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  • 2/27/2011


part 1


KARAFTO CAVES, an ensemble of artificially cut rock chambers with a Greek inscription, dated to the 4th or 3rd century BCE, in Kordestān Province.

History of Discovery. The chambers were carved into a rock ridge, 20 km west of Takab (see AZERBAIJAN), and are only accessible through a common entrance on the southside, ca. 9 m above the ground. Here the cliff precipitates almost vertically, whereas to the north the terrain slopes gradually. The site is of considerable importance because of its Greek inscription, one of the very few examples preserved in situ in Persia.

The first European to have written about the site was the British army surgeon Dr. John Cormick (d. 1833), who served also as personal physician to the crown prince ʿAbbās Mirzā (1789-1833; cf. Bernard, pp. 301, 303 n. 3). Sir Robert Ker Porter (1777-1842) used Cormick’s unpublished diary when in 1819 he recorded the site and its inscription in his subsequently published travelogue (II, pp. 540-54, cf. 563). In 1838, Sir Henry Rawlinson (1810-95) visited the caves and presented an improved reading of the inscription (1840, I, pp. 44-45; II, pp. 100-101). He gave his copy to the well-known British topographer and antiquarian William Martin Leake (1777-1860), who, with remarkable precision and accuracy, recognized the inscription’s essential points: firstly, the place was under the protection of Herakles; secondly, the two lines may have been verses; and thirdly, the form of the characters belongs to the 4th or 3rd century BCE. On the advice of W. W. Tarn (1869-1957), an authority in the ancient history of the East, Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943) explored Karafto on three days in the summer 1936 (Stein, pp. 326-45). He produced a plan of the chambers, which are arranged on two levels above each other (ibid., p. 329 fig. 22), and took a squeeze of the inscription (ibid., p. 326 figs. 98-99). The squeeze allowed Marcus N. Tod (1878-1974), at that time lecturer of Greek at Oriel College, Oxford, to confirm that the paleographic characteristics of the letters dated the inscription to the early Hellenistic period, between the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 3rd century BCE (Stein, pp. 332, 337-38). In 1975, Rudolf Naumann (1910-96) and the author visited the site, and the result was Professor Naumann’s improved plan of the rock chambers  and the first photographs of their interior, taken by the author (FIGURE 1, FIGURE 4, FIGURE 5, ; cf. von Gall, 1978, pls. 23-28).


The Greek inscription above the door to room k (FIGURE 2; cf. von Gall, 1978, p. 92 fig. 1, after Stein, fig. 98) reads:

ʿĒraklēs [ʾenth]ade katoikei   Herakles resides here

mēthen eiselthoi kakon      Nothing evil may enter

This distichon is a well-known Greek apotropaic formula known from many private houses in the Greek mother country, from the advanced Hellenistic until the Roman period (Weinreich, pp. 13-14; Bernard, pp. 304-305). In several Christian churches in the East (Weinreich, pp. 15-18), the pagan formula has survived in a Christian version which replaced Herakles with Christ, or even God.

To be continued ...

Other Links:


Kangavar: Part 2

AB-ANBAR History: Part 1

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