Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The powerful goddess Anahita in Persia

Anahita is a water goddess whose origins go back to Central Asia from where her worship spread through Persia all the way to the Middle-East. Anahita literally means “the moist, strong and pure one” and embodies the qualities of water, especially the fertilizing flow of water. Over the centuries her role increased and came to include that of “patron goddess of royalty”.

Her very name is not familiar to most of us and that is not surprising since over the centuries she has been assimilated to the Babylonian Anaitis, the Greek Aphrodite and Athena, the Roman Diana, and even the Egyptian Isis. The Armenians, who once were part of the great Persian empire, still call her the “Great Lady Anahita, Life-Giver of our Nation, Mother of Sobriety, and Benefactress of Humanity”. In 1997, the Central Bank of Armenia –an orthodox Christian nation- saw fit to issue a gold coin with her image.

Anahita, however, lived a long and complex godly life. The earliest known records go back to Artaxerxes II who ruled over Persia from 404 till 358 BC and who was the first to make a statue of Anahita to be placed in temples at Babylon, Susa, Ecbatana, Persepolis, Damascus and even Sardes. It was this same king who put the name of Anahita directly after that of Ahuramazda and before that of Mithra – a clear sign of her importance. The inscription left by Artaxerxes II at Susa confirms this: “By the will of Ahuramazda, Anahita and Mithra, I built this palace”. We should remember that Artaxerxes II was the father of the later Queen Sisygambis, mother of Darius III who was defeated by Alexander. Through his close contact with the Queen-Mother, Alexander must have been well-aware of the role Anahita played in the realm of the Persian gods. Like so many other Greeks of his days, he may have assimilated her with Aphrodite.

After a period of relative obscurity, the cult was revived by the Sassanid kings. One example is visible on the relief at Naqsh-e Rustam where King Narseh (ruled 293-302 AD) is receiving his crown from Anahita in person and not from Ahuramazda as was customary till then. She is seen on the right of this relief holding the crown in her right hand while the king at the center receives the diadem with his right hand as well.
Anahita also appears in the largest cliff-wall of Taq-e-Bostan, next to King Khosrow II (early 7th century) who receives his crown from the high-priest under the protection of Anahita as guardian angel of the waters (on his right side, left looking at it).  The founder of the Sassanid empire, King Ardashir (mid-3rd century), venerated Anahita also as his Goddess of War and would, for instance, send the heads of the petty kings he defeated to be displayed in her temple. Unfortunately, the Romans destroyed Anahita’s temples, and a few centuries later the Islam erased what was left of her rich legacy – yet her spirit lived on. 

It was a pleasant surprise to discover that at least two of her temples have survived and this led me to start my own investigation of Anahita. Till then my knowledge of her was minimal and even my local guide in Iran had not much to tell about her except that he linked her to the Sassanid rulers, actually more than thousand of years after her origins in Central Asia.

My first encounter happened at Kangavar, situated on the antique highway between Ecbatana and Ctesiphon, close to modern Hamadan. It is a quite amazing site which I knew only from pictures, mainly columns belonging to a temple set in Hellenistic style. On the billboard at the entrance I read that this site is 220 meters long and 210 meters wide, that the columns were 3.45 meters high but nothing about its time-frame or its construction. Information from the internet is scant and often unreliable and even contradictory.

Some say (Dr Kaveh Farrokh) that this temple of Anahita was built during early Parthian occupation, at some time between 248 BC and 224 AD. Yet others (The Zoroastrian Education Institute) mention that it was built by Artaxerxes II between 404 and 359 BC based on the shape and carving of the columns which is similar to those of Persepolis and Susa, but adds that the temple was plundered by Alexander in 335 BC which is utterly impossible since the new Macedonian king was still crushing the rebellion in the lands around Macedonia that arose after his father’s death one year before. Robbert Bosschart on the other hand devotes an entire chapter of his book “All of Alexander’s Women” to Anahita and the role this goddess played in Persian religion, but he only refers her “main temple” in Istakhr near Persepolis, and says nothing about the temples I visited in Kangavar and BishapurDigging in further, I find that both Polybius and Plutarch mention a temple of Anahita at Ecbatana, once a most glorious sanctuary. Just remember that Ecbatana is the old name for Hamadan and could thus be linked to nearby Kangavar. On the other hand, Arrian tells about a temple at Ecbatana that according to local lore had been razed on orders of Alexander because it was considered a sanctuary of Asclepius, and Alexander was furious at this God of Health for not having saved the life of his dear friend Hephaistion in Ecbatana. However, Arrian explains why this local lore is not at all believable. Anyway, it is clear that in the Successor Wars after Alexander's death, Macedonian troops more than once plundered the Anahita temple. This is confirmed by Polybius who tells us that when Antiochus III arrived in Ecbatana in 209 BC he found much of the temple’s wealth scattered around: columns covered in gold, silver tiles, and many gold and silver bricks. Yet, all of this doesn’t reveal much if anything about the appearance of the temple or its origins. It is, however, clear that I am confronted with an edifice of Hellenistic character with Achaemenid architectural elements and that it is not impossible that Alexander visited the place..

