The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
of Temple Cults
Dr. Oric Basirov
Zoroastrians in Iran and India, have only fire-temples.
communities again worshipped only in fire-temples throughout the Islamic period.
However, some of the fire-temples in Iran were dedicated to various Zoroastrian
deities, especially Anahita, Mithra, and Verethraghna (Bahram).
also seems to have been the case with the Sasanians for the greatest part of
their history, and virtually for the entire duration of their imperial period.
early Sasanians, however, are known to have been the hereditary guardians of the
temple of Anahita in Istakhr. Hence, at some stage during their early period,
temples housing sacred fires, and those containing divine images, must have
co-existed side-by-side. Nonetheless, the Sasanian iconoclastic movement is
known to have began very early in their history. This must have lead to the
removal of the divine images from their consecrated buildings, thus leaving the
fire-temples as the only places of worship. It is reasonable to assume that some
of the desecrated buildings were actually converted to fire-temples, hence,
greatly increasing their number.
the Parthian period, both the temple cult of fire and the temple cult of divine
images were observed side-by-side.
was also the case during the Seleucid era, especially in Asia Minor and
was also the case during the late Achaemenian period, especially from c.400 BC
scholars believe that early Achaemenians, Medes, and the Iranian peoples of the
pre-imperial period, whether sedentary, nomadic, eastern or western did not have
The assertions made on points 1 to 7 above are generally shared by most
scholars, and there seems little doubt about the 4th century dating of the
establishment of the temple cult of divine images, at least in Western Iran.
However, the commonly (See Wikender, S., Feuerpriester in Kleinasien und Iran,
Lund, 1946) held belief that the Iranians did not possess any temples at all,
even fire-temples, before 400 BC, is contradicted by a number of highly
controversial archaeological discoveries. The dramatic events of the 4th century
BC, therefore, make it necessary to treat this date as a significant dividing
line between the study of the early fire-cult, and that of the later
temple-cults. Starting this time the right-way-round, we shall first deal with
the history of the Iranian cult of fire until the beginning of the 4th century
BC Secondly, we shall examine the events leading to the establishment of the two
distinct types of temple, which separately housed the sacred fires, and the
IRANIAN CULT OF FIRE*
One could logically deduce from the above that the Gathas should have contained
references to a consecrated fire, and to a sacred place for its safe-keeping. It
is also reasonable to assume that at least a primitive temple cult of fire must
have existed in early Zoroastrian times which gradually developed into the
modern fire-temples. Unfortunately, one cannot substantiate either of these two
assumptions with irrefutable evidence.
In the surviving verses of the Gathas, there is no reference to a consecrated
fire, or to a special building or container to house, support, hold or transport
it. The second assumption is challenged on the one hand by a variety of
literally evidence, and upheld on the other by a number of archaeological
discoveries of what appear to be Zoroastrian temples. Such interpretation,
however, is strongly opposed by many scholars, who regard these temples as
either post 400 BC, or non-Zoroastrian (see below).
Nonetheless, there is little doubt about the existence of an Iranian fire cult
already in pre-Zoroastrian times. Moreover, in spite of the lack of reference in
the Gathas, one must assume that such veneration was strengthened further by the
teaching of Zoroaster. The chronology of the Iranian fire cult before the 4th
century BC, therefore, can be summarised as follows:
1) Nomadic Period - Scythians revered fire and carried it in clay pots. Nomadic Iranians continued with this practice until modern times. Used primarily for heating and cooking, the fire commands, nonetheless, an enigmatic reverence which must be a mystic legacy from a distant tribal memory. Wherever they pitched their tents, the Scythians, like their modern counterparts, must have started a larger fire on the ground, some of which was "put to sleep" under a thick layer of hot ash ready for the following day.
Fire - Household hearth fires not only acted as sources of warmth and places
of cooking for early settled Iranians, but as with other Indo-Europeans, they
were also a focus of veneration. Chieftains and petty kings, having audience
halls, must have had larger fire hearths. In these halls warriors would assemble
and hang their weapons on the walls, and a few of them say prayers to the hearth
fire ("Cyrus went home to pray to ancestral Hestia", Xenophon,
Cyropaedia I.vi.1. This may have led to the modern practice of hanging weapons
around the fire-temples). It is also reasonable to assume that people gathering
in priests' houses stood round their hearth fires. The hearth fires of the
rulers and the clergy, therefore, can be seen as early places of indoor communal
veneration, which may have contributed to the eventual establishment of the
fire-temples (royal tradition versus ordinary people).
Fire - The growth of the dominions of the kings and the congregation of the
priests must have increased the size of their houses and hearth fires. These,
can be safely assumed, were no longer used for cooking, but may have been a
source of warmth in winter. However, their purpose during the rest of the year
must have been ceremonial. They may have given rise to the cult of consecrated
fire, i.e., fire placed on a pedestal, or in a container, or carried outside to
a hilltop or a raised platform for no other purpose than religious ceremonies.
