This week: Ancient fortifications

Great Wall of Gorgan. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/Lars Holmer

The obvious comparison, here in Britain, is with Hadrian’s Wall – the great Roman fortification that stretches for 73 miles across the country from coast to coast.

Yet the Great Wall of Gorgan – built just a few hundred years later by the Sasanian dynasty, who ruled Persia (modern Iran) between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD – is in some ways more impressive still.

At 121 miles long, the so-called ‘Red Snake’ (named for the colour of its bricks) is the greatest monument of its kind between central Europe and China, and may be the longest brick, or stone, wall ever built in the ancient world.

As we learn this week on The Past, however, the Great Wall of Gorgan was just part of an extraordinary network of defences built by the Sasanians along their northern frontiers – protecting an empire that stretched from the eastern Mediterranean to modern Pakistan against the ‘White Huns’ and other warlike groups, who in the 4th century were pushing westwards from the steppes of central Asia.

This same onslaught, of course, also caused Germanic tribes to flee to Roman territory in large numbers – a movement that led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and the annihilation of Western Europe’s dominant power. Yet remarkably, the Sasanian fortifications – which included vast fortresses as well as great long walls – held out where others could not.

In the latest issue of Current World Archaeology magazine, we explore the backbone of the Sasanian defensive system, and examine how the densest concentration of mega-fortresses in the late antique world came to be built amid the Persian plains.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been delving into the archives for more about ancient frontiers and fortifications: we learned about the extraordinary resources that Chinese and Roman emperors were willing to expend in the name of security; we travelled to Valkenburg in the Netherlands in search of the springboard for the Roman conquest of Britannia; and we even followed in the footsteps of Alexander the Great to examine a chain of fortresses he built to keep the peace in central Asia.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around ancient fortifications. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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