Already Johannes Franz (1804-51; cf. Gutschmid, p. 89), and later W. W. Tarn (1951, p. 68), connected the site of Karafto with a passage in the Annals (12.13-14, tr. p. 344) of Tacitus (56-ca. 120 CE), where he mentioned a mountain called Sanbulos, probably located in the north of Media (Weissbach, p. 2232).
At this place several local deities were venerated, the most outstanding of whom was Herakles. An oracle of horses relied on dreams to convey to Herakles’ priests the way he had taken. The historical context is an internal Parthian struggle for power between the ruling monarch Gotarzes II (r. ca. 38-51 CE; see GOUDARZ II) and his rival Meherdates who was backed by the Roman emperor. Any identification of Mt. Sanbulos has to be sought on an axis running from Arbela (the modern Arbil) to Ecbatana (the modern Hamadan), since the events of 49/50 CE must have taken place on this route: Arbela was the meeting point of Meherdates’ auxiliary force, while Gotarzes most probably had departed from the Arsacid summer residence at Ecbatana (Strabo,16.1.16) to intercept and finally defeat his adversary (Stein, pp. 340-41).
Some scholars locate this mountain in the vicinity of Kerm?n??h (for the identification with Sonbola Kuh, see Rawlinson, 1839, pp. 41-42). Others even identify it as Mt. Bisotun (for a complete bibliography, see Tubach, pp. 245-50), arguing that the rock relief shows Gotarzes II. But the inscription “Gotarses Geopothros” above the Bisotun relief panel is certainly not a reference to a ruling Great King of the Arsacids and, rather, names a local dynast who is depicted as victor over an unidentified enemy in an unknown battle (so already, if hesitatingly, Rawlinson, 1839, p. 116; cf. Kawami, pp. 42-43; von Gall, 1990, pp. 11-12).
According to Tacitus, Gotarzes halted at Mt. Sanbulos to offer vows to the local deities and thereafter encamped at a defensive line formed by a river Corma, probably the Lesser Zab in Iran (Zab-e Kuchek; cf. Stein, p. 341 n. 6). Since the cliffs of Karafto perfectly match the described landscape Stein considered it proven that this place was Tacitus’s Mt. Sanbulos. Consequently, he interpreted the rock chambers an oracle sanctuary “dedicated to a local god, whom the Greeks called Herakles” (Stein, 1940, p. 339).
Interpretation. The author (1978, pp. 99-112) has supported Stein’s view, while adding further comparative material drawn from Greek sanctuaries. Of particular importance are the accurately carved barrel vaults in chambers b and k (FIGURE 5) and the devices to bar the doors from the inside in chambers k and l (FIGURE 4; von Gall, 1978, pp. 95-96). The lintel of a window in room k shows elements of wood architecture (FIGURE 6).
The very limited lookout on the southside, whose view is destructed by the surrounding rocks (FIGURE 5; cf. von Gall, 1978, pl. 27 no. 3), speaks strictly against a military interpretation, for example, as frontier post between Greater Media and Media Atropatene (Bernard, pp. 307-308). But also a purely residential character (Boyce and Grenet, p. 85) can be excluded due to the lack of any provisions for such a purpose.
Remnants of a broad staircase in the corridor (i in FIGURE 1), which leads from the lower to the upper level, suggest the performance of solemn ceremonies. The traces of a me?r?b in room g are important, since they indicate that even in Islamic times the site was used for prayer.
It seems advisable, though, to place the chambers of Karafto neither in a strictly religious, nor in a purely secular context. Strabo (64/63 BCE.-23 CE ?) cites a passage by Eudoxus of Cnidus (first half of the 4th century BCE) when he describes Hyrcania (modern Gorg?n) in the southeast of the Caspian Sea: “there are some cliffs facing the sea with caverns underneath [....] and rivers flowing from the precipices above” (11.7.5, tr., p. 257). Amidst a marvelous nature, native people gathered for “feasting and sacrifice, and sometimes they recline in the caverns down below and and sometimes they enjoy themselves” (ibid.) in the waterfalls. Franz Cumont (1868-1947) overemphasized the religious aspect in his view that the Hyrcanian caves were archetypes of the Mithraic spelaea (p. 56; see MITHRAISM), since Eudoxus’s passage leaves no doubt that the caves’ visitors were also looking for pleasure. The rock-hewn chambers at Karafto with its scenic splendor may have had a different function too: Some may have served as assembly halls for feasting and meetings, while others could have been used for religious purposes.
Kangavar: Part 2
AB-ANBAR History: Part 1
Naqsh-e Rostam: Part 1