The Rock-Sculptures in Gunduk Cave: 1

From the Book:
The Rock-Sculptures in Gunduk Cave
Taufiq Wahby (1891-1984)
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In the Autumn of 1947 the Directorate-General of Antiquities inaugurated its winter-season of research by visiting and recording photographically the principal rock-sculptures of North Iraq, including some reliefs never previously studied. Among the monuments are the two interesting groups of carvings near the village of Gunduk in the Aqra district (See map No. 1). It is on the subject of these sculptures and their general implications that I have written the following notes, as o preliminary to their further study.

In the Gunduk cave (Plate 1), there are two groups of bas-reliefs. The first group is on the left of the cave as one approaches, and the second is about seven metres higher, to the right of the first (Plate 2).

Of these two groups, the first, (Plate 3), only, has been observed by the various archeaologists who visited the site in the past.

Sir A.H. Layard who visited the cave in 1850 and published a drawing of the first group of bas-reliefs in his book Nineveh and Babylon has the following to say about:

“There are two sculptured tablets (Plate 4) in the rocks Gunduk. They have been carved at the mouth of a spacious natural cavern, whose roof is fretted with stalactites, and down whose sides trickles cool clear water, and hang dank ferns and creeping plants. It is called Guppa d'Mar Vohanna, or the cure of St. John, and near it is an ancient Nestorian church dedicated to Saint Audishio. The bas-reliefs are Assyrian. The upper represents a man slaying a wild goat with a spear. In the lower, as for as I could distinguish the sculpture, which is high on the rock and much injured, are women facing each other, and seated on stools. Each holds a child above a kind of basin or circular vessel, as if in the act of baptizing it. Behind the seated female to the left, a figure bears a third child, and is followed by a woman. On the opposite side is a group of three persons, apparently sacrificing an animal. There are no traces of inscriptions on or near the tablets.”

Much later, in 1914, W. Bachmann paid a hurried visit to the cave taking a photograph on which he based his description of the first group of bas-reliefs. He also did not notice the second group which we shall describe later. We quote his description in full : (Plate 5)

"The relief lies in what is today only a poorly distinguishable frame, nearly square in shape, the sides of which are about 2 metres. It shows two pictures arranged one above the other. In the upper picture is shown a hunter who has just struck down a strong mountain goat. The hunter, whose head has been badly weathered, seems to carry a quiver hung round him from left to right. He wears a short overdress which is held over the hips with a brood, segmented girdle, and which leaves the naked muscleless legs and arms free. The movement of the body is lively, the upper part of the body being shown twisted forward and the feet striding sideways. The right hand has just thrown the short hunting spear, and the right arm is still stretched away from the body. The left arm is raised with a slight bend in order to balance the swing of the throw. Traces of a bow, which was held by the left (sic) hand are vaguely discernible. The whole figure is not awkward, but sketched in broad strokes. Better is the strong goat, which has broken its knee and is dying. The head of the animal carries a strong and bent horn, the throat a tuft of hair, and the eyes are shown too big. The body of the animal like its head is reproduced with very good natural observation.

“In the lower sketch is a complicated group of figures the right of which was lost through faulty photography, but here also, in so far as it can be ascertained with a magnifying glass, it has been very badly weathered.

“The import of the sketch seems to be that the mountain goat killed above, has been offered or at least has been cut up in the tribal (family) circle. The whole, therefore, might be in memory of the hunt.

“Next, on the extreme left two figures con be clearly distinguished walking towards the right. The first, who wears a long shirt reaching to the ankles, holds both arms bent upwards and carries in or on her hands something which is no more distinguishable. It might possibly show a woman. Then comes a man wearing a short dress cut to the hips who brings with his raised arms a bulging jar. He seems to carry a sword hanging on his left side. The middle group shows next two men who are busy cutting up the mountain goat lying on the floor. The one on the left in a half dress holds the animal by its forelegs, the one on the right is bent deeply and seems to wield the butcher’s knife. He is hidden up to the middle by the following figure. One gets the impression that he wears on his head a conical cap.

In the proceedings can be seen now a bald and beardless man sitting on a stool, who is wrapped in a shawl which ends in a straight line in the upper half of the calves. The head part is here very clearly shown, the round form of the skull and the ear being clearly seen.

“Further to the right comes a figure in a long shirt who raises his arms above the head It is not clear whether the raised arms carry something. The rest of the picture is not distinguishable.

In order to clarify the origin of the relief, its relationship with the cave is important, because this is at any rate a remarkable natural phenomenon both by its size and by its peculiar shape as a cave of stalactites.

“The present location of the village of Gunduk in a fertile valley rich with water allows us to take for granted without hesitation and without consideration of the mound of ruins that here was from the oldest time a place of habitation which has been utilized as such. We can have an indication as to how far back these habitations go only by excavation.

“It is difficult to ascribe the relief itself to any definite time. The ill-contrived drawing of the lines can as well be ascribed to lack of skill as to their going back to very old age.

The relief can undoubtedly be said to be a creation of a settled people and not a victory monument of a conqueror. The meaning of the sketch shows clearly, therefore, a reproduction of a scene from the daily life of a mountain folk, and at most may be understood as an offering scene, in which case the cave would be perhaps a place of worship.

“It can be seen at once that the relief cannot be an Assyrian scene. The figures are all beardless, the skulls show a shape that is round, and straight, but strong noses. The sparse hair is twisted into braids from the porting line of the hair, when the skull is not, as in the middle figure, entirely bald.

“One is perhaps not wrong in supposing that the forefathers of the present day mountain Kurds, the “Kurti” of the Assyrian inscriptions were the executors of these reliefs and that the cave served them as a place of worship. Even today the pure Kurdish tribes of the mountains show a very similar type, bony and sinewy bodies, and round skulls with a sparse hair growth which is twisted into braids. Also the mound of ruins might so clarify itself that we may know from its Assyrian inscriptions of the campaigns of the great Assyrian kings against the “Kurti”, as well as of their subjugation.”