Traces of zoroastrianism in Caucasian Albania. Elnur Veliyev

     As viewed by many researchers, Zoroastrianism sprang up in the I Millennium B.C., in the north-east of Iran, regions covering Central Asia and Afghanistan, on the basis of religious beliefs and mythical views of Iranian tribes.

          The history of religion is indicative that neither in the Midian or Hakhamanishian, nor Parthian periods Zoroastrianism ever succeeded in becoming the state religion. It did occur earlier Middle Ages, in the epoch of Sasanids.

    Of particular importance in examining earlier medieval religious views are archaeological material and cultural finds, especially toreutical ones, discovered on the territory of North Azerbaijan (Albania). Beyond any doubts, the analysis should be accompanied by concomittant examination of  historical and literary sources. From this point of view, we are going to investigate toreutical patterns, discovered on the territory of Caucasian Albania, by means of their comparing with cultural patterns of neighboring countries in the mythical period of their development.

        Appreciable traces of Zoroastrianism can be found in Shamakha, Nakhchivan, Mingechaur, Talysh-Mugan areas.

         It should be noted that earlier 4 century Christianity being declared the state religion in Caucasian Albania and widely spread among broader strata of the population notwithstanding, various idolatrous beliefs resting upon forces of nature, ghosts, as well as various sects of Zoroastrianism that survived from the sasanid period, were still influential. (1)

          In defining the Yezdeghird II (438-457) political line in Albania, Albanian historian Movses Kalankatuyskiy noted (1,20) that «during the reign of sinner Yezdeghird, devil instigated him to destroy Christian religion», so he ordered to reject Christianity in Albania and obey fire-worshippers-magicians. (2)

          In an effort to transform Zoroastrianism into the state religion and forcibly implant magianism to Albanians, Armenians and Georgians, Yezdeghird II aspired to assimilate them both culturally and ideologically. (1)

          To disseminate  Zoroastrianism  among broader strata of  the  population,  Yezdeghird II sent 700 magians (priests) from Iran to Transcaucasia with 300 magians having been distributed in Caucasian Albania. (3)

          Note that mythical images typical for world outlook of ancient Aryans found their parallels in Avesta as well. Suffice it to refer to the images of Faravashi, Asha, Daena, Mitra, Veretragna, Hvarna, Rashnu, Vayu, Guesh, Urvan, Sraosha, Ardvisura-Anahita, etc. (4)

          It has to be kept in mind that archaeological materials present a striking instance of written sources. Results of excavations on the territory of Caucasian Albania were marked by discovery of numerous cultural finds, indicative of the spreading of Zoroastrianism in the region. An eloquent testimony is a bardag (a jug with narrow mouth) found in Baku.

          The bardag is gilded, has a small size, typologically identical to Sasanid vessels with its decorative features.

           Plant-shaped four rhombuses are engraved on the bardag. Depicted inside the rhombuses are a cock, a pheasant, an eagle busy with eating a prey; in the center there is a bird of Simurg (Phoenix).

           Deserving consideration is the fact that bardags are notable for engraved plots typical for traditional Sassanid toreutics. These are depictions of animals, birds, single combats, hunting, vintage; on some bardags there are naked women in dance. (5)

         Of interest is the wide spreading of engraved eagle image on bardags which was typical for Sassanid art. At the same time, sources on earlier periods also report on identical images.(5)

         It should be noted that in archaic myths the theft of fire is associated with eagle. In terms of confrontation between the elements of fire and water, it is the eagle that perfors the function. According to Vedaic hymns, the eagle brings a drink of soma (haoma) from heaven for Indra (PB, IV 27,1). (6.7) In all appearances, this accounts for the association between the eagle and water. As is known, in the Indo-European mythology the eagle took largely  the part of children’s saviour. The eagle and two children are depicted on a plate dating from Sassanid epoch (6 century ) and currently kept in the Hermitage. One of them personifies Mithras, another — Kochi. (8)

         Of great interest is an ancient cemetery composed of earthen tombs, discovered on southern slopes of  Mt. Langhibaz, Shemakha region, 1 km away to the west from the village of Hadjighedirli. Among material and cultural patterns discovered at the cemetery, worthy of note is an original bronze statue of eagle. (9)

          An identical statue of eagle was discovered during archaeological excavations headed by J.A.Khalilov and carried out in Shemakha (Khinisly), in an earthen tomb № 32. The author dates it back by the 4 century. Deserving attention is that like entire Near and Middle East, eagle depictions in Caucasian Albania, commen- cing from Sassanid epoch, turned into a sort of symbol.

