The Rock-Cut Tombs of Qizqapan, Iraqi Kurdistan: Median or Achaemenid

The Rock-Cut Tombs of Qizqapan, Iraqi Kurdistan: Median or Achaemenid

by: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin 


In September 2009 CE, one of my relatives suggested that we visit “an ancient and mythical cave”. The story behind this cave is that a man (commoner) had abducted an elite girl. He took her to that cave and married her. They lived together for many years and, finally, both were buried there after their death. This is one of the versions of this mythical story; many variations I have also heard of since then.


The façade and entrance into the rock-cut tombs of Ashkawt-i Qizqapan (Kurdish: The Cave of the Ravisher or the Cave of the Raped/Abducted Girl), which lies near Zarzi village and the Palaeolithic cave of Zarzi, Chemi Rezan Valley, Sulaymaniyah Governorate, Iraqi Kurdistan. It is not a cave; it is a rock-cut tomb, which contains 3 tombs in 3 different burial chambers. It dates to the Median-Achaemenid Period, 600-330 BCE. The entrance into the tomb lies approximately 8 meters above the ground level. Photo © Osama S. M. Amin


Finally, we were there. He said this is Ashkawt-i Qizqapan (ئه شكوتي قزقاپان). The word “Ashkawt (ئه شكوت) is a Kurdish one, which means a cave; this is the Sorani dialect and accent of the people of Sulaymaniyah. Qizqapan (قزقاپان) is a Turkish word, which means a rapist or ravisher. The cave is also known as the cave of the abducted girl (Kurdish: ئه شكوتي كچه دزراوه كه). Western scholars use the word “Ishkewt”, not “Ashkawt”, when they describe that ancient cave; therefore when you Google the internet, type Ishketw-i Qizqapan!      


Approximately, 65 kilometres north-west of the modern city of Sulaymaniyah (35°48'36.09"N; 45° 0'23.35"E), lies Ashkawt-i Qizqapan. It is not a cave; it is a rock-cut tomb, which was carved into a steep cliff of a small mountain. It is not a single tomb; there are three separate burial chambers, each contains a coffin. Because it lies inside a cliff, local people call it a cave.

In late 2002 CE, the Directorate General of Antiquities of Sulaymaniyah started a conservation and restoration project on this ancient tomb. The façade of the tomb was restored (the whole façade was and is still bombarded with modern writings, paintings, memories, bullet marks, etc.). A modern replica of the façade was made and was placed at the main entrance to the halls of the Sulaymaniyah Museum. An iron ladder was placed so that tourists can easily access the tomb; in the early 2010s CE, that ladder was replaced by a larger double ladder.


Mr Akam (a sculptor who still works at the Sulaymaniyah Museum) and Mr Qadir (died last year in 2017 CE, rest in peace) are doing the moulds of the replica of the façade of the rock-cut tombs of Ashkawt-i Qizqapan. This photo dates back to late October 2002 CE. Photo courtesy Hashim Hama Abdullah, director of the Sulaymaniyah Museum.

Iraqi Kurdistan contains only two rock-cut tombs; Ashkawt-i Qizqapan and Ashkawt-i Kur w Kich (Kurdish: ئه شكوتي كوڕ و كچ). The latter means the Cave of the Boy and Girl and lies some distance from Ashkawt-i Qizqapan. It is more simplified and lacks many iconographies and the stunning art of the former.

Two important questions have never been answered; when precisely was the tomb carved and who were the people who were buried there? The cliff of the mountain, which houses the tomb looks over a valley, where a small river passes through. Mr Hashim Hama Abdullah, Director of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, told me that one day he asked a local farmer about that valley. The farmer told him that several times when he was ploughing his field, human bones came out of the earth. No tombstones are/were present. Therefore, Hashim suggests that the whole area seems to be an ancient (but not Islamic) cemetery. It is a well-known tradition in the near East that people entomb their dead beside or around a shrine or a tomb of a religious scholar. Accordingly, was Ashkawt-i Qizqapan a well-known sanctuary?

The façade (or we may call it the antechamber) of the tomb was decorated and carved with a single relief (a scene), three emblems (two rounded and one square-shaped), and two engaged columns. The capitals of the columns support a roof. The latter was carved in a way that resembles a wooden roof with eaves.

The antechamber lies about 8 meters above the ground level within the cliff. Hashim said that it appears that the area in front of the antechamber was smoothed out so the that the tomb becomes high and inaccessible. In addition, he said that there are some traces of a path which leads to the antechambers, not from the ground level, but from the right or left borders, high above the cliff.


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