- Eternal fire
The History of Atashgah is rooted in the time of the Sassanid’s, when Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion in this region. But in 643 there was the turning point: the territory of the Caucasus was invaded by the army of the Arab Caliphate, which brought Islam to this region. Fire temples fell into decay. Some Zoroastrians, who did not accept Islam, eventually had to go to India, where the history of the religion of Fire continued. Part of the population of Transcaucasia remained as Zoroastrians some time after the Arabian invasion. Al-Istahri (10th century) wrote that not far from Baku (i.e., on the Absheron Peninsula) lived fire worshippers. This was confirmed by Moses Kalankatuatsi in his reference of the province of Bhagavan — “Fields of the gods” (i.e., Fire Gods), as well as archaeological data.
Centuries passed. In the Middle Ages, trade and the Silk Road connected Hindu merchants from the Punjabi city of Kangar with an abandoned Zoroastrian temple in Surakhane.
- The guest room
- So called balakhaneh (بالاخانه) is placed above the entrance of the complex of the temple Atashgah.
The temple complex consists of a pentagonal courtyard with a toothed outer wall and the entrance portal (balakhane, بالاخانه). In the centre of the courtyard stands a quadrangular rotunda which is the main fire temple, with the eternal fire inside. The ancient masters so carefully adjusted the amount of gas that the flame did not fade during the fierce winds of the Caspian Sea and it was burning for hundreds of years with the same intensity.
Since the sixteenth century, Hindus travelled here on pilgrimage. The German traveller Kaempfer (Kämpfer), who visited Atashgah in 1683 mentioned that Hindus began to find the permanent settlements near the Fire Temple. The earliest constructions near the temple were stables, which were built in 1713.
During the 18th century, around the sanctuary there were chapels, cells and a caravanserai.
- Atashgah, view from balakhaneh. Above the arch chahar-taqi (چهارطاقی) mounted stove of merchant Kanchanagar. Trident trishul is in the upper part.
The central altar was built in the Iranian architectural style of the Chahar-tagi (چهارطاقی, four arches facing the four corners of the earth). The altar has the trishul (trident) and an inscription in Sanskrit which are attributes of the Hindu religion. As it reads from the inscription adorned with a swastika, the altar was restored by means of the merchant Kanchanagar in 1866 of the Vikramaditya epoch (Indian chronology), i.e. in 1810 AD.
- Fire Temple Atashgah with a “small” fire (at the left). In the background — the cells.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the Fire temple looks very much like it does today. It consisted of a central altar, guest rooms and 26 cells.
- The courtyard of the Fire Temple complex
- At right is the balakhaneh (بالاخانه).
Above the entrance portal is arranged the traditional Absheron guest room – balakhaneh (بالاخانه).
In the cells of the walls are carved inscriptions of the Indian letters Nagrik, Devanagari and Gurmukhi. From the tablets with inscriptions of verses (“Shlokas”) it is clear that the Hindus used Atashgah as a temple of the Hindu goddess of fire Jvalaji. Also, at one of the plates there is an inscription in the Sikh Punjabi language.
According to de Chardin, the Fire Temple in Surakhane during the 60’s period of the 17th century was visited by Zoroastrians. This confirms the Persian handwriting Naskh (نسخ) inscription over the entrance aperture of one of the cells, which speaks about the visit of Zoroastrians from Isfahan:
- The Persian inscription
- The Persian inscription above the entrance to one of the cells:
آتشی صف کشیده همچون دک
جیی بِوانی رسیده تا بادک
سال نو نُزل مبارک باد گفت
خانۀ شد رو سنامد (؟) سنة ۱۱۵٨
ātaši saf kešide hamčon dak
jey be vāni reside tā bādak
sāl-e nav-e nozl mobārak bād goft
xāne šod ru *sombole sane-ye hazār-o-sad-o-panjāh-o-haštom
Fire worshippers stand in line, like naked (trees?)
Isfahani came from Vani to Badak
«Blessed the lavish New Year», he said
The house was built in the month of Ear in 1158nd year.
The 1158 year corresponds to 1745 AD. Van is implied as the Shirvan region or Bhagavan. The word Badak is used as a diminutive of Badkube (بادکوبه) — the name of Baku. (The name of Baku in the sources of the 17th and 18th centuries was Bad-e Kube. It was written as a Bad-e cubed). At the end of the reference is the constellation of Sombole (سمبل) which is Virgo, the sixth month of the Zoroastrian calendar and the modern Shahrivar (شهریور) month (August-September). In the name of the month the master mistakenly shifted the “l” and “h” at the end of the word. According to Zoroastrian Qadimi calendar New Year in 1745 AD was in August (now Iranian Zoroastrians use Fasli Calendar with Nowruz in March).