          Another depiction engraved on the bardaf is an amage of cock. Note thate this image is a symbol of Sraosha designed to protect humans against evil spell. (11)

Worth notice is that in Avesta Sraosha is used in the meaning of «obedience» only. In Middle-Persian it sounds like «sraosh», in modern Persian — like «surush». Note that in Kata this word means «religious obedience». It should also be noted that treatment of animals, particularly, birds, in Avesta is of two kinds. Thus, Ahriman is the picture of evil deeds, Ormuzd — good deeds. From this point of view, the cock called Sraosha symbolizes the victory — dawnbreak, e.i. triumph of light over evil spirits of Ahriman. (12)

          According to beliefs of Zoroastrians («Bundahishi» 82,2), it the cock and dog that guard the universe against evil deeds of mythical beings by night. A supersti-tion was spread among popular masses in the Middle Ages that an evil dared not to penetrate into homes protected by the cock.13

Beliefs associated with the cock are also mentioned in the works by Nizami:

When a black spirit came, the cock crew,

It beat the drum to prepare for fight.

         It’d be appropriate to note that the later Sassanid toreutics also refers to the image of Sraosha. In addition, a pheasant’s image with a ribbon in beak was spread in Sassanid art as well. This also relates to gems, seals and fabrica discovered in Shemakha.

          In the center of the bardag, there is a group of Simurgs, a zoomorphic symbol of benevolence in the Iranian, Central Asian and Azerbaijan lithalogy. Noteworthy is the fact that in a meeting-house #2 discovered in the town of Mingeachaur there were detected two birds of Simurg engraved on the roof of it. It should be added that the bird of Simurg was known in Azerbaijan fairy-tales under the name of zumrud (Phoenix) or tovuz (peacock). The birds are depicted against the background of the tree of reanimation which is in keeping with the legend of Simurg. (14)

         It has to be kept in mind that a design composed of birds or animals in opposition was widely spread in Near Eastern countries. Note that afterwards the design found its parallels in Near Eastern Christian and even Muslim monuments. (15)

         As an example of ancient Oriental art, the design was applied in somewhat modified forms in the arts of various countries and different epochs. In particular, a ribbon in beaks of birds in opposition, so widely spread in Sassanid epoch, changed into an elongated ribbon with the tree of reanimation or altar between them. Of interest is that depictions in Christian monuments are notable for some specific distinctions. First, no ribbons are shown in birds’ beaks. On the other hand, the trees of reanimation are changed into a cross. In some monuments, the design is merely made of pictures in opposition. (14)

          Pictures of birds in opposition so far discovered on the territory of Caucasian Albania relate to the above-stated Mingechaur № 2 meeting-house and a tombstone found in the village of Yukhary Fidjan, Sumgait. (14)

         As far as Anahida is concerned, it’d be appropriate to note that Anahida takes a special place in the pantheon of gods. A relevant information is provided in Yeshd № 5 devoted to Ardvi-Sur-Anahida which is presented as deity of sacred waters with residence among stars. It is strong and intrepid, travels in a fighting chariot, routing demons and wicked devils. It is Ahura Mazda who entrusted Anahida with caring for every living thing. All the deities come to see Anahida to ask for welfare, prosperity and good. Anahida is responsible for well-being of nature and every living thing, guardianship over herds and pastures. It was a stately girl, wore a golden crown and ear-rings and necklace decorated with stars. Anahida stood out from all the women for her slender waist, broad chest and winning bust; her body was wrapped up in a fabric woven of golden thread. Such a description is illustrative that an author of Yesht as if by himself beheld Anahida’s statue with his own eyes and was able to graphically portray the deity’s image. (4)

         Worth note is the fact that the cult took a particular place in Avesta (Yeshts). Thus, special hymns («Ardvisur-Yesht» and «Aban-Yeshti»)  were dealt with in the cult in Avesta (Yesht V).Note that the cult substituted for the previous, older Iranian cult «Harahvati-Ardvi-Sura». Ancient Iranians adopted the cult under the title of «Anahida». In other words, Aryans (Iranians) called the cult «Harahavati Ardvi Sura», Indians called it «Sarevati Ardvi Sure». On the other hand, Anahida is somewhat reminiscent of the deity of fertility and beauty widely spread in the Near east since time immemorial. It is also an equivalent of goddesses of water Ishtar, Inanna, Astarta, etc. (4)

