Lost and found

Look: Researchers uncover a lost city only known from ancient coins

No, it’s not Atlantis.

Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project

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In the days when the Silk Road crisscrossed through Europe and Asia, the powerful Parthian Empire played a pivotal role in connecting the East to the West.

Despite the empire’s significance, archaeologists know relatively little about the lives of the Parthians.

But excavations at a site in modern-day Iraqi Kurdistan shed light on what may have once been an important hub in the ancient world.

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Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project

Writing this week in the journal Antiquity, researchers describe the remains of a stone fortress that may have once been a royal city.


Called Rabana-Merquly, the fortress is situated in the Zagros Mountains.

It surrounds the remains of two Parthian settlements, one at the foot of the mountains and another atop a plateau.

The Parthians’ time there appears to be short-lived, occupied for up to a few hundred years until the end of their reign.

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But Parthian-era rock reliefs carved into the fortress walls have stood the test of time.

And their location near the Lower Zab River appears to connect the site to tales of an ancient metropolis.

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Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project

This relief carved into the entrance of the fortress depicts a king-like figure wearing a unique hat.

Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project

It’s strikingly similar to another piece of art: a statue of a king found just 230 kilometers away at another Parthian site.

The researchers argue that the site may be the remains of a lost city, called Natounia.

Known only from inscriptions on a handful of drachma coins, Natounia appeared to be an important place connected to Parthian rulers.

Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project

The carving of a king on the fortress could be an homage to the founder of Natounia.

And the city’s full name, Natounia on the Kapros, nods to the Greek name for the nearby Lower Zab River.

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Adding in the sheer size of Rabana-Merquly, “the considerable effort that must have gone into planning, building, and maintaining a fortress of this size points to governmental activities,” explains study co-author Michael Brown in a statement.

Rabana-Merquly Archaeological Project

The remains of military barracks at the site also reveal that the Parthian army was stronger and more established than some records claim.

So thanks to its strength, size, and location, Rabana-Merquly is the most promising candidate for researchers to consider it the real-life remains of the fabled Natounia.

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