Very interesting is the use of words in the inscription “jey” (جی, “isfahani” — اصفهانی), “dak” (دک), “sad” (ساد) and the name of Baku — Van (Bhagavan) and others. Among the remaining inscriptions on the territory of Transcaucasia’s epigraphic monuments such words cannot be found. Perhaps words of this kind are stored in the language of Zoroastrians in Iran.
This inscription indicates that the Zoroastrians did not forget their fire temple, and through many centuries, continued to visit it, despite the fact that the temple was transformed into a Hindu temple.
According to 1767/68 records in the Punjab district, which included the shopping centre city of Multan, the number of Zoroastrians numbered 465 people. In the fortress of Baku city is preserved a caravanserai called Multan. Perhaps the Zoroastrians of India also visited Baku. The English traveller James Bryce referred to this in 1876. He mentioned that the Parsis of Bombay provided a presence of their superintendent in Atashgah.
The Atashgah interested many prominent people who visited Absheron. Among them we can identify such people as Russian Tsar Alexander II, the orientalists Dorn and Berezin, writer Alexander Dumas père, chemist Mendeleev, artists Vereshchagin and Ivanov, and a French traveller Wieland.
At the beginning of the 20th century the English traveller A. Jackson visited Atashgah, and then he published a slightly different English translation of the Persian inscriptions (Jackson, From Constantinople, pp. 53, 54, picture 2, footnote 2):
A fire has been drawn up like the array of a mountain,
Who can reach up to its crest?
«May the New Year of the abode be blessed»
He said The house has become radiant (? lit light-spear) from it.
In 1855, with the development of oil and gas industries, there was built the first oil and gas plant, and natural lights began to weaken. In 1883 the last Hindu priest went to India.
Interesting information about Zoroastrian from Baku mentioned by Karaite Abraham Firkovich in his Abne Zikkaron. He wrote about his meeting in Darband in 1840 with fireworshiper from Baku. Russian officer mistakenly introduced the fireworshipper to Firkowicz as the “Bramin”. Firkowicz asked him: «Why do you worship fire?» Fireworshiper replied that they do not worship fire at all, but the Creator, which is not a person, but rather a “matter” (abstraction) called Q’rţ’, and symbolized by fire. Term Q’rţ’ (“kirdar”) means in Pahlavi and Zoroastrian Persian “one who does”, “creator”.
In 1925, at the invitation of the Society for the Survey and Study of Azerbaijan, the famous Bombay Zoroastrian scholar and professor J. J. Modi visited the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Modi claimed that in the ancient Parsi texts there are references about fire temples on the shores of the Khazar (Caspian) Sea. It should be noted that Modi was unable to read the Persian inscription in the Atashgah and did not see in its architecture of Chahar-tags (چهارطاقی), a specific feature of a fire temple of the Sassanid period. He believed that the Atashgah was exclusively a Hindu temple, and the name of the village Surakhane translated as sho’le-khaneh (شعلهخانه, “House of fire balls”). During his visit to Baku, Modi spent his time on another surviving Zoroastrian temple — the so-called Maiden Tower (قلعۀ دختر, Giz galasi in Azeri Turkic), which he called Atashkade (آتشکده) and rightly considered one of the ancient temples of fire.
In 1975, after restoration work, the Atashgah was opened to the public as a branch of the State Historical and Architectural Museum “Shirvanshah’s Palace”. Fires are burning again, and today the Atashgah is both a place of worship and a museum. Now it is one of the most visited monuments, enjoying great attention.
- Religious ceremony
- Religious ceremony of Iranian Zoroastrians in Atashgah directed by Moobed Kurosh Niknam (مؤبد کوروش نیکنام).
Except Surakhani in Absheron, in Baku there are so called Yanar Dag (“burning mountains”). G. Gmelin in 18th century mentioned the Atashgah in the Alov-Tawa (“Place of flame”), now it is in the city of Baku. Another half-ruined Fire Temple still remains near the village of Hinalug, albeit without the appropriate building. In the literature of the beginning of 19th century it is said that this temple is also visited by worshippers.