Atashgah of Khinalig: the highest fire temple of the world by admin
Over the last 1,300 years due to religious persecution the number of the Zoroastrian fire temples has steadily declined in Greater Iran. They were destroyed or converted into mosques. In the XIX-XX centuries the persecution of Zoroastrians was ceased, but the number of fire temples with permanently burning fire remained the same. But today, with the joint efforts of Zoroastrians of the world, the situation has begun to change: the abandoned fire temples are getting a makeover.
Azerbaijan, the land of flames
Azerbaijan is one of the countries where Zoroastrianism spread. Earliest mention of Zoroastrianism in this region dates back to the Sassanian era, when these fire temples were found.
Mobed Kartir (III c.) wrote in “Kabah of Zartusht”:
“And from earliest times onward for the sake of the Yazads and noble lords and for my own soul’s sake, I, Kartir, saw much trouble and toil. And I made prosperous many fires and magi in the empire of Iran. And I also, by command of the King of Kings, put in order those magi and fires which were for the territory outside Iran, wherever the horses and men of the King of Kings arrived the city of Antioch and the country of Syria and what is beyond Syria, the city of Tarsus and the country of Cilicia and what is beyond Cilicia, the city of Caesarea and from the country of Cappadocia to Galatia, and the country of Armenian and Georgia, and Albania, and from Balaskan to the Alans’ pass. And Shahpuhr, King of Kings, with his own horses and men visited with pillaging, firing, and havoc. But I did not allow damage and pillaging, and whatsoever pillaging had been made by any person, those things I had taken away and returned to their own country”
Atashgahs with eternal burning natural flames of oil and gas (methane) are an unusual characteristic of Azerbaijan. The Atashgah located near Baku in Surakhani is considered the most popular Atashgah with its natural flame. According to local tradition, atashgahs are constructed as chahartaq – dome with four arches.
Natural burning flame of Atashgah near Baku (chahartaq structure)
Unlike modern fire temples where the sacred fire is hidden from strangers, in the ancient times too, Zoroastrians kept sacred fire in open altars such as chahartaqs. Design of chahartaqs provides fresh air flow and traction of combustion products.
Chahartaqs served the people not only as atashgahs (“the places of fire”), but also as a solar calendar. It is a well known fact that the change of seasons plays a very important role in agriculture. Change of seasons depends on the sun’s position (vernal equinox) which determines the beginning of sowing. Periodic monitoring of sunrise using chahartaq as an astronomically calibrated structure helps in the observation of the sun’s rays at characteristic points. This helps to determine the days of the most important agricultural dates.
Orientation and structure of chahartaq helps to determine the days of solstices and equinoxes
Great Parsi scholar Shams-Ul-Ulma Dr. (Sir) Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, in his book “Maari Mumbai Bahaarni Sehel” (“My Journey outside Mumbai”) wrote about Azerbaijan and its natural flame fire temples (“Aatash Kadehs”):
“In our ancient literary works, there are references of the worship of fire emitting directly from earth. In all the various types of fires, one fire has been described which burns without any fuel. This is the same fire of the natural gas wells which burns night and day without any fuel…
…in ancient times, there were a number of Aatash Kadehs in this country similar to the natural gas fire in Baku and in other places…”
Great Parsi scholar Shams-Ul-Ulma Dr. (Sir) Jivanji Jamshedji Modi in Baku. Photo from “Maarif va madaniyyat” magazine, November, 1925
As Shams-Ul-Ulma Dr. (Sir) Jivanji Jamshedji Modi noted that the Atashgah of Baku is not the only one, there were the others too. The ruins of the natural flame Atashgah were also there in the mountains 200 km far from Baku, 5 km away from Khinalig village.
Mountain road to Khinalig village
Khinalig is located high up in the mountains of Quba district of Azerbaijan and is quite arduous to reach. It is located at an altitude of 2200 meters and 57 km away from Quba. This village is famous due to its isolated language, peculiar customs and traditions. The Khinalig village territory was declared as a natural reserve by the Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev. Most of the territory is covered by subalpine and alpine meadows. It has mountain weather conditions and the average air temperature in July is +12°C; the first snowfall begins in early October.
Village of Khinalig (bird’s view)
The Khinalig population is Muslim; their religious views are a combination of Muslim and Zoroastrian beliefs. Fire is worshipped and respected by the Khinalig population.
Street at Khinalig village
Ruins of the natural flame of the Atashgah are located 5 km away from Khinalig village and 1000 m high (at an altitude of ~3000 m) on the slopes of Shah-dagh mountain (“Mountain of king” in Azeri). Therefore it is the highest Atashgah in the world. The Atashgah was known in Middle Ages and was located towards the far northern part of the Sassanian empire. Local legend mentions that Pir Jomard “who lived 1000 years ago” (in IX-X century) was the last known priest at the Atashgah.
Ruins of the Atashgah with natural burning flame at Shah-dagh mountain near Khinalig village
The tradition to build fire temples on hill tops and mountains is known since ancient times. Atar Gushasp was placed on Mount Asnavand in Ataropatakan (i.e. Azerbaijan). The Zoroastrian custom of praying at the highlands was described by Herodotus in the V century BC. One such ancient fire temple on a mountain top (“atashgah”) is located near Isfahan.
