Gates of Alexander

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The Darial Gorge before 1906.
Dhul-Qarnayn with the help of some jinn, building the Iron Wall to keep the barbarian Gog and Magog from civilized peoples. (16th century Persian miniature).

The Gates of Alexander was a legendary barrier supposedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus to keep the uncivilized barbarians of the north (typically associated with Gog and Magog) from invading the land to the south. The gates were a popular subject in medieval travel literature, starting with the Alexander Romance in a version from perhaps the 6th century. The wall has been frequently identified with the Caspian Gates of Derbent, Russia (see below) and with the Pass of Dariel or Darial.

An alternative theory links it to the so-called "Alexander's Wall" (the Great Wall of Gorgan) on the south-eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, 180 km of which is still preserved today, albeit in a very poor state of repair.[1]

In reality, both structures were built by Persian monarchs. Derbent (in Persian دربند Darband, meaning "closed gates"), was established in the end of the 5th or the beginning of the 6th century, when the city was refounded by Kavadh I of the Sassanid dynasty of Persia. The Great Wall of Gorgan was built during the Parthian dynasty simultaneously with the construction of the Great Wall of China and it was restored during the Sassanid era (3-7th century)[2]

Literary background[edit]

The name Caspian Gates originally applied to the narrow region at the southeast corner of the Caspian Sea, through which Alexander actually marched in the pursuit of Bessus, although he did not stop to fortify it. It was transferred to the passes through the Caucasus, on the other side of the Caspian, by the more fanciful historians of Alexander.

Josephus, a Jewish historian in the first century, is known to have written of Alexander's gates, designed to be barrier against the Scythians. According to this historian, the people whom the Greeks called Scythians were known (among the Jews) as Magogites, descendants of Magog in the Hebrew Bible. These references occur in two different works. The Jewish War states that the iron gates Alexander erected was controlled by the king of Hyrcania (on the south edge of the Caspian), and allowing passage of the gates to the Alans (whom Josephus considered a Scythic tribe) resulted in the sack of Media. Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews contains two relevant passages, one giving the ancestry of Scythians as descendants of Magog son of Japheth, another that refers to the Caspian Gates being breached by Scythians allied to Tiberius during the Armenian War.[a][3]

Some versions (8th century) of the Alexander Romance makes mention of the Gates, contained in an interpolated chapter on the "Unclean Nations". Alexander watches his enemies flee through a pass between two mountains called the "Breasts of the North", and praying to God, makes the mountains move closer together to narrow the pass. There he builds the Caspian Gates out of bronze, coating it with fast-sticking oil. The gates enclosed twenty-two nations and their monarchs, inclucing Goth and Magoth (Gog and Magog).[4][5]

The Caspian Gates in Derbent, Russia are often identified with the Gates of Alexander

The story also appears in the Qur'an, Surat al-Kahf 83-98. Here, Alexander is called Dhul Qarnayn, a savior figure who builds a huge iron gate to defend people at the foot of two mountains from Gog and Magog.[6]

During the Middle Ages, the Gates of Alexander story was included in travel literature such as the Travels of Marco Polo and the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. The identities of the nations trapped behind the wall are not always consistent, however; Mandeville claims Gog and Magog are really the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who will emerge from their prison during the End Times and unite with their fellow Jews to attack the Christians. Polo speaks of Alexander's Iron Gates, but says the Comanians are the ones trapped behind it. He does mention Gog and Magog, however, locating them north of Cathay. Some scholars have taken this as an oblique and confused reference to the Great Wall of China, which he does not mention otherwise. The Gates of Alexander may represent an attempt by Westerners to explain stories from China of a great king building a great wall.[citation needed] Knowledge of Chinese innovations such as the compass and south-pointing chariot is known to have been diffused (and confused) across Eurasian trade routes.

The medieval German legend of the Red Jews was partially based on stories of the Gates of Alexander. The legend disappeared before the 17th century.


The Gates of Alexander are most commonly identified with the Caspian Gates of Derbent, whose thirty north-looking towers used to stretch for forty kilometers between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, effectively blocking the passage across the Caucasus.

Derbent was built around the world's only[citation needed] surviving Sassanid Persian fortress, which served as a strategic location protecting the empire from attacks by the Gokturks. The historical Caspian Gates were not built until probably the reign of Khosrau I in the 6th century, long after Alexander's time, but they came to be credited to him in the passing centuries. The immense wall had a height of up to twenty meters and a thickness of about 10 feet (3 m) when it was in use.

See also[edit]


Explanatory notes
  1. ^ Kleiber 2007.
  2. ^ Omrani Rekavandi, H., Sauer, E., Wilkinson, T. & Nokandeh, J. (2008), The enigma of the red snake: revealing one of the world’s greatest frontier walls, Current World Archaeology, No. 27, February/March 2008, pp. 12-22. PDF 5.3 MB. p. 13
  3. ^ Bietenholz 1994, p. 122.
  4. ^ Stoneman, Richard (tr.), ed. (1991), The Greek Alexander Romance, Penguin, pp. 185–187 
  5. ^ Anderson (1932), p. 11.
  6. ^ Dathorne, O. R. (1994). Imagining the World: Mythical Belief Versus Reality in Global Encounters. Greenwood. pp. 45–46. ISBN 0897893646. Retrieved February 5, 2013. 


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