corner of the city walls (Area D), where two main building phases were observed. An elongated building made up of lined-up rooms, believed to be a barracks by excavators, was built (perhaps when the citadel was built and when the walls were repaired or enlarged) on top of a first building, possibly characterized by a perystyle courtyard resting against the walls. This building’s close relationship to the walls supports this interpretation.
Building A was located at the end of a wide temenos that included rooms and devices built against the inner side and an aedicula at the centre of the open area. Building A was elevated above the courtyard’s level, resting on a stepped platform; its floor plan contemplated the lined-up juxtaposition of wider and narrower rooms, opening and two central grated windows. The building’s façade was decorated with semicolumns with Ionic capitals (possibly Corinthian ones too, on a second level) and both the outside and the inside probably contemplated lavish stucco decorations, which were unfortunately too fragmentary to allow an accurate reconstruction. The stucco fragments include beautiful palmette-motif and astragal borders, as well as figured motifs that may have belonged to complex scenes.

Building B is a large iwan, flanked on the north side by two lined-up rooms and on the opposite side by a large open area. Here, the remains of basins, possibly having ritual functions, and steps built against the building that provided access to the upper level or to the roof, were brought to light. Iwan B, possibly the most exquisitely Parthian building in the entire Kifrin complex, brings to mind the solutions of Assur and Hatra, centres near the fortified outpost, and the hypothesis of their serving a religious purpose would agree not only with its planimetric characteristics but also with the obvious presence of Orientals among the troops stationed at the site.

The citadel

The citadel lies at the end of the rocky spur that reaches out towards the river, on land that is actually lower than the city: this could be possible evidence that it was built after the city. The main entrance to the complex was on the river’s side and was protected by towers on both sides. Fragmentary structures were found in the (southern) sector near the main entrance, but judging from the scarce remains, an iwan can be recognized here too. We have more information on the building constructed against the walls on the north opposite corner of the citadel, a residential building distinguished by a peristyle courtyard built almost against the walls, a sort of entrance atrium and other areas along the defences. Its floor plan is that of a private dwelling, and the building may have been the residence of the commander of the troops stationed in Kifrin: the stucco decorations in some of the rooms seem to support this hypothesis. Outside the citadel’s walls, next to the stronghold’s main entrance, are the so-called external baths built against the curtain, partly constructed from baked bricks and partly dug into the sloping rock. The complex, in this case, is the typical axial row-type that is often found in a military context and in proximity of fortified walls (of camps, citadels, cities).
The most well-known and significant complex is that of the so-called Internal Baths, in the citadel’s southwest sector. The building was originally a dwelling whose purpose may have changed over time when, in a second construction phase that may have dated back to Alexander Severus, a small thermal block was added to the eastern side of the central porticoed courtyard. This is similar to the small baths in city centres, and is specifically similar to the chronologically and geographically close baths of Dura Europos and to the later baths of Roman Syria (Dipsi Faraj, Brad, Serjilla).

Materials and cronology

The funerary customs attested at Kifrin are typical of the Syro-Mesopotamian area, although several types of tombs were observed. In addition to Neo-Assyrian double-jar tombs (Doppeltopf), the excavations in Kifrin have produced findings of underground chambers dug in the rock (funerary chambers dug in the rock and studied by an Iraqi mission in the nearby cemetery of Majwal were especially numerous), burials in graves and in underground chambers. The pottery, the few terracotta figurines, the stucco fragments and the Aramaic inscriptions (especially Hatrene) are all ascribable to a typically local context. The brittle ware and the products that are more easily ascribable to the Roman presence are very similar to artefacts found in other strongholds such as Dura and Ain Sinu. The structures in Kifrin are generally dated to the Severian period (3rd century AD). In this period, the Kifrin stronghold was probably militarily reinforced with the construction of the citadel and the enlargement (or rebuilding) of the walls; these structures, however, were built on top of a previous settlement whose economic, strategic and commercial importance lasted into the Parthian period (2nd century AD). The approximately 60 coins produced by the excavation date for the most part between Septimius Severus and Gordian III, although a significant number (approximately one third) date back to the 2nd century. The coins seem to simultaneously suggest the previous existence of a 2nd century settlement and the increased importance of Kifrin, especially in military and strategic terms, from the Severian period, when the border’s advancement saw the staging of a series of forts and checkpoints along the ‘Ana river corridor (which up to that time was probably run by the Palmyrenes).


1983/84, "Kifrin", Archiv für Orientforschung, 29/30, 207-09.
1986a, "Kifrin and the Euphrates Limes", in Ph. Freeman and D. Kennedy (eds.) The Defence of the Roman and Byzantine East, BAR Int. Ser. 297, 357-381, Oxford.
1986b, "Kifrin-ΒΗΧΧΟΥΦΡΕΙΝ", Mesopotamia XXI, 53-84.
1986c, "Researches in Kifrin - Al Qadissiya dam project", Sumer, 42, 22-26.

2002, "Kifrin: esempi di architettura tra innovazione e tradizione", Electrum (Tradition and Innovation in the Ancient World), 6, 87-98.
2007 «La fortezza romana di Kifrin», in Giornata Lincea in onore di Giorgio Gullini (Roma, 10 maggio 2006), Atti dei Convegni Lincei 234, Roma, 151-164.

1986, "Il posto dei cipri", Mesopotamia, XXI, 86-95.

1985, "Kifrin, la fortezza del limes", in La terra tra i due fiumi. Venti anni di archeologia italiana in Medio Oriente. La Mesopotamia dei tesori, Catalogo della Mostra di Torino (1985), Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente e l’Asia, Alessandria, 1985, 111-20, Torino.
1987, "Kifrin, a Fortress of the limes on the Euphrates", Mesopotamia, XXII, 81-89.

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