An Iranian perspective on Christians in Sassanid Iran

Today I encountered a book, written by an Iranian, discussing the position of “religious minorities” in Iran during the Sassanid and medieval period.  The author is Aptin Khanbaghi, the title is The Fire, the star and the cross: Minority religions in medieval and early modern Iran, I.B.Tauris, 2006, and there is a Google books preview here.

It’s very interesting to see a different perspective on things:

The position of Christians probably improved even more under Khusraw I Anushiravan (531-578) as he had a Christian wife. His son Anushazad apparendy embraced the religion of his mother and hoped to obtain the support of Nestorians in Khuzistan to usurp power, without any success.66 Anushazad’s appeal to the Christians for support, shows the numerical importance of this community in Khuzistan at this time. During the same period, Maraba (540-552), a Zoroastrian apostate, became Catholicos (head of Nestorian Church) at Ctesiphon.67 Despite the fact that apostasy in Zoroastrianism was not acceptable, the important number of Christians in the West of Iran prevented Khusraw I from killing him. He needed his collaboration to appease a revolt of Christians.68 Following Maraba’s death, Khusraw I placed his private physician, Joseph on the throne of the Catholicate (552-567). The bishops did not contest his choice.69 Another physician, named Moses or Narses from Nisibis, is mentioned as having gone to the court in order to present to the monarch the anguish of the Christians, so that Joseph could be deposed. However, Joseph’s influence on Khusraw was so strong that the bishops did not dare nominate another Catholicos.70

Henceforth, Zoroastrian officers who converted to Christianity were allowed to maintain their rank in the Persian army, and were no longer ostracized.71 By the time of Hormizd IV (579-590), the number of Christians had increased to such an extant that when the Zoroastrian priests solicited the King to restrict the activities of the Christians, Hormizd replied:

“Just as our royal throne cannot stand on its two front legs without the two back ones, our kingdom cannot stand or endure firmly if we cause the Christians and adherents of other faiths, who differ in belief from ourselves, to become hostile to us. So renounce this desire to persecute the Christians and become assiduous in good works, so that the Christians and the adherents of other faiths may see this, praise you for it, and feel themselves drawn toward your religion.”72

The reconciliation of the Sassanians with the Christians generated a new social and political atmosphere, which allowed the Christians to establish intellectual centres similar to those belonging to Jews, such as the School of Nisibis and the School of Ctesiphon.

I wish that I could see the references!

And … why is this book so expensive?  How on earth does on get to read it?

A Mithraeum in Iran? — The “Verjuy Mithra Temple”

A post by a headbanger on a crank site drew my attention to this page on the web:

Verjuy Mithra Temple, the Oldest Surviving Mithraist Temple in Iran

By: Afshin Tavakoli
Iran, Daily Newspaper
No. 2802, May. 16th, 2004, Page 12

Abstract:Maragheh is one of Iran’s most ancient cities having its roots in legends. In the past, its suburbs were used to build temples belonging to the religion of Mithraism. One of the temples is located 4 kilometers south of Maragheh in Verjuy village. There were no signs indicating the location of the temple in the village or even at the entrance of the cemetery. Among other main Mithraism temples in Maragheh, we can refer to hand made caves of the observatory hill.

… Followers of Mithraism built this temple during the Arsacid dynasty (248 BCE-224 CE) …

All around the main hall, there is Quranic inscriptions written in Naskhi script which circles around the walls and entrances like a belt. Parts of the inscription on walls, dating back to the Islamic period when this Mithraism temple was used as a monastery of Sufis or as a mosque, have been destroyed by the course of time.

In the brochure published recently by the Cultural Heritage Organization of Maragheh, the municipality and the governor’s office, these sentences are written about Mehr (Mithra) temple: 

“The historical site of Mehr temple and the shrine of Molla Masoum are located in the south of the historical cemetery of Verjuy village. Before the arrival of Islam, it was a place for worshiping the sun and a place for performing ceremonies by the followers of Mithraism. The building was probably built during the reign of Arsacid or possibly early Sassanid dynasties. After the arrival of Islam, it was used as a mosque and the shrine of Molla Masoum, a well-known intellectual in the 13th century.” 

The photograph next to these sentences shows a clean temple unlike the reality. Mehr in Avesta and Old-Persian was called Mithra and in Pahlavi language it was called Mithr. In Avesta, Mehr was considered to be one of the creators of Ahura Mazda and was the Yazats (Izad) of contract and promise and hence the god of light and brightness because nothing was kept secret from him. Mithraism reached Babylon and Asia Minor from Iran and it then reached Europe by Roman soldiers. Once in Europe, it was worshiped as a great god. After the appearance of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda became known as the only God and other Aryan gods were considered Yazats or angels which actually resembled characters and the power of God. Mehr was among such Yazats.

