The Caspian Gates

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The ‘Gates’ at Dariali Gorge, set amid the spectacular mountain scenery of modern Georgia, was a place of legend. It features in a wider range of ancient and medieval sources than any other mountain pass, yet it has long been ignored by archaeologists.

Snow on Dariali Fort.

Dariali Gorge was a place of legend. It was in the dramatic landscape of the gorge that ancient author Lucian of Samosata envisaged Prometheus riveted to the rocks high up on its sheer cliffs, his liver endlessly devoured by an eagle – the mythical hero’s punishment for stealing fire from the gods. Emperor Nero launched a military campaign to the gorge. Troops were gathered from as far as Britain. The XIVth Legion, a battle-hardened crack unit feared ever since it crushed Boudicca’s rebellion, advanced to these far-flung eastern margins of the continent.

Excavation of an early medieval collective grave (AD 671-770).

Nero’s early death in AD 68 put an end to that venture, but not to Rome’s interest in the strategic mountain pass. It provided the main route across the central Caucasus, Europe’s highest mountain range. Featured in the works of Tacitus, Suetonius, Statius, and Ptolemy, among others, its fame spread also to the heartlands of Persia: in the AD 260s, King Shapur boasted ownership of the gorge in rock-cut inscriptions in Iran. Numerous northern invaders, from the Scythians to German Nazis, headed to the gorge, attempting to break through to Transcaucasia and the Near East. In Late Antiquity, the gorge, jointly with the Caspian coastal defences at Derbent, formed a cornerstone in Persia’s efforts to keep steppe warriors at bay. Persia demanded payments of thousands of pounds of gold from the late Roman Empire to guard the mountain passes of the Caucasus. The 10th-century Baghdad-born and Egypt-based author Mas’udi describes the impregnable fort controlling the narrow pass as worldfamous. Throughout the 1st millennium AD, the remote gorge formed a talking point at Imperial capitals.

No mountain valley in the ancient and medieval world achieved similar literary fame, but archaeologically it has remained uncharted territory – until now. Seen and described by early travellers, it was not until the dying days of the Soviet Union some 25 years ago that the construction of a gas pipeline led to the first large-scale excavations.

Georgian archaeologists unearthed parts of a medieval cemetery near the fort, as well as a 6th- to 8th-century graveyard some 2.5km further south. Grave goods include a coin of Persian King Kavad, dated to AD 529, as well as a ring with a Persian inscription. Procopius attests that the Persians had lost the strategic mountain pass to a group of Huns – or perhaps other steppe warriors – and that King Kavad succeeded in reconquering it. The imports may have reached Dariali Gorge in the aftermath of these events. No more than a small sondage was excavated then on Dariali Fort, the key stronghold controlling one of the narrowest passages.

Yet there was still little archaeological interest in this gorge that features so prominently in the works of both Classical authors and modern ancient historians.

Images: E Sauer, L Chologauri, D Naskidashvili

This is an extract from a feature published in CWA 80.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.


Gun emplacements linked to a tunnel system under Dariali Fort, as well as bunkers overlooking the valley, may date to 1942, when German troops advanced within 20 miles of the gorge. Those in control of the fort had a stranglehold on north–south traffic, in the 20th century as much as in antiquity.

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