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Azar Goshnasp: An ancient Zoroastrian city and temple
(Western Azarbaijan, Iran)*


















Although it has only recently been explored by archaeologists, the Temple of Azar Goshnasp was one of the oldest and most important fire temples in ancient Iran, dating from the Achaemenian, Parthian, and Sassanian dynasties to the Mongol Era.  The Temple of Azar Goshnasp was important to the Zoroastrian faith for the following reasons:

  1. There were six holy fire-altars within the temple of Azar Goshnasp, one which warriors and royal family members used.  Whenever Persian warriors would embark for battle, they visited their special fire-altar for spiritual strength and guidance. 

  2. A portion of the Holy Cross of Jesus was once retained in the temple, as were 325 war banners.  Each of these banners represented a Persian victory in a battle during the Persian-Roman War.

  3. According to Arab historians and travelers, one of the six fire-altars in the temple produced a mystical flame that never extinguished and produced no ashes.  This particular flame was called “The Fire of Javidan.”

The city of Azar Goshnasp was used as a religious center by the Parthians from 200 BC to 300 C.E.    During the time when the city was under Parthian control, Mark Anthony suffered defeat in the Persian-Roman War in 36 BC.  There is evidence that this war reached the outskirts of Azar Goshnasp, for Roman coins depicting Anthony’s figure were found in the region (Takab Afshar: 1995).  After the fall of the Parthians to the Sasanians, Azar Goshnasp became known as the “Holy City of Warriors and the Royal Family”.

Azar Goshnasp was looted and partially destroyed by Heraclites, emperor of Rome, in 628 C.E.  In his plundering of the city, Heraclites stole the portion of the Holy Cross of Jesus and all of the Persian victory banners from the temple of Azar Goshnasp.  He took these items to Rome, where the remnants of these objects can still be found today.

According to various Persian and Arab historians, the sacred flame of the temple of Azar Goshnasp blazed from the establishment of the temple until the 12th century.  One such historian, Masoodi (Al-tanbih W’al Ashraf, 10th century) discusses a map of the world and astronomical patterns of the sky painted on the ceiling of the Tagdis, in this temple.  Mosar-e-ibn-Mohalhel, a traveler, explained that a large lake lay in the center of the city in 11th century C.E.  He measured and recorded the width, length, and depth of the lake.

Mohalhel’s description of the temple states that all fire temples in Iran obtained their holy fires from the sacred flame of Azar Goshnasp.  He also reported that the fire in the temple had been burning for over 700 years.  In addition, Mohalhel stated that Azar Goshnasp was a place that attracted Zoroastrian pilgrims and travelers of other religions as well.

In the 11th century, Ferdowsi, one of the greatest poets in Iranian history and the author of the Epic of Kings (ShahNameh), described the temple of Azar Goshnasp.  Rostam Farrokhzad's letter addressed to his brother, as reflected in the ShahNameh, provides the best artistic description of the temple.

The work of Hamdullah-Mustawfi (13th century) illustrates the destruction of Azar Goshnasp when the Mongols invaded the holy city. He reported that the Mongols burnt and tore down existing buildings, constructing their own palace and religious school in Azar Goshnasp.  Yet, one of the few buildings that remained after the takeover of the city was the fire temple.

Hamdullah Mustawfi, writing during the Mongol period, stated that the Mongols called Azar Goshnasp “Setorogh”.  Furthermore, Mustawfi’s works say that the Mongol palace in the city was constructed by the order of Abaqa-Khan, the son of Hulagu Khan.   A careful description of Azar Goshnasp by Mustawfi, reveals a lake at the center of the city and two small rivers, originating from the lake and flowing beyond the city’s outskirts.  According to Mustawfi, the temperature of the lake’s water remained constant for the duration of the year.  Recent testing of the lake’s temperature supported Mustawfi’s findings.  In addition to the lake, both small rivers Mustawfi described still exist today.  From a bird’s eye view they form a shape of a dragon around the city.

Azar Goshnasp faded away after the 12th century, becoming a lost and forgotten city as time passed.  It was not until 1819 (after Anglo-Iranian treaty of 1814) when Robert Ker Porter, a military officer, rediscovered the site.

In 1840, a British scholar and military officer, Henry Rawlinson, visited the site Porter had explored in what is now western Azarbaijan, Iran. Rawlinson was the first scholar to identify the city and fire temple as being the ancient holy city of Azar Goshnasp (Rawlinson, 1841).

From 1840-1960, scholars from Germany and the United States, such as Schindler (Germany, 1881), Jackson (USA, 1903), and Stahl (Germany, 1907), visited the Azar Goshnasp site.  In 1937, the first pictures of the city were obtained when E.F. Schmidth photographed it from the air.  That same year, Smith and Pope (1937) drew a map of Azar Goshnasp based upon Schmidt’s pictures.  From 1958-1964, Germany’s Naumann studied and excavated the site.  However, he recorded only those objects and artifacts which appeared important to him.   His method of total excavation did not follow the archeological methods of excavation at the time.  The discovery of almost 1800 seals and other artifacts were of historical importance.  One of the seals carried the symbol of a Mobad-e-Mobadan, the religious superindendent of Azar Goshnasp.