All very odd, and none of it seemingly that reliable.  There are almost no references, for instance.  The article is from an Iranian daily newspaper, which uses a municipal leaflet as a source.

The site calls itself CAIS, the “Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies”, and the URL is, as if the School for Oriental and Asiatic Studies were associated with it, although it no longer has any such association.

I thought that I would investigate further.  Nothing about this place looks like a Mithraeum.  No Mithraea are known from Iran.  So … why the Mithras reference?

The monument is described by Dr Arezou Azad.  She is discussing three cave complexes of the region, which seem to be medieval Buddhist.[1]  Here is the start of the description, from p.219:

2. Mihri Temple / Imamzada Ma’sum (Near Maragha)

Previous studies.  The first archaeologist to describe this site was Parviz Varjavand in the early 1970’s.  Warwick Ball provided a more accurate overview by factoring in the inscriptions and decorated stonework in the complex, as well as the adjacent cemetary, and a more detailed floor plan.(37)  …

Observations.  In the outskirts of Maragha lies the site of the Mihri Temple, also known as the Imamzada Ma’sum.  This site is far less known than the last, although it is just as mysterious, and therefore deserves more attention.  The site has three accessible areas: a main space surrounded by four domed chambers (nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7); a four-domed hall with a full-size pillar at its centre (no. 3); and a set of three long chambers some 100 metres away.

(37) Parviz Varjavand, ‘The Imamzadeh Ma’sum Varjovi near Maragheh’, East and West 25/3-4 (1975), p.435-8 …; Warwick Ball, ‘The Imamzadeh Ma’sum at Vardjovi. A rock-cut Ilkhanid Complex near Maragheh’, Archaologische Mitteilungen aus Iran 12 (1979), p. 329-40.

And on the article goes, with nothing Mithraic that I could see (although the preview was cut-off  before the end).

A little earlier, on p.217-8, there is discussion of another cave complex in the area, the Rasadkhana caves at Maragha.

Function and dating.   The rectangular stone blocks in chambers a and b were identified as altars, and hence the chambers as sanctuaries.  To Ball they looked like the Buddhist circumambulatory pillar-caves of Afghanistan and Central Asia, and to Bowman and Thompson like the Jacobite style of dual sanctuaries.  I would also note a resemblance to the Sasanian fire altars of Balkh.  Ker Porter wrote: ‘These secluded places [i.e. the caves] we are told, were not merely the habitations of Zoroaster himself and his Magi, but were used as temples.'(27)  In the cave temples of the Mithraists (or Mithraea), altars of such dimensions can also be found.(28)  An ancient Mithraic use is likely  given the similarities with Roman Mithraic temples, but it is the Ilkhanid period that is of greater interest to us.

(27) Porter, Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, vol. 2, p.496.
(28) See Varjavand, Kawish-i Rasadkhana-yi Maragha, p.279-83.  On the history and belief system of Mithraism which developed with the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, see Franz Cumont, Les mysteres de Mithra, Brussels (1913) and Taufiq Wahby, The remnants of Mithraism in Hatra and Iraqi Kurdistan and its traces in Yazidism, London (1962).

The list of diverse possible parallels at the front of the quote makes it abundantly clear that we are in speculation land. 

I have mentioned before how unreliable statements about Mithras can be in academic books, and it seems that we have another example here. 

The 19th century traveller Porter “is told” that Zoroaster himself lived there.  This can only be local folklore.  But aside from that, we then have the repetition (for the author is not a Mithras scholar) of material from Iranian sources of the Royalist period, every one of whom believed in the Cumontian idea  that Persian Mithra was the same as Roman Mithras.  The latter view is contradicted by the archaeology, and can no longer simply be presumed.  And without that identification, what becomes of all this?  It falls to the ground.

I should add, in fairness to the author of the article, that while I was unable to view p.215, I found there the following snippet:

The Iranian archaeologist Parviz Varjavand described them in the late 1980’s, and emphasized their ancient Mithraic elements, bringing us back to where Porter started in the early nineteenth century: relying on folklore and projecting…

which suggests that the author is in fact well aware of how shaky all this material is.

It would seem, then, that there is, in fact, no evidence associating Mithras (or, I think, even Mithra) with either site.

  1. [1]Arezou Azad, Three rock-cut cave sites in Iran and their Ilkhanid Buddhist aspects reconsidered, in: Anna Akasoy and others, Islam and Tibet: Interactions Along the Musk Routes, Ashgate, 2001, p.209-230.  There is a Google Books preview here.