Atashgah on the mountain in Isfahan
Ruins of another fire temple, located at the top of Kuh-e Kvaja in Sistan, can be traced back to the Parthian period.
The sacred precinct of Kuh-e Ḵvaja
As it is mentioned in “Qissa-i Sanjan” under threat of war and Muslim raids, Parsi priests moved the Atash Bahram fire in the Bahrot mountain caves.
Cave in Bahrot Mountain where the Iranshah fire was kept for 13 years
Apparently, Atashgah of Khinalig is located on a field of methane clathrate (supramolecular compound of methane and water). Clathrate looks like snow and becomes easily destructible into water and methane. Therefore there is a little spring near the Atashgah with burning methane flame.
Spring near the Atashgah
In V-VI centuries Shahinshahs of Iran built fortresses and cities here. The most famous was Shah Khosrau I Anoshirvan, who built a number of cities in the region (Darband, Shabran and others.) In honor of the Shah the highest mountain (4243 m) of the region got its name “Shah-Dag”. There were many Zoroastrians during the Sassanid period. Therefore there is not only the Atashgah, but also a dakhma with bones, which is located 40 km away from the Atashgah. Local people call it “Dev-Gala” (“Tower of the devils”).
Dakhma (“Tower of silence”) located 40 km away from the Atashgah of Khinalig
In the VII century the Arab Caliphate army invaded Azerbaijan. Atashgahs fell into disrepair, but their natural flame continued to burn…
1000 years after the Islamic conquest, Zoroastrians began to rebuild the abandoned fire temples in Azerbaijan. Thus, in the XVII-XVIII centuries, Atashgah of Surakhani near Baku was restored.
Steps of restoration:
The World Zoroastrian Organization decided to restore the Atashgah near Khinalig. In accordance with ancient tradition, it was planned to restore the Atashgah using natural stone as the chahartaq structure.
After obtaining permission from the authorities we launched reconstruction work. Due to mountain weather conditions, reconstruction could only be carried out in summer.
Since it was difficult to get accessibility to the Atashgah, building materials and tools were brought from Khinalig through the winding and narrow mountain trails. All this required careful and well-coordinated work.
Preparing place for foundation. At the background is the hunter lounge
Alignment of the site and laying the foundation stones was one of the most important steps as it had influence on further work to be carried out. In accordance with tradition, chahartaq was oriented to the cardinal directions.
Digging the foundation. Open flame is under the boulder for safety reasons
Sand and natural stone was collected 3 km downstream, at the foot of the mountain. Cement was used as the binder. Fire place was fenced with stone as well as in tandoor.
Concrete–stone foundation of chahartaq
The first rows of the masonry were dried on day one, then the mason began to build the next set of rows. To build high walls completely in a day is dangerous, because it can cause the collapse of the whole structure. Masons used plummet to control the straightness of the walls.
Corner piers (following days)
For the construction of arches, masons used an arc-shaped plywood sheet that allowed stacking of the stones in a circle. The height of the arches is 2 meters and allows any tall man to pass under them.
After the construction of the arches, the building was left to dry again to acquire the necessary strength.
Construction of arches
The restoration process was made complicated by the weather several times. Heavy rains washed away the roads and made it difficult to travel. Once the rain was so heavy that it caused the Gudyalchay river to overflow.
The river demolished the bridge linking Khinalig with civilization and washed away roads. Restoration of all communication took about two weeks, and then we could continue with the work. Despite all the unfavourable weather conditions, work was completed successfully.
Natural disasters during restoration
When the arched walls were ready, we constructed the horizontal overlap with a dome in the center.
The construction of the dome foundation
The last stage was the construction of the central dome. It has four holes to improve the exhaust of natural gas combustion products. This ensures that the flame of the Atashgah reaches up and becomes more visible from a distance. According to Shirvan architectural traditions, the dome has pyramidal shape.
The construction of the dome
The construction process was completed with landscaping of the adjacent territory and the nearby spring.
Landscaping of the adjacent territory and the spring
So at the place of former ruins a traditional fire temple was restored. It reminds people to follow good thoughts, good words and good deeds. As it is mentioned in Menog-i Khrad (“Spirit of Wisdom”): “Which land is the happier? The spirit of wisdom answered thus: That is the happier, in which a righteous man, who is true-speaking, makes his abode. The second, in which they make the abode of fires…”
Atashgah of Khinalig after restoration
Farroukh Jorat (name at birth – Akper Aliev, variant of spelling Akbar Aliyev) is an aerospace engineer and professor of material science at the National Aviation Academy (Baku, Azerbaijan).
He was born in Baku in 1978 and in 1985 moved in Moscow, Russia. Post graduated in Bauman State Technical University (2001), worked there as an assistant and then at “Tupolev” Aircraft Design Company as an aerospace engineer. He was initiated into Zoroastrianism in Moscow in 2005 by Mobed Kamran Jamshidi and Anjoman Bozorg Bazgasht. Since 2010 he lives in Baku.
Farroukh is best known for his contributions in research of the history of Zoroastrianism in CIS countries and is a member of Russian Anjoman (blagoverie.org). Farroukh is a Life Member of The World Zoroastrian Organization.
Contact e-mail: [email protected]