         In Midia, the cult of ancient gods was restored, especially during the reign of Fravartish, 675-653 B.C. However, in the period of Xerxes’ religious reforms, attempts were obviously made to eradicate cults of previous gods, especially the cult of A.C.A. Note that the name of A.C.A. had first ever been mentioned in Hakhamanishi characters during the reign of Artaxerx II (404-359 B.C.) and it was the in period of Hakhamanishi that the cult’s growth culminated. In the «Small Avesta», A.C.A. came out as the goddess of water with Iranian heroes Paradata and Kevi as shah’s patrons. During the reign of Seleucides and Parthians, the Greek culture was widely spread in Iran, and as a consequence of blending of ancient and Oriental mythologies, Demeter and Cibella, other goddesses of fertility merged together. It should be noted that in the reign of Bahram II no symbol of Anahida was used in the Iranian art any longer. Commencing from the 4 century, during the reign of Shapur II and his chief priest Aturpat Mihrasp the cult of Anahida was very popular together with wide spreading of differently coloured pictures, fruits, doves, pomegranates, etc. As noted in Avesta, Anahida came out as the goddess of water, love, fertility. At the same time, as a result of subsequent reforms the role of Anahida came to the patroness of heroes and warriors.

         Noteworthy is the fact that during the rule of the first Sassanides Anahida as the goddess of dynasty, war and victory personified Iranian queens. Following the momentous events of the 70-90s of the 3 century, the goddess fell into the «arms» of Iranian dynasties. Perhaps, 30 years after Kartir’s death  Shapur II considered it necessary to renovate Anahida’s worshipping («Denkart» report) and, perhaps, it was chief priest Aturpat who modified the cult, following which priorities  were changed from love, water and vegetation into queen goddess. This, in turn, found adequate parallels in changes that occurred in iconography and symbols.

          It should be stressed that the only goddess, whose outward appearance was reminiscent of human traits. In the epoch of the first Sassanids, Anahida personifying in iconography queens notwithstanding, it had features common to the images of  Ahura Mazda-Mihr-shahs.

          The said depictions date from Sassanid coins and investura reliefs. At the same time, this method of representation, as is known from Hakhamanish period, relates to no Zroastrianism but is pertaining to the cult of internal attributes, so the depictions were adopted not literally, rather in a symbolic meaning. From the very outset of their reign, Sassanids launched their campaign of «iconoclasm» through imposing a ban on using divine images during the execution of religious rites. Of great interest is the fact that Ahura Mazda, Mihr and Anahida being depicted on the reverse side of Sassanid coins in the 3 century A.D. according to iconographic regulations notwithstanding, starting with the 4 century A.D. the pictures became strongly pronounced as compared with the 3 century. It should be noted that the depictions were rapidly schematized and gradually abstrused. Later 4 century, these depictions began losing their significance. (16)

          Starting with this period, Anahida was worshipped as the patron of dynasties concurrently the goddess of war and victory. The Anahida’s meeting-house turned into one of the major holy places of Sassanides. Suffice it to say it was chief priests who took the part of shahs. Following the subsequent religious reforms, the Anahida’s role as the goddess of water, mother, fertility, vegetation and family visibly intensified. At the same time, the previous duties of the patron of heroes and warriors remained unaltered. During the Khusrau II reign (591-628), owing to considerable changes in Zoroastrian dogmas, the cult of  Anahida appreciably decreased. In the period under consideration, the rivalry between Zoroastrianism and Christianity became exacerbated, following which Anahida was identified with Saint Mary.

         A populated locality titled Shomutepe dating from the VI-IV Millenniums B.C. was discovered to the north of Akstafa railway station, Azerbaijan Republic. In 1960-1964, it was I.G.Narimanov who first carried out investigation work here.

         Area is 1 ha, thickness of cultural layer is 1,5 m. Excavations made it possible to identify walls made of raw brick stuck with clay, dwelling houses of circular form (D 2-4m), remains of  small-sized industrial premises (D1-1,5m). Also found were remains of hearth abutting upon walls in the personal plot. Various material and cultural finds made of clay, stone and bone were  also discovered in the locality. Of greater interest is a bone-made female figurine with round head and broad thigh. The figurine was hung 40 cm above the hearth. Most probably, it was the symbol designed to protect the hearth.

