Ateshkads in Zoroastrian Temples of Central Asia

Issue #3-4 • 2358

He made prayers in ateshkad,
Giving sacrifice to the Most High.

One of the most interesting pages in the history of Central Asian architecture tells us about Zoroastrian temples. According to the cult requirements of this religion, temples had special altars to maintain eternal fire; these were called tashtak or ateshkad. N. Nemtsova and a number of other scholars noted that the eternal fire altar was immediately adjacent to the wall (Sogd, Khorezm) or positioned in the middle of the chamber (Ustrushana, Chach) (1, p. 144). Images of ateshkad-altars have been preserved on antique and early medieval coins, on murals and on the sides of early medieval burial boxes (2, pp. 108, 110-112, 116-117). Judging by these images, most of the ateshkads were structured vertically, and their upper and lower parts consisted of a number of slabs with increasing dimensions (Figure 1).

According to I. Azimov, ateshkads were 0.5-2 meters high and could have a simple or more complex structural composition. Complex seven-tier ateshkads shaped as columns rested on bases and terminated with a capital and sub-beam; flowing ribbons were hanging from their corners; in cross-section they had round or square shape. There are also ateshkads that combine both shapes. Azimov also argues that the rulers who minted coins featuring ateshkads professed Zoroastrianism (3, p. 14-25). Murals in Penjikent dwellings feature ateshkads in the form of conical props crowned with toroidal apex with toothed edges (4, pp. 15, 16) resembling a bronze bowl with a lid that, apparently, was to be removed before lighting the fire.

The props of some ateshkads resemble column trunk belted with “bolsters” and narrow recessed bands. In isolated cases the prop surface is decorated with horse-shoe-shaped tracery. Apparently, these patterns are an indication of an open-work, i.e. mesh-like structure, which significantly reduces prop weight. This gives grounds to a supposition that such ateshkads were handled (Figure 2).

The shape of some ateshkads was close to a cube; this is proven by a specimen discovered at Dalverzintepa (5, pp. 33-35). The positioning of this ateshkad in the temple is shown in a simulated design.

Let us look at the vertical ateshkads pictured on the sides of burial boxes, astadan: in their hands rulers and dignitaries are holding ateshkads that are much shorter than human height and have rather small and elegant prop. One gets an impression that these cult items functioned as candlesticks, lamps or torches. Hence the inference that they were not intended to hold any significant stock of firewood to maintain eternal fire.

Let us review the ateshkads of Zoroastrian fire-worshipers from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani scholars argue that Gyz Galasy (Maiden’s Tower) architectural monument, which is more than thirty meters high, was once a temple with eternal fire burning on its rooftop. To keep the fire going, local ateshkads were fed with gas or liquid petroleum supplied via pipes (6, pp. 87-113). A tower-shaped temple with eternal fire maintained on its rooftop was also found in Iran (7, p. 327).

Ancient sources contain information that in the environs of Baku people worshiped the so-called khud-suz, flames that burn by themselves. For example, in Nizami Gyanjevi’s poem there are verses telling of a place where a fire is burning amid rocks, and people call it khud-suz. Near this fire a hundred of kharpat made prayers, and the fire-worshipers held this flame sacred (8, p. 598).

The design of altars pictured on the sides of Central Asian astadans allows an assumption that in order to maintain eternal fire these could also use liquid petroleum or gas, as the cult priests standing around an ateshkad hold small jars that could well be used to store some kind of fuel.

There is another detail that draws attention. The Videvdata section of Avesta tells a story about how fire asks a human being for help: “Rise, the master of the house! Gird your garments, wash your hand, take firewood and bring it to me, let me burn with pure timber fetched with well-cleansed hands. Tut Aji, the brood of the Devs, is ready to fight me and wants to take my life!” (9, p. 109).

Based one the above, the following conclusion can be drawn: small dimensions and graceful look of ateshkads pictured on the sides of astadan can likely be explained by the fact that the artist chose to interpret them symbolically; the actual size of ateshkads was of secondary importance to him. Another explanation is also plausible. According to E. Doroshenko, temples of fire had their own hierarchy, i.e. every ruler who took power had his own eternal fire that was maintained in portable ateshkads and was carried out of the temple on reception days (10, p. 32).

Sogdian ossuaries bear portraits of Ameshaspents (Miankal), priests, heavenly devs (Mullakurgan), fravash (Samarqand), palace servants, the scenes of daily palace life – rituals, feasts, receptions, etc., and the portraits of rulers mentioned in Avesta and known in the Persian world (11, p. 50). Small dimensions of ateshkads held in the hands of characters pictured on the ossuary walls suggest that originally these items were handles and moved from adrian to dar-i-mehr – praying chambers. This justifies not only symbolical, but also functional purpose of these altars. Yet, assuming that, first, the ossuaries bear the pictures of burial scenes and that the deceased is holding a small ateshkad with eternal fire, it is then quite possible that the picture represents the departure from this world with the dead having his own fire. Second, this might be the picture of ateshkads specifically intended for dar-i-mehr. Third, in the areas where natural fuel was available – something like liquid petroleum, – natural fuel substance was used to feed eternal fire. And in places where such sources did not exist or were not developed, firewood was used; to keep the fire going, they additionally used special combustible liquid – the one that was stored in the depicted small jars. According to M. Filanovich, it was sandal oil (12, p. 154).

