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Temple of Anahita in Bishapur
Where do I find the Fire Altar of this temple?

Visual Essays

Jamshid Varza

(Slide Show)

The road to Bishapur.
On  a beautiful spring day in 1999, I set out to visit the site of Bishapur, the ancient city built by Shapur I, Sassanian Emperor in celebration of his victory over his Roman adversaries. From Shiraz, the capital of Fars (Pars) province, it took me about two hours drive on the west bound highway to reach Bishapur site. This road passed by a beautiful and shallow lake called Parishan, fed by a small water fall. The latter part of the road went through several passes where mountain was covered by oak trees, an unusual and rare scene in Iranian landscape. Where the road sign indicated fifteen kilometers to the town of Kazerun the ruins of a majestic ancient site became visible; this was the site of Bishapur "the beautiful city of Shapur." Air was filled with orange blossom fragrance from a nearby orchard -- a fine product of the Fars region.

General view

Shapur river and Chogan pass.
In this location the river Shapur flows through the pass known as "Tang-e Chogan"; the river Shapur continues its flow through Bishapur and further westward. The large city walls and gate take us inside the site where Shapur's palace and temple complex are the focal points. Near the palace complex stairs take us down to the floor of a temple known as Anahita "the guardian angle of waters in Zarathushti religion." The structure of this fire temple has remained relatively untouched, for being covered by several feet of dirt till 1940s when French archeologist Roman Ghirshman excavated the site of Bishapur.

Where do I find the Fire Altar of this temple?
As I walked around this palace and temple complex, a question came to my mind -- "Where do I find the Fire Altar of this temple?" Sassanian Zarathushti kings held high regards for fire temples and maintained continuous burning fires in their altars.

Stairs from main floor

Romans settled in Persia.
In order to learn more about this site, I searched for a source of information from Sassanian era. The most important document relating to this subject is Shapur's inscription on eastern wall of the fire temple known as Ka'beh Zarathushtra in Naqsh-e Rostam near Persepolis. This rock carving depicts Shahpur's victory over three Roman Emperors -- Gordian III, Phillip and Valerian. This is the most important document from Shapur's reign, 241AD - 272AD, reveals some details of Shahpur's victory which he captured emperor Valerian alive and a large number of his soldiers (estimated 70,000), settled in various regions of Shapur's empire.

A number of findings from this site indicate Sassanian designs and patterns built using Roman techniques.  It is believed that a group of these Romans were artisans and builders were employed in building the site of Bishapur. This could explain the Roman influence at Bishapur buildings.

Floor view from entry

The Palace and Temple Complex.
The floor plan of this complex is shown below. The main entry to the temple is stairway in front of palace. The plan shows water from river Shapur is channeled into an under ground canal directed to the temple floor. The flow of water then continues to feed the town of Bishapur next to the complex.

(I shall write a future report on palace and other structures found in Bishapur.)

Main wall from floor view

Stairway to Temple floor General View

Bull shaped head stone

Acheamenian style in Sassanian monuments.
Sassanian kings believed to be from Achaemenian lineage, descendents of Cyrus the great who built and ruled the Persian Empire from 550BC - 330BC. Several documents from Ardeshir I, Shapur I and Shapur II clearly indicated this belief. Sassanian monuments used patterns and styles from Achaemenian monuments found in their homeland of Pars.

The bull shaped head stone on the fire temple is one example of Achaemenian style similar to Persepolis. The head stones were used to hold the wooden roof structure of the temple. The carving style of the bull head stone is quite similar to the column heads found in Persepolis.

Water canal access

Water Canals.
Water was directed from Shapur river using under ground water canals to the floor of the temple. As I looked around the temple floor to find remnants of the fire altar stone, I saw the ending points of the canals. They were built be stone and covered with stucco, a technique used in Roman building at the time.

Water canal access

My search in the area did not end in locating the fire altar of the temple. I wasn't ready to give up on the idea that the altar did not exist or could not be found.

I returned home and several months passed by till I set out to write this visual essay during November 2001. While working on this essay, the thought of finding the fire altar returned to my mind. This time my only tools were books and I was half the world away from this historic monument of Shapur I.

Ardeshir I, coin

Sassanian Coins.
I was reading through the "Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 3(1), p.337" where I saw pictures of several Sassanian coins from Ardeshir I and Shapur I era.

Sassanian coins are quite accurately identified and catalogued to give us an identification tool for each Sassanian king. From this source I could identify few coins from Ardeshir and Shapur all depicting king's profile on front and fire altar on the back. Perhaps this can be the proof to the importance of fire temples and altars to Sassanian kings.

From these coins I could figure what the shape of fire altar stone could have been.

The first coin:
Ardeshir I (224AD - 241AD) Drachma; 1st crown.

Ardeshir I, coin

The second coin:
Ardeshir I (224AD - 241AD) Drachma, 2nd crown.

Ardeshir I and Shapur coin

The third coin:
Ardeshir I (224AD - 241AD) Drachma, with his son Shapur I.

Shapur I, coin

Fourth coin:
Shapur I. (241AD - 272AD) Drachma, 1st crown.

Shapur I, coin

Fifth coin:
Shapur I. (241AD - 272AD) Drachma, 1st crown.


All the coins from this era showed the image of the fire altar to be a base stone, small column and the fire table.  My search took me to my last source, the Ghirshman's archeological book published 1962 "Persian Art, 249AD - 261AD." In his book Ghishman provides an elaborate record of his archeological excavation projects in Iranian sites including Bishapur. He provides numerous photos alongside of his descriptions. I must say this rare book is quite a feast for an enthusiastic student of Iranian archeology like myself.

A pleasant surprise.
As I was reading the chapter "Sassanian Art: Architecture and Monumental Decoration, Rock sculptures" I reached pages on Bishapur site on pages 149 and later. The picture on page 151 was clearly that of a fire altar stone similar to images on Sassanian coins. The text below it explained the stone was buried in the wall of a structure build on the ruins of Bishapur which was recovered by Roman Ghirshman. A pleasant surprise, I told myself while finishing this article my search for fire altar stone reached is positive result.