Atashgah of Khinalig: the highest fire temple of the world

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.

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.

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…”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ruins of another fire temple, located at the top of Kuh-e Kvaja in Sistan, can be traced back to the Parthian period.

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.

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.

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”).

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.

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.

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.

Published on WZO