          Note that R.Brioro is inclined to divide the woman-goddess into four groups: 1.primitive mother-goddess; mother of the being; original mother of human society. 2.mother of animals. 3.mother of fertility. 4.mother of land.

          The first group seems to be older than others. The second group is associated with the period of domestication of animals and emergence of totemist views. The third and fourth groups presumably go back to tillage and fertility (prosperity and water).

          In Azerbaijan, the oldest human pictures found their parallel in Gobustan rocks, including two female statuettes made of limestone. To all probability, the statuettes go back to the Stone Age, specifically the mesolithic and neosolithic periods. Noteworthy is the fact that identical female figurines (made of clay), going back to the eneolithic period, were discovered in the so called «Gargalar tepesi» («Crow hill») near the village of Gyrly, Gazakh region.

          Female figurines (made of stone and clay) discovered both in Shomutepe and «Gargalar tepesi» are typical for the eneolithic period. Owing to the fact that this period was associated with tillage and cattle-breeding, it is not surprising that the cult of goddess Anahida gradually turned into the sustained tradition. (17)

          Note that the female  cult-related figurines came to be discovered largely from the VIII Millennium B.C. Regretfully, most of the figurines survived lack arms, legs or heads.

          Also, numerous female figurines were discovered in ancient towns of Mingechaur, Gabala, Shemakha, Barda. The probability remains that at one time various religious meeting-houses operated in the region. It should be added that tens of differently-shaped figurines have so far been discovered in the region, most of them being female ones. As distinguished from archaic figurines, these were noted for their aesthetic beauty.

         Worthy of note that Albania had long since been famous for the manufacture of zoo- and anthropomorphic earthenware, as well as terracotta (baked red or yellow clay) figurines. Prior to Caucasian Albania period, original patterns of such earthenware were revealed during the examination of stone boxes excavated in Ghedabay and burial monuments of the Stone Age dicovered in Mingechaur (subsequent Bronze and Iron Ages).

         It’d be appropriate to stress that Albanians were successful in developing and further improving century-long traditions of their predecessors, creating excellent works of art. Together with female figurines, they were skilful in manufacturing earthenware with female portrayals. However, anthropomorphic earthenware of this sort (as compared with eagle-shaped zoomorphic earthenware) are not numerous being divided into two groups.

         One of them presents a red clay-manufactured bardag with a semicircular mouth, plaited female head, beak-shaped nose and eyes; with an ear decorated with ribbon-shaped stucco moulding. To all appearances, there were also an ear-ring, two rows of necklaces. Chest somewhat bulged out. It should be noted that such a position is typical for figurines as well. This, in turn, consitutes a sort of unity with Anahida-related mythology. The bardag is equipped with one handle placed in the rear side of it. Edges of the mouth are indicative that it had a cover with a hairdress possibly engraved on. (10)

         It should be noted that another bardag with two handles is rose-coloured. Its body looks like a ball, has a flat bottom.The bardag, like other ones, is likened to female as well. Note that the head is placed between two handles. The bardag is an alto-relievo. Trom technical and art standpoint, the bardag is excellent. A female’s nose is rather massive, eyes being full of reverie, mouth broken off, ears decorated with stucco moulding, a  necklace and chest in the lower part. Handles are decorated with moulded ornament.

         Thus, Anahida-cult related female figurines and female-shaped bardags discovered in Shomutepe, other regions of Azerbaijan are an eloquent testimony to the above-mentioned. However, Armenians misappropriated the cult of Anahida under the title of the mother-goddess. Thus, in his work titled «The cult of Anait goddess» Melik-Pashayan aspired to identify the cult of Anahida with the cult of Asthic goddess. He stressed that myths of Anahid and Asthic are names of one and the same goddess. However, S.B.Arutyunyan notes that in Armenia  the cult of Asthic sprang up only after Christianity. (8) To corroborate his idea, the author refers to no material or cultural evidence. As has been noted above, the image of Anahida was spread as far back as in the period preceding Christianity, while Asthic was used by Armenians as a symbol of Venus. It should also be noted that Armenians misappropriated Asthic mythology from West-Semitic mythology, known there under the name of Astara (Venus as the goddess of welfare, water, war). It’d be advisable for Armenian authors to look through Assur-Babil sources once again.

         As Melik-Pashayev notes, the tradition of Anahida as the mother-goddess came to Armenians from ancient Oriental peoples.

