Suffocated with smoke. Massacre in Kan-Gohar Cave, Iran

The cruel commander Malek Ashraf attacked the town of Bavanat in 1342, during the civil war in Iran. The inhabitants of the town had hidden in a cave located nearby. Since their shelter was difficult to access the soldiers made a great fire at the entrance to the cave. The refugees could try to jump over the fire, straight into the hands of the attacking forces, but most were suffocated with the smoke. Modern archaeologists reveal tragic mysteries of the massacre by analysing burned bones found in the Kan-Gohar Cave.

Szczątki ludzkie (i kość zwierzęca) z irańskiej jaskini Kan-Gohar, obecnie w Ośrodku Medycyny Sądowej Prowincji Fars Fot. Mahsa Nadżafi
Human remains (and animal bone) from Iran’s Kan-Gohar cave,
currently at the Forensic Medicine Centre of Fars Province
photo: Mahsa Najafi

Iran became a part of the Mongol empire after the conquest by Genghis Khan in 1219-1231. The biggest cities of the country were ruined and the population decimated. When the Mongol state fell apart, Hulagu, Genghis Khan’s grandson, took over the power in Iran, which was later on held by his descendants of the Ilkhanid dynasty. After the death of the last of them in 1335, a war broke out between the local dynasties and was finished by the invasion led by Timur in 1382-1393.

One of the well-described episodes of this civil war is the expedition headed by Malek Ashraf, the ruthless Chobanid ruler of the city of Tabriz, located in north-western Iran. In spring and summer 1342 Ashraf led his troops almost all the way across western Iran to conquer the city of Shiraz. His army looted the towns situated on the way, one of them being Bavanat.

The people of Bavanat had already seen their town plundered by passing armed forces. Knowing how they might suffer, they took refuge in the Kan-Gohar Cave, a place that could not be accessed easily. In order to make them leave their shelter, Malek Ashraf had a great fire lit in front of the entrance to the cave. According to historical sources, this caused about two thousand people to die by suffocation.

Wejście do irańskiej jaskini Kan-Gohar. Z zewnątrz wygląda niepozornie, ale żeby się tam dostać, trzeba się przez ponad kwadrans wspinać po rumowisku skalnym. Możliwe, że żołnierze Maleka Aszrafa zrzucali chrust z góry, gdzie można dojść wygodną ścieżką. Fot. A. Sołtysiak.
Entrance to the Kan-Gohar Cave.
 It is not impressive looking from the outside, but to get there, you must climb a stone run for more than a quarter of an hour. Perhaps Malek Ashraf’s soldiers dropped the kindling wood from above, where they could walk along an easy path.
photo: A. Sołtysiak

Kan-Gohar Cave

Owing to its dramatic history, the Kan-Gohar Cave became a local tourist attraction. Excessive traffic resulted in rapid degradation of the preserved remains of the massacre in the cave. For this reason, the Forensic Centre of Fars Province explored the cave in 2010 and collected some human bones, including 47 skulls. Five years later Morteza Khanipour, an archaeologist from Tehran University, conducted further research in the cave. This time, he collected and described mainly leather and wooden artefacts.

A big assemblage of human bones mixed with faunal remains was identified in the main chamber of the cave, mostly in the proximity of the entrance, where there is also an enormous deposit of ash. The association of the human bones with the massacre in the cave in 1342 was confirmed independently by radio-carbon dating of one of the skulls.

Eksploracja wnętrza jaskini. Uwagę zwraca duża ilość popiołów oraz ślady sadzy (po lewej stronie). Fot. A. Sołtysiak
Exploration of the cave.
There are soot marks and a lot of ash (on the left).
photo: A. Sołtysiak

The bone deposit from the cave was analysed by Mahsa Najafi from Tehran University and by the author of this post in 2018. It consisted of 40 skulls and a few long bones. Most of the remains were discoloured, brown or black, some bore burning marks. Out of the 26 skulls identified as belonging to adults, 15 belonged to women and only two were identified as male. The assemblage also included skulls of children aged between 6 and 10 years.

Healed injuries were noted on three adult skulls. This is not surprising considering the dramatic events in that period. On the other hand, there are no signs of injuries that could have occurred just before the death or led to the death. This is all in line with reports written by historians, who agree with the suggestion that there was no fight in the Kan-Gohar Cave, but the fugitives from Bavanat who gathered there died of suffocation with smoke.

Archaeological research added a few new details to the historical accounts. Above all, it turned out that mostly women and children were the victims of the attack led by Malek Ashraf. Perhaps men had been taken to the army of the ruler of Shiraz earlier, or tried to organize the defence in Bavanat. The human remains were discovered quite close to the entrance of the cave, and a few skulls bear obvious burning marks, which might indicate that at least some of the people trapped in the cave tried to leave it despite the fire and smoke outside. However, the number of two thousand victims, reported in written sources, is definitely exaggerated. The main chamber of the cave could only accommodate 300-400 people, even at high crowding.

Kości ludzkie i zwierzęce w głównej komorze jaskini Fot. A. Sołtysiak
Human and animal bones in the main cave chamber
photo: A. Sołtysiak

Epilogue

The discovery from the Kan-Gohar Cave is a testimony of possibly the darkest period of the history of Iran. At that time nothing could be taken for granted and human life had no value for the rulers. Although Malek Ashraf, the initiator of the massacre of the people of Bavanat, won the war with the city of Shiraz and put his protégé on the throne, his rule ended in disaster. The state of the Chobanids, the dynasty of which Ashraf was a member, was conquered by the Golden Horde in 1357. Malek Ashraf tried to run away, but the hated ruler was captured and hanged in Tabriz by an order of Jani Beg, who was murdered soon after that himself. It was a time when even rulers rarely lived up to old age.

Some preliminary results of research on human remains from Kan-Gohar Cave have been published in Bioarchaeology of the Near East

This article may be freely reprinted without photographs, with reference to the source 

Author: Arkadiusz Sołtysiak

About the author: Arkadiusz Sołtysiak works at the Department of Bioarchaeology at the Faculty of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw and conducts numerous studies in the Middle East, including Syria, Iran and Lebanon.

Translator: Barbara Majchrzak

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