In June 1999, the writer of this paper visited the Azar Goshnasp site.  During this visit, Mr. Matloobi, a young Iranian archeologist, reported new information about Azar Goshnasp, particularly about the excavation and repair of the buildings belonging to the Mongol Era.  However, our observations of the site showed that the excavation currently taking place in Azar Goshnasp is nothing more than a mere treasure hunt.  In addition, Mr. Matloobi and fellow archaeologist Mr. Moradi are relatively inexperienced Iranian archeologists who are unfamiliar with modern methods of excavation.  Their lack of knowledge of current excavation techniques, coupled with the greed of treasure hunters, make it very difficult in restoring and learning about so important a part of ancient Iranian culture.

During our visit, we looked for a natural gas deposit within the city of Azar Goshnasp.  A traveler to the city, Ibn-e-Mohalhel, once stated that “The fire of the Holy Temple is burning, yet we cannot see ashes.” His statement led to the formulation of our hypothesis that the fire came from a natural gas source.

We explained our hypothesis to Mr. Matloobi, the site archeologist, on the afternoon of June 11, 1999.  The explanation of our theory to him could have come at no better a time, for he had just recently made a startling discovery: an underground ceramic pipeline beneath the temple.  The interior of the pipe-work had been glazed, possibly to prevent its deterioration over time.  Our theory allowed for Mr. Matloobi to explain the reason for this pipeline to have been constructed.

Figure 2. below (photograph taken at the ruins of the temple) shows perhaps the first ever natural gas pipeline network constructed in the world underneath the temple of Azar Goshnasp. 


  • Ibn-Khordadbih. Almasalek va Almamalek. TransHossein Gharachonlou, Tehran: Khorshidi: 1370.

  • Ghasveni, Zakaria, Asarolbalad and Akhbarolabad. Trans. Mir Hasheme Mohadeth, Tehran: Ameir Kabir, Khorshidi: 1373.

  • William Jackson, A.V.  Persia, Past and Present. Trans. M. Amiri and F. Badrehie, Tehran: Kharazmi Publishing Co., third Eds. Khorshid: 1369.

  • Mohammadi,Ali. History of Takab Afshar. Tehran: Eman , Khorshidi: 1376.

  • Masoudi, Ali-ibn-Hossein, Altanbih w’al Ashraf. Trans. Abolghasem –e-Payandeh, Tehran: antesharat Almi and Farhangi, second ed. Khorshidi: 1365.

  • Mustawfi, Hamdullah.  Noshatolgholob. Trans. Mohammad Dabir Siaghi, Tehran: Tohori,  Khorshidi: 1336.

  • Rawlinson, Henry C.  Notes on a Journey to Takhti-Soleiman and on the Site of the Atropatenian Ecbatana, Journal of Royal  Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 10, p: 1-158, London, 1841.

  • Yarshater, Ehsan, Ed.  Encyclopedia Iranica. Vol.3, London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1989.

  • Lost Civilizations, Persians: Masters of Empire. Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1995.


[Owing to the sad demise of the author, the editors have chosen to reproduce the abstract as submitted.]

Within the historical site of the ancient city of Azar Goshnasp lie the Atashkadeh, or Fire Temple, and the Temple of the Goddess Anahita, the Goddess of water and fertility. These are two of the biggest and most impressive Zoroastrian religious temples in Iran.  The new discovery of symbolic seals within both temples and the glazed ceramic gas pipeline leading to the center of the Fire Temple shows that these two structures may be older than was previously thought.             

The site of Azar Goshnasp is divided into two parts:

  1. Zendan-e- Soleiman (Prison of Solomon)

  2. Takht-e-Soleiman (Throne of Solomon)

In this study we will examine the latter, Takht-e-Soleiman (Throne of Solomon), in two sections. 

  1. The site characteristics will be explained.

  2. The Fire Temple of Azar Goshnasp and the recent discovery of a glazed ceramic pipeline under the Fire Temple will be discussed. 

Surrounding this site is a wall estimated to date from the 3rd century AD.  The height of the wall around the site is approximately 6 yards, and the width is about 5 yards.  This massive defensive wall is hollowed out of very thick stone.  Enclosed within this circular stone wall are the remains of the following buildings, according to their historical chronology:

  1. Temple of Goddess Anahita

  2. Azar Goshnasp Temple and Fire Altar and probably the gas pipeline

  3. Achaemenian site

  4. The Parthian (Ashkanian) Wall in the lower structure of buildings

  5. The ruins of a Sasanian Palace, also known as the Khosro Parviz Palace

  6. An additional, smaller Fire Temple, called the Atashgah

  7. A religious center with a dormitory

  8. Underground pathway going around the city

  9. A palace belonging to the Mongol period

  10. A beautiful lake (120 m by 80 m by 50 m) at the center of the city, which received its water from underground streams

Among all of the above ruins, the site of the Azar Goshnasp Temple, also known as the Temple of Warriors, Military, and Royal Family, will be considered. Azar Goshnap holds something sacred in its beauty, nature, water, city planning and culture.  Athens and Rome are much younger cities and were not ritualistic.  Descriptions by Ferdowsi, the great poet of Iran and the author of the Shahnameh (Book of the Kings), and  Arab travelers, such as Ibn-e-Mohalhel, about the city and the Fire Temple will be examined.

* This paper is preliminary research dedicated to the memory of Mr. Jamshid Soroushian and was published in ĀTAŠ-E DORUN - The Fire Within, Jamshid Soroush Soroushian Memorial Volume II.  It was posted on vohuman.org, on March 17. 2005, courtesy of the coordinator of the memorial volume to honor the memory Dr. Eslami for her contribution to Ancient Iranian studies.