Excavations from 1968 match the comment made by the geographer Isidore of Charax that this temple is set on a high platform (32 meters high actually) and has Ionian columns (which, of course, must have been much taller than the 3.45 m mentioned on the entrance billboard). He obviously attributes this temple to Artemis, who was associated with Anahita in his days (1st century BC/1st century AD). It sounds very plausible that the temple underwent some later adjustments and/or modifications by the Parthians and even by the Sassanids. However, a team of archaeologists from the University of Tehran tend to attribute the ruins as those of a Sassanid Palace. Not much to go by, except my own instinct, I would say!

Upon arrival here at Kangavar, my attention is immediately drawn by a stone wall with a staircase on either end that reminds me of the Apadana at Persepolis. The theory that this is the location of an Achaemenid Palace is not unfounded because of this typical stairway and the superposed platforms, one of which is being supported by a smooth wall in Achaemenid style and the one above it being older and rougher but very strongly built of large rocks alternating with horizontal rows of smaller rocks. Many broken columns and capitals are lying around and the only recognizable structure that I could associate with the Temple of Anahita is located at the far left end where I see a rather well preserved row of columns overlooking the landscape below – now a modern street with houses. A small mosque is apparently set on a corner of the temple floor; otherwise I cannot make out much from these ruins resting on top of this straight stone wall. To the far right of the site itself I find remains of earthen walls or some kind of fortification dotted with more bits and pieces of columns. The place definitely is in dear need of some archeological clean up.

The second Anahita Temple is located at Bishapur, some 100 km west of Shiraz. This temple is said to be built by Roman prisoners captured by the Sassanid King Shapur I in 260 AD. The city of Bishapur was founded by Shapur I after his impressive confrontation with the Romans when he killed Gordian III, captured Valerian and forced Philip the Arab to surrender. These glorious facts are commemorated in the reliefs he etched in the walls on the other side of the nearby Bishapur River

The city-walls of Bishapur are still very strong and look rather Roman because of their rectangular shape. Originally they were ten meters high and punctuated with round towers, suggesting that they were designed as a battery for catapults. Interestingly, at the northeastern side, the remains of a city gate are still standing. Bishapur was clearly designed to hold a population of 50,000 to 80,000 people.


The so-called Palace of Bishapur is still a puzzle to the archaeologists with its four half vaults that are closely related to later mosques with four iwans, and its walls with 64 niches that supposedly were decorated with freestanding statues – a rather rare occurrence in Sassanid art. Close to the center there is a fire altar that is however often interpreted as a shrine to Anahita. This association may be the consequence of an iconoclastic movement launched by Bahram I (272-273 AD), who had the statues of divinities removed from the sanctuaries that were consequently either abandoned or converted into fire altars. According to a recent report published in a Bulletin of the Georgian National Academy of Sciences, it seems that in early Sassanid times water and fire were being worshipped together.

To the north of this complex are the remains of the Temple of Anahita, which draws the attention because of its plain white wall built with regular ashlar blocks. It looks like another puzzle for this building has no parallel so far. The temple is deeper than any other part of the palace and can only be accessed by descending a vaulted straight stairway that ends in a small square area measuring 14x14m surrounded by 14-meters-high walls that each has a doorway in the middle. 
These doorways with lintels not unlike those of Persepolis lead to a corridor that runs around the patio and connect to an aqueduct. It is said that the central square must have been a pool. If so, the water must have ran through the hole in the threshold into the surrounding corridors that have a gutter on either side of the floor. It is assumed that the water flowed only on certain days of the year, so this could be related to ceremonies venerating Anahita as the goddess of waters. Going by the abovementioned report, it seems that the northwest and the northeast corridors were used to bring in the water while the southwest corridor was exclusively used to expel the water. To add to the many questions this temple creates, we can wonder about the two outer walls that top in a triangle. Since the sanctuary had no roof, scholars believe that these triangles were crowned with a large bull impost. Yet others speculate that there was a roof and that its wooden beams were supported by those bull-heads.


The goddess Anahita certainly deserves more attention as she excelled in her godly realm for centuries. According to the Avesta, the water goddess Anahita was the mother of the god of Victory known as Mithra. Zoroaster, a Bactrian reformer, turned Mithra into the Saviour and Anahita consequently was venerated as an immaculate virgin, the Mother of God. Nothing new under the sun, I would say.

[Click here for Pictures of the different Anahita sites]

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