In Khorezm they found a rather low ateshkad, only slightly raised above floor level, which in plane resembles a conventionalized human figure (9, pp. 105-112). The design of this ateshkad indicates that it was intended to temporary maintain the sacred fire. Similarity between this sacred hearth and the structure of a human body, as well as the presence of rhomboid ornamentation have led scholars to a conclusion that it was identified with symbolic notions of maternal fire, a female guardian of fire or the synthesis of concepts of matrimonial union (9, p. 109). This hearth, with its shape and associated rites, symbolizes the aspiration of family members to wellbeing, peaceful coexistence, love and fidelity (Figure 3).

Also occurring quite frequently are ateshkads, which in plane have the shape of a circle or a square. In the chambers and the yard of a Bronze Age temple discovered in Jarkutan settlement (Surkhandarya Province) they found six altars with rounded foundation and two square in plane, which were positioned is different micro-situations: one in chamber, others under the sky in the yard on a platform (13, p. 70). As these ateshkads were located in temples, T. Shirinov refers to them as altars (13, p. 71). Horse-shoe-shaped ateshkads have been found in Kum area in the upper reaches of Zarafshan (14, p. 102, Figure 24). Above ateshkads positioned right up against chamber walls, niche-like recesses were created in the shape of altars (mikhrab). In this case the ateshkads had rounded, rectangular or horse-shoe shapes. As an example, let us look at a mikhrab that was found during excavation of the 7th-8th century settlement Gardani Khisor in the upper Zarafshan, reconstructed by Y. Yakubov. On either side the ateshkad of this monument is marked with decorative half-columns completed with an arch above them. The half-columns clearly feature elements such as base, kuzagi, and a capital. The upper part of the niche is decorated with vegetable ornamentation. Adjacent to the wall of the mikhrab is a short ateshkad.

Similar mikhrabs were also installed in residential buildings of Pyanjikent. Mikhrab in these rooms, with its lush decorum and sufs, gave the whole interior the air of solemnity and spirituality. A person sitting next to it could keenly feel this unusual atmosphere.

Rectangular, rounded and semicircle ateshkads, as well as horse-shoe-shaped ones, bore a symbolic content (Figure 4). In the process of studying ateshkads and comparing them to the similar objects of ancient India, A. Mandelshtam arrives to a conclusion that here every hearth of such shape perform different social and ideological function. The first one is garkhapatya or “the fire of the master of the house”, i.e. a house altar of rounded shape, which was genetically connected to the function of the woman, the guardian of the hearth. The second is akhavaniya, the sacrificial fire, where sacrifices to gods were made. It was square in shape and was essentially priestly, public and immediately related to the function of men. The third was fire dakshina, “southern”, that mainly performed the function of protecting against evil and danger. Its altar was semicircle in shape (15, p. 126). Mandelshtam refers to another fact that deserves attention. He noted that in Ertatulkhara burials the models of round altars were found in women’s graves, and square ones in men’s (15, pp. 8-46, 126). T. Shirinov, complementing the aforementioned facts with his own observations, comes to the idea that ateshkads discovered in the temple yard in Jarkurtan, square in plane, were priestly; and those inside the chamber were of men; the semicircle recess was a protective altar, and the outer circle was associated with female origin (13, pp. 76, 77).

D. Akhundov identifies tier-structured ateshkads with the tree of life. According to him, the narrowing towards the top tiered foundation of ateshkad symbolizes mountains; its vertically aligned part positioned on its surface represents earth that is the continuation of the tree of life theme; and the fire burning at the top in a tiered vessel represents Arat, the world of bliss, i.e. the place on earth where Akhura Mazda dwells (6, p. 113). We assume that similar symbolism was characteristic of joss-houses of the same shape in Central Asia as well (Figure 5).

Therefore, ateshkads and sufs, despite their structural simplicity, played an important role in the interior. They gave a particular solemnity to the temple interior, emphasising the significance of the place as a cult sanctuary. In Zoroastrian temples sacred mikhrab and ateshkads were functionally and compositionally harmonious with inscriptions, painted panels and other types of mural decoration. All this cultivated in people trust in the power of beauty and good, and helped them be confident about the future. According to Zoroastrian teaching, eternal fire burning in ateshkad inside the temple was linked not only with the person’s social life, but also with his spiritual life and the secrets of his soul.


  • Figure 1. Sogd. Yerkurgan. Model of temple interior created by Abdujabbar Nazilov and the author of this article based on axonometric model of the interior of a structure of the first construction period created by N. Akhmejanova, V. Medvedeva and I. Lavreneva, as well as on the basis of graphic materials of R. Kh. Suleimanov.
  • Figure 2. Images of ateshkads on murals, and archaeological finds (according to A. Nazilov).
  • Figure 3. Khorezm. Jigarband. Model of temple interior created by D. Nazilov on the basis of a building layout performed by O. A. Vishnevskaya and Y. A. Rapoport.
  • Figure 4. Bactria. Kampyrtepa. Model of temple interior created by D. Nazilov on the basis of a building layout in the book titled “Tokharistan Expedition Materials”.
  • Figure 5. Sogd. Kurgantepe. Model of temple interior created by D. Nazilov on the basis of the layout of a building discovered by G. A. Pugachenkova.

Dodo Nazilov

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