The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Man-Made Mithra Temple
Razmjou & Babak Amin Tafreshi
Abstract: Niasar cave, with its entrance openings, located in gardens north of Niasar village, is a temple belonging to followers of Mitra (god of ancient Persia). The temple most probably dates back to the early Partian era. All but one of the chambers of the cave are man-made.
The Eid-ul-Adha ceremonies held in Niasar village, located 28 kilometers west of Kashan, is a proof that the people living in the region in ancient times believed in Mithraism and its sacrifice rite which was held in the temple.
The green and beautiful resort village of Niasar is located 28 kilometers west of Kashan. One of the roads leading to Niasar passes through Ravand (12 kilometers northwest of Kashan). Ravand is the last city on the road which connects Tehran to Kashan. At this city, an asphalted road branches from the main road towards the west and 20 kilometers away it reaches Niasar-Mashhad Ardehal juncture. From this juncture, a road runs eight kilometers to reach Niasar village and another road goes to Mashhad Ardehal (the shrine of Sultan Ali where carpet washing ceremonies are held, and the tomb of famous Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri) and then to Delijan on Tehran-Isfahan road. By using a motor vehicle, one can get to Niasar village through Ravand juncture.
The green village of Niasar, located at the center of a desert region, has a beautiful scene. In January and February, blossoms of almond trees add to the beauty of the village.
Niasar Fire Temple
A building with a dome over a rock at the highest point of Niasar village can be seen from distance. This is the same penthouse that has remained intact since the time of Sassanid dynasty. The book, Qom-Nameh reads: "Niasar which has been founded by Ardeshir Babakan, is also known as Niansar."
The road to Niasar is divided into two ways beside the orchards of Niasar. The left route leads to the village and the right one built for access to the stone mine goes past the fire temple. This stretch of road has become rugged and bumpy as a result of the transport of heavy duty mining equipment to the region. Villagers call the upper part of Niasar "Talab" and the lower part "Darab". The fire temple overlooks Talar.
The penthouse is 14 by 14 meter building which contains a chamber with a dome over it. There are no walls on the four sides of the chamber. The fire temple has been made of stones put together with a mortar of plaster. The stones used in the lower part of the building are normal and those used in the arches and in the upper parts are square-shaped, looking like big bricks.
The lower parts of the building have been coated with plaster in recent years. All walls surrounding the fire temple are likely to have been decorated with stucco carvings in the past.
The main dome of the fire temple collapsed in previous eras. Before the revolution, the dome was reconstructed thanks to the efforts of Colonel Bahonar from the Ministry of Culture and Art. However, the dome of the temple has been modeled on Islamic era domes while according to the famous French archaeologist Andre Godar, the main dome had been like an egg.
Around a number of fire temples there used to be a number of other premises where Zoroastrian monks gathered together for worship. Although it is not known whether this building was used for this purpose, there are rows of stones laid together near the fire temple which are remnants of a building belonging to the Sassanid era.
Since the fire over the Niasar penthouse could be seen from distance, the building might have had a symbolic role. One of such fire temples, is Kohneh Dezh or Khorram Dasht penthouse around the city of Kashan. Nothing has been left of the dome of the fire temple but its slanting ceilings were reconstructed a few years ago.
Magnificent premises used to surround the fire temple of which only some small pieces of stone can now be seen on the ground. A few meter down the fire temple, a spring of cool and clear waters flows through the Talar mosque and goes on to the village. It is surprising that running waters exit beside many other fire temples. Some of them bear signs of worshiping Anahita, the goddess of cultivation and fertility.
There is an interesting point in the structure of the fire temple and that is some of the stones used in the building has an older and different cut than others. This stone had been quarried from a cave down the temple for use in the construction of the fire temple. This reveals the fact that the Niasar cave is older than the fire temple.
The villagers call the cave as Talar cave or Surakh Reis. In one of the gardens of the upper parts of Niasar, the main openings of the cave lead to inside the rocks.
The Niasar cave is thoroughly man-made (except for one or two natural chambers near the entrance openings). No doubt that the cave had been a Mitra temple. Its first cut possibly dates back to the Partian era. Most Mitra temples like the Niasar cave have been built in full darkness. This cave has other entrance openings, some of which are located inside a rock which separates the upper parts of Niasar from the lower neighborhoods. These openings which face the north along with the Niasar water fall make a beautiful scene visible from the village.
The signs of water erosion on the rocks bears testimony to the fact that the cave had been a scenic area in the times immemorial. The Niasar water fall is another proof that the cave had been a temple belonging to the followers of Mithraism. Down the water fall, there are two millstones and surprisingly one or two similar millstones can be seen deep inside the cave.
No doubt that the existence of these stones inside a dark and thrilling cave had not been for milling wheat but had rather been used for turning wheels during sacrifice ceremonies according to Mithraism rites.
According to Mr. Sheikhli, who has visited many caves throughout Iran, these stones were used as a cap to close the entrances to the small chambers of the cave. Current of air circulates throughout the cave well. One of the deepest wells inside the cave is 10 meters deep. In order to walk in most passages, corridors and even in small chambers of the cave, one has to creep and crawl. Even in some parts, the path is so narrow that it is not possible for one to pass through without stooping.
The cave had a big entrance opening which was destroyed in the 1980 earthquake. Parts of the cave were also collapsed onto the gardens located below it in the quake. Most earthenware objects inside the cave date back to the Sassanid era and some belong to the Partian period. However, some Islamic era pottery works can be seen around the openings of the cave.
On the rooftop of the cave, there are remnants of a building belonging to the Qajar period. Many fabulous stories are told by local people including one about how the stoneworker who made the cave has been spellbound and that the sound of his ax pounding the stone can be heard from inside the cave.
A Unique Ceremony in Niasar
The Eid-ul-Adha (Al-Adha feast) held in Niasar lends proof to the fact that people living in the region in the olden times believed in Mithraism.
You may have seen the symbolic picture of Mithra while slashing the throat of a cow. This picture is more seen in the beads left from that period or in churches and other monuments in Europe, though Mithraism spread from Iran to India and other places in the world. At dawn of the feast day, local people according to their old tradition ornament a cow and sacrifice it in appreciation of God Almighty in a special ceremony held near the fire temple.
There is no hotel or other accommodation facilities in Niasar where visitors can stay and they can stay in the small mosque of the village. The nearest and most comfortable place for visitors to stay there at night is the city of Kashan which is not far from Niasar.
In Niasar village, the signs of the Sassanid period can be seen more or less in earthenware objects left from that period. Like other unprotected ancient places in Iran, signs of illegal excavations are obvious in this village too.
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