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.
This hill that has the view of the city is located in
northwest of Maragheh and the well-known Khwajeh Nasir Al-Din observatory,
now reconstructed logically, is located on top of the hill.
Maragheh is one of Iran's most ancient cities which has 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 kilometres south of Maragheh in Verjuy (Verjouy) village. There were no signs indicating the location of the temple (located on the north of the village in Verjuy's ancient cemetery) in the village or even at the entrance of the cemetery. Even inhabitants of Verjuy were surprised to hear about the existence of Mehr (Mithra) temple (the name given to it by the Cultural Heritage Organization) in their cemetery. In fact what we found after seeing the temple looked like anything but a historical site.
Followers of Mithraism built this temple during the Arsacid dynasty (248 BCE-224 CE) by cutting a huge schist stone on the ground and making it an entrance 5.40 meters wide. A steep embankment reaches an underground corridor with a crescent-shaped ceiling at the entrance of the cave. The height of the corridor's ceiling is 2.5 meters from the ground and the corridor is 17.60 meters long. What is tormenting now is the presence of huge amounts of constructional waste, disgusting garbage and plastic which is scattered in all corridors of this unique temple. The central corridor has a lot of pits that connect to underground rooms with dome-like ceilings. Holes were made in many of these ceilings in the Islamic era for the reach of light.
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. What is now left from the inscription has been darkened by chalk so that it would be clearer and the officials in the Cultural Heritage Organization wouldn't have to make a separate brochure!
Although parts of the ceiling has fallen off, for years now a brick building has been built on top of the temple's ceiling. A resident of Verjuy village claims that this temple was used as the mosque of the cemetery in Maragheh in the past. It should be noted that Verjuy cemetery is among the most important cemeteries built at the reign of the Safavid dynasty and even today beautiful gravestones can be found in it.
At the far end of the main hall, there is a platform with two steps which reaches a small wooden door in the past. After going inside, there is a circular hall 6 meters high which the people of Verjuy know and remember as the shrine of Molla Masoum, said to be a friend and companion of the prophet or Imams. The shrine, made of stone, has beautiful vaulted rows which go around the wall. In the middle, there is 1X2 meter wooden shrine which indicates Mulla Masoum's grave. The ceiling of this room is also destroyed, but a huge beam has broken the shrine and its metal protector and garbage has filled the room.
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.
Mohammad Moghadam, the author of "Search on Mehr and Venus" believed that Mehr had a real character and during the reign of the Parthian dynasty, it was the official religion of Iranians. But in fact whatever the life of Mehr was, with the help of Christianity in the West and Zoroastrianism in the East, Mehr was destroyed.
Mithraism narrations state that Mehr was born in a cave and thus caves were considered very important in this religion and played important roles in the construction of temples. Followers of Mithraism performed their worshipping ceremonies in natural caves. There had to be a spring, river or flowing water near the cave. They even tried very hard to locate a place near flowing water when building artificial caves just like the natural ones. Because of such style, eventually temples were built underground. The temples included a triangular room with a barrel vault and a bow-shaped ceiling. Because such temples symbolized the world, sometimes ceilings were designed with stars. The most important part of a temple was its altar which was located at the end of the hall and included a small porch. Usually this porch was built a little higher than the ground level and resembled the entrance of a cave. The walls contained pictures of Mehr.
The shape of an altar which in fact belongs to the era of Mithraism was formed on stone graves after the arrival of Islam and in the 4th century A.H.
Altar or Mehrab (Mithraium) is a place which in Pre-Islamic Iran and Islamic period (Mihrab) is considered to be a window opening to God and the reality of this world. Also two braziers were placed on each side of the altar and statues were put around it. Between the altar and the entrance door, there was a corridor like a hall and if the temple was built in the Roman style, there were also long platforms on each side. Followers of Mithraism usually sat on these platforms and tables and the blessed food were placed in front of them.
The entrance door was followed by steps. After going down the steps, one reached a few rooms in which the beginning religious ceremonies of Mithraism were performed. Participants would then enter the main hall.
Among other main Mithraism temples in Maragheh, we can refer to hand made caves of the observatory hill. This hill that has the view of the city is located in northwest of Maragheh and the well-known Khajeh Nasir Din observatory, now reconstructed logically, is located on top of the hill.
The asphalted road that circles around the hill before reaching the highest surface and the observatory passes by a number of parallel holes that are like caves. However, unfortunately because of the lack of introduction and signs that would reveal the identity of this place, it is used as a rest room or the place where criminals gather.
In fact, this place, which was probably given a great deal of importance at the time of Mithraism, is composed of entrances like caves with different depths. Platforms for sacrificing or platforms on which pictures of Mehr were engraved are very well preserved in some of these caves.
Also in the architecture of this temple, we can point out the corridors which connect areas together in the heart of the mountain. Unfortunately, this irreplaceable exceptional treasure which indicates the appearance of Mithraism in Iran and its spread in the whole world is on the verge of destruction. Most importantly, because taking care of and paying attention to historical sites is a matter of taste in Iran, no one has paid any attention to these caves.
It is important to note that from the 5th century to the 9th century A.H, the influence of Sufism was felt more than ever in Iran because of the country's destruction, poverty and the misery of the public after the attack of Turks in the 6th century, Mongols in the 7th century and Timor in early 8th and 9th centuries. Thus a pessimistic view toward the physical life was spread in the country and people were encouraged to abandon this world and its social activities. As a result, it was in this era that different Sufi orders spread and new monasteries were built. Because Mithraism temples were built in caves or underground, they were regarded as proper places for Sufi monasteries.
Another kind of Mithraism temples can be seen in Ghadamgah (Badamyar) village, 15 kilometres away from southeastern Azarshahr. 300 meters from southwest of the village, there are a number of Mithraism temples. After the arrival of Islam, the entrance door of one the caves was designed with flowers and an Islamic altar and was used as a mosque or a Sufi monastery. Based on ancient Mithraism narrations, every year in a ceremony, Mithra killed the holy cow to flow its blood on earth and to resurrect nature. The killing of the cow with Mehr's hands is one of the main symbols of this religion. The picture of Mehr killing the cow, painted, engraved or in the form of statues existed in all temples without a doubt. Mehr was the people's saviour and for becoming free of his duty, he killed a cow. As a result, followers of Mithraism either built temples in natural caves or built artificial underground caves with entrances that looked liked natural caves.
After sacrificing the cow, the worldly duty of Mehr was finished and he was ready for ascension to heaven. But before his ascension, a celebration was held. This last supper is seen in many of the world's ancient and mysterious religions. This celebration was actually held for the victory of Mehr and his farewell with companions. In this celebration, the sacrificed cow was brought in after it was cooked. Some followers of Mithraism participated in the ceremony in order to be present in the common food and wine. It is after this holy supper that Mehr ascends to the heavens. The tool of his ascension is his 4-horse vehicle. Sadly, the Mithraism paintings showing Mehr's ascension were damaged in the 4th and 5th centuries. When destroying temples and searching for followers of Mithraism, Christians damaged these paintings more than others because they witnessed that their holy Eucharistic ceremonies are close to Mithraism in form and meaning. Therefore, we can say that just like!
when Mithra imposed himself as in the same position and as high as Ahura Mazda using his influence and acceptability in Iran, he also crystallized himself in Christianity in the Roman Empire and protected many of his characters with a new name.