(stronach d) the kuh-i-shahrak fire altar

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Researching the types of fire altar


  • The Kh-i-Shahrak Fire AltarAuthor(s): David StronachSource: Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Oct., 1966), pp. 217-227Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/543668Accessed: 21/05/2009 06:30

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    Near Eastern Studies OCTOBER 1966 ? VOLUME XXV * NUMBER 4



    DAVID STRONACH, British Institute of Persian Studies In Memory of Erich Schmidt


    WHILE exploring the Abarj region with Dr. T. Cuyler Young, Jr. in May 1965, I was able to visit a hitherto unnoticed fire altar (Figs. 2-5) which represents a remark- ably close parallel to the famous twin fire altars at Naqsh-i-Rustam (Fig. 6). Known locally as "Sang-i-Sanduki" or simply "the Box-like Stone," the new altar lies almost at the southern extremity of Kuh-i-Shahrak, the northernmost of the three majestic, flat-topped mountains that stretch northwestwards from Persepolis (Fig. 1). Oddly enough a certain sanctity still attaches to this location, for one of the principal shrines of the Abarj area, namely Imamzadeh Saf-i-Muhammad, lies very close to the altar.

    The altar itself is cut from the upper two-thirds of a rock outcrop or detached block that stands only a few meters north of the track that leads to the village of Shahrak. In shape the monument consists of a roughly rectangular block with cambered sides. While the upper surface is flat with a rectangular basin set in the center (Fig. 5), a single or double stepped ledge marks the base of the structure (Fig. 4).

    From its irregular outline and uneven angles, it seems clear that those who carved the altar were content to allow the contours of the original rock to guide them. Yet despite this fact, the finished product is a distinct success. In complete harmony with its dramatic setting (Fig. 2), the monument possesses a pleasing sense of strength and simplicity.

    Close at hand, the altar is distinguished by its four arched side panels and raised corner piers. One other significant detail consists of a narrow ridge that can still be traced round part of the rim of the rectangular fire bowl (Fig. 5). The only two inscrip- tions associated with the monument are both modern.1

    Although rather irregular in shape, the ground-plan of the altar falls within a rectangle a little over 90 by 130 cm. in size. The tallest, western face measures 107 cm. in height, while the shortest, northern face, which backs against the slope of the mountain,

    1 That on the altar's southern face reads "Ya All" legend, scratched beside the firebowl (Fig. 5), appears or "O Ali" (Fig. 3), while a second much fainter to include a nineteenth century date.


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    measures only 74 cm. in height. The upper surface of the altar, which is again roughly rectangular in shape, measures not more than 83 by 109 cm. Within this area, the fire bowl has a length of 55 cm., a width of 38 cm., and a depth of 13 cm. The tall arch on the western side has a height of 76 cm. while the relatively compressed example on the northern side has a height of 58 cm. The width of the inner dressed ledge at the base of the monument varies from 8 to just over 20 cm.


    As mentioned above, the two most immediate parallels to the Kuih-i-Shahrak altar come from the twin altars at Naqsh-i-Rustam (Fig. 6). In terms of design alone, all three monuments share a similar square form; a similar, rectangular fire bowl; and, of course, similar cambered sides with arched panels. Each monument was also carved in situ, rather than assembled from imported blocks. On the other hand, to list certain dif- ferences, the Shahrak example is smaller and rather more squat in its proportions; it is very much simpler, and, as far as one can see, it has always stood alone, without any complementary, second altar.

    Yet, despite such anomalies, it is clear that the Shahrak altar, like those at Naqsh-i- Rustam, was cut to stand, independent of any protective structure, at the southern end of what must have been a partly sanctified mountain. Thus, from almost all points of view, the contemporary date and closely related function of each of these three rock-cut monuments would seem to be beyond question.

    In many ways this intelligence adds to what we know of the Naqsh-i-Rustam altars themselves. In terms of chronology, for instance, not all authorities have felt able to accept Erdmann's thesis that the design of these two celebrated altars depends on that of the Sasanian chahdr taq-a pavilion open on all four sides, with four corner pillars supporting four arches crowned by a cupola.2 Vanden Berghe, for example, after first seeming to stress the Sasanian appearance of the altars,3 chose in 19634 to opt for an Achaemenian date, possibly, above all else, because he felt that the twin altars at Naqsh-i-Rustam should be contemporary with the coupled altar supports from Pasar- gadae. Equally Godard, who never seems to have attempted any precise structural comparisons, is content, in both his earliest and latest descriptions of the Naqsh-i- Rustam altars, to regard them as cruder and therefore slightly earlier versions of the Pasargadae plinths.5

    However, with the discovery of the Kfih-i-Shahrak altar, most of the original attrac- tion of the Pasargadae parallel would seem to be lost. What is more, the duplicate character of the Naqsh-i-Rustam altars is wholly understandable, even in a strictly Sasanian context. For just as a single altar of the Shahrak variety can be seen to be modelled on the normal Sasanian chahdr tdq, so two such adjoining altars would seem to have been directly inspired by the standard juxtaposition of an open chahdr tdq and a closed ateshkadeh as they occur, for example, at Tang-i-Chak Chak.6 The fact that an

    2 K. Erdmann, "Die Altare von Naqsh i Rustem," 4 L. Vanden Berghe, Annuaire des amities belgo- MDOG, LXXXI (1949), 6-15. See also R. Ghirshman, iraniennes, I (1963), 21-22. Persia from the Origins to Alexander the Great (1964), 5 See A. Godard, Athdr-e Irdn, III, 63 and 67, and pp. 228-29. Godard, The Art of Iran (1965), pp. 80 and 143. 3 L. Vanden Berghe, Archeologie de 1 'Iran Ancien 6 See Archeologie, frontispiece. (1959), p. 26. (Hereafter this publication is referred to as Archeologie.)



    ateshkadeh is theoretically "closed" as opposed to "open" need hardly worry us. The design of an ateshkadeh often seems to have been very close to that of its adjoining chahdr tdq-at Tang-i-Chak Chak up to two sides may have been open7-and in the context with which we are dealing we would expect simplifications and probably standardization. The omission of the cupola, for example, almost certainly stems from the logical requirement of a flat surface for the fire bowl.


    With regard to the immediate antecedents of our altars, it is more than likely that the Sasanian chahdr tdq altar is only a fresh, if very distinctive, adaptation of the perennial tower altar, such as has a long history in both Mesopotamia and Iran. In particular, the distinctive saw-toothed motif on the Naqsh-i-Rustam altars may represent a traditional "shorthand" for the more precise crenellations that were a common feature on tower altars of Fratadara and earlier date.

    It has been suggested, of course, that the tower altars depicted on Fratadara coins of the second and third centuries B.C.8 are really direct representations of the square towers found at Pasargadae and Naqsh-i-Rustam.9 But there are substantial objections to such an immediate identification, and it would seem much safer to advance the view that the towers themselves only inspired certain modifications in the form of an already well- established type of tower altar. In support of this contention, it is not difficult to see that the "blind windows" and "dentil cornices" of the altars in question 10 represent the only fundamental additions to a known form of Assyrian1 and Achaemenian12 tower altar. Twin vertical panels as such are a common feature on altars or


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