         Like many other misappropriations, Armenians did not fail to do the same with the cult of Anahida. However, this time they failed to take not the least of the factors into account. German researcher Nuberg tried to link Ardvisura Anahida to the settling of ancient Iranians along the banks of Syrdarya-river; other authors attempted to do the same with the settling of this people along the banks of Amudarya. In Avesta, the cult of Anahida is linked to the water as original cause of every living thing being located in Hukayra, peak of Mt.Hara Berezang. Anahida’s waters flow down from Hukayra and fall into Vourukasha (Caspian sea). In Avesta, Hara Berezang (Hara, Haraiti) was used as «High Hara; in Middle-Persian» — under the name of Haraburz. In Middle Persian Zoroastrian cosmology, Haraburz was identified with Elbrus ridge in the north of Iran. (8)

          Note that the bird of Simurg described in Azerbaijanian fairy-tales («Story of Simnar», «Story of Meli-Mamed»), as well as in the poem by Firdausi «Shahname», lives on the top of Mt.Elbrus (Gaf). Traces of Avesta literary monuments may be detected in South Azerbaijan, Central Asia, Front Asia, as well as in Caucasian Albania. From this point of view, it’d be expedient to regard  Avesta as a common monument of these peoples. As is known from history, Armenians as aliens in this area have always been engaged in misappropriating traditions of local nations.





1. Mammedova F. Azerbaicanyn siyasi tarikhi ve tarikhi cografiyasi.Tercume edeni Rafig Savalan, Ahmed Asker.B., 1993, c.218-219.

2. Moisej Kalankatuklu. Albanija tarikhi / Mygaddima, tarcuma, geyd ve sherhler Akademik Ziya Bunyadovun, s.38-39.

3. Egishe Vardapeta. Borba Khristianstva s ucheniyem Zoroastrovym v pyatom stoletii v Armenii / Perevod s Armyanskogo P.Shaniyeva. Tiflis, 1853, s.83-84.

  1. 4.  Rak I.V. Mify drevnego i rannesrednevekovogo Irana. Sankt-Peterburg, 1998, s.127, 130, 135, 136, 141, 143, 145, 146.

5. Koshkarly K.O. Antichnaya i rannesrednevekovaya torevtika Azerbaidjana. B.,1985, s.75.

5. Koshkarly K.O. Antichnaya i rannesrednevekovaya…, s.75.

6. Rigveda mandaly I-IV izdaniye. Podgotovila T.Y.Blizarenkova. Moskva, 1989, s.283.

7. Avesta v Russkikh perevodakh (1861-1996). Sostavleniye, obschaya redaktsiya, primechaniya i spravochniy razdel I.V.Raka. Sankt Peterburg, 1998, s.146-147.

8. Mify narodov mira. «Entsiklopediya», II t. M., 1992, s. 260.

9. Nuriyev A.B. Shamakhy rayonunda tapilmish tunc gartal figuru. Azer.SSR E.A. meruzalari, № 11-12, 1972,s.73-75.

10. Khalilov D.A. Materialnaya kultura Kavkazskoy Albanii. B.,1985, 123.

11. Lukonin V.G. Iskusstvo drevnego Irana. M., 1971, s.71.

12. Makovelskiy A.O. Avesta. B., 1960, s.72.

13. Dadashzade M. Azerbaican khalginin ort esr menevi medeniyeti. B., 1985, s.57.

14. Vahidov R.M. Mingechevir III-VIII esrlerde (Arkheolozhi gazinti materiallar esasinda). B., 1961, s.?

15. Chubanashvili G.N. O Khudozhestvennoy srede i khronologicheskikh ramkakh Mingechaurskogo relyefa. Azerbacan tarikhi muzeyinin eserleri. II cild. B., 1957, s. 214.

  1. Rak. I.V. Mify drevnego i rannesrednvekovogo…, s.145

4.  Ibid, s.146

16. Lukonin V.G. Kultura Sasanidskogo Irana. L., 1960, s.96.

10. Khalilov D.A.Materialnaya kultura., s.122-123.

17. Narimanov I.G. Arkheologicheskiye issledovaniya v Azerbaidjane. Sbornik statey, 1985, s.123.

  1. Mify narodov mira. «Entsiklopediya», t.I, s.118.
  2. Ibid, s.490-491.


Elnur Rashid ogly Veliyev researcher Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of  Azerbaijan