This cult seems to have lead to the establishment of royal fires
and Dynastic Fires, Several rock carvings from the Achaemenian and Sasanian
periods, and countless seals and coins depict the king standing before a
pedestal supporting a flaming fire. Fragments of some of these fire-holders have
actually been found in Pasargadae, and dated to the 6th century BC. They are
waist-high (112 cm) with a bowl hollowed out 13 inches, which is deep enough to
hold a thick bed of hot ash, and therefore capable of sustaining an ever-burning
fire (Boyce, M., A History of Zoroastrianism vol II, (HZII) Brill, 1982,
pp.51-53). Such fire-holders were evidently representative of the kings own
hearth or personal fire. Later, they became the monarchs' dynastic or regnal
fires. These fires were put out for the duration of the kings' funeral (Diodorus
of Sicily, XVII.114.4), and rekindled at the succession of their heirs (Boyce,
M., Zoroastrian Temple Cult of Fire, "Journal of the American Oriental
Society" (JAOS) 95.3; 1975, p.461). It is assumed that these holders were
surmounted by a metal fire-bowl, as the examples from Pasargadae show no signs
of charring (Boyce, HZII, pp.52-3). This would have enabled the fire to be
moved. Quintus Curtius Rufus describes the army of Darius III carrying a fire
upon a silver altar at the head of its march (III.iii.9). Xenophon reports that
the army of Cyrus the Great carried fire in a brazier (op. cit., VIII.iii.12).
Boyce believes that the same emperor moved his father's fire from Anshan, the
provincial Achaemenian capital, to Pasargadae, the newly-built centre of the
Persian Empire (op. cit., p.53). Later, at the beginning of the Sasanian times,
we have the evidence of the letter of Tansar, the chief minister of Ardashir I;
it states that after the death of Darius III, each local king built his own
dynastic fire (Boyce, M., The Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism
Manchester University, 1984, p.109). Sasanian emperors regarded the dynastic
fires as the main symbol of their kingship.
5) Open Air Fires - Hearth fires of the priests, and royal dynastic fires were often, placed on hilltops, man-made mounds, stone terraces and plinths for the purpose of communal public worship (A large number of archaeological discoveries associated with the open air fires has been examined by Boyce; see JAOS 95.3, pp.456-7). Strabo describes the 6th century BC Persian sanctuary in Zela (now Zila in northern Turkey) as a heaped up mound of earth over a rock which was walled in, but open to the sky (XI.viii.4). Two stone plinths recorded by Herzfeld in Pasargadae, and excavated by Stronach, were evidently never roofed and their enclosed walls are considered to be a later construction. Stronach regards them as fire-altars (Stronach, D., Excavations at Pasargadae, "IRAN" 3, 1965, p.28).
Brahmanic observance, having so much in common with Zoroastrian rituals, was
also without temples.
is no record of any pillage from any Iranian temple in Assyrian history.
Greek writers, such as, Heraclitus of Ephesus (c.500 BC), Herodotus (490-45 BC),
Strabo (63 BC - 19 A.D.) have clearly stated that early Achaemenians conducted
their worship without temples. Moreover, Cicero, who wrote 54-44 BC, states that
Xerxes after the fall of Athens thought it "a sacrilege to keep the gods,
whose house is the whole universe, shut up within walls", and that
"Persians considered representation of sacred statues in human form a
wicked custom (De Republica, III.ix.14).
Khwaja - Aurel stein discovered this roofed fire-temple on the Lake Hamun in
Sistan in 1916. It was excavated by Herzfeld and Gullini, and dated to early
Achaemenian times. Schippmann, however, has brought this date forward to
Seleucid or early Parthian period (Shippmann, K., The Development of the Iranian
Fire Temple, "5th International congress in Iranian Art &
Archaeology" Tehran, 1968, pp.353-362).
2) Tejen Delta - Soviet archaeologists have discovered several fire-temples in this area, giving some the staggering date of the fourth millennium BC These temples possess rectangular and circular alters showing traces of fire (Khlopin, I.N., On Genesis of Fire Temples in Ancient Iran, "5th Congress in Iranian Art & Archaeology", Tehran, 1968, pp.276-281). Some have been compared with the late Achaemenian temple in Susa, and with the Fratadara temple discovered by Herzfeld in Persepolis and later dated to the Seleucid period. Most western scholars, however, doubt the accuracy of the dating of these finds.
Nush-i Jan - Stronach excavated this eight century BC Median site near
Hamadan; he uncovered, in the lowest room of a tower-like windowless structure,
a massive plastered mud-brick alter; the waist-high, four-stepped top, shaped
like a shallow bowl, showed traces of burning. He admits that the bowl is too
shallow for an ever-burning fire; nonetheless he insists that it belongs to an
early Median temple housing a permanent fire (Stronach, D., Tepe Nush-i-Jan,
"IRAN" XI, 1973, pp.129-138). Boyce regards this building neither
Zoroastrian, and nor even Iranian, but probably Urartian.
Zardusht and Zindan-i Suleyman - These two sixth century BC tower-like,
windowless buildings are in Naqsh-i Rustam and Pasargadae respectively; they
have been compared with Tepe Nush-i Jan (Yamamoto, ibid (n.2) p.34). Many
scholars, however, such as, Wikander, Henning, and Boyce do not regard them as
Ghulâmân - Scerrato uncovered in 1962-3 an imposing 6th-5th century BC
temple in Sistan on the holy river Helmand (Av. Hâtumant) (Scerrato, U.,
Excavations at Dâhân-i Ghulâmân (Sistan-Iran), First Preliminary Report
(1962-3), "East and West" 1966, pp.9-30). The temple, once evidently
roofed, contains 3 large rectangular, 7 feet high altars built out of
mud-bricks, showing signs of burning. He called it a Zoroastrian fire-temple.
Both Schippmann (ibid) and Boyce (HZII, pp.128-31), however, doubt its
Zoroastrian identity, with latter regarding it as Elamite.
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