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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee

Image credit: Kenneth Garrett at Discover Magazine




Turkmenistan Region

Turkmenistan Region & Zoroastrianism


Turkmenistan and Zoroastrianism

Silk Roads

Kopet Dag Mountains

Kara Kum Desert

Nisa, Anau, Kopet Dag Foothills

Nisaya, Nisa

Raphael Pumpelly - Champion of a Central Asian Cradle of Civilization


Fredrik Hiebert

Why Pumpelly Remains Unknown

Resumption of Anau Excavations

Ancient Kopet Dag Foothill Townships

Mouru - Gonur 1

Mouru & Murgab River Delta

Region & Zoroastrianism

Tepe or Depe


The Archaeological Site

Description of Ancient Gonur

Water Management

Mouru - Gonur 2


Speculation About the Use of Haoma

Claims Regarding Gonur/Margush/Turkmenistan as the Birthplace of Zoroaster or Zoroastrianism

Necropolis & Burial Customs

Gonur Artefacts

Abandonment of Gonur

Age, People & Culture

Mouru - Gonur 3


Toguluk / Togulok

Adji Kui


Very Poor Archaeological Practices

Viktor Sarianidi

BMAC & Andronovo Archaeological Complexes

Mouru - Merv


Endangered Site

History & Cities of Merv

Erk Kala

Gyaur Kala

Sultan Kala

Abdullah Khan Kala

Bairam Ali Khan Kala

Mouru - Gonur, Page 2

Turkmenistan Region Pages:

» Turkmenistan Region Introduction

» Nisaya - Anau & Ancient Kopet Dag Foothill Townships

» Mouru - Merv

Gonur contd.


Temple building walls uncovered in Gonur-Depe
So-called Temple(?) building walls with three narrow rooms to the left
being uncovered in Gonur-Depe
Photo credit: Country Turkmenistan

A web article posted by State News Agency of Turkmenistan, quotes Viktor Sarianidi (see Sarianidi, page 3) leader of the Gonur excavations, as stating that in the spring of 2006, his team uncovered a large temple building near the central palace. Sarianidi dated the building and functioning of structure to between the late 3rd to early 2nd millennium BCE.

The Turkmenistan State News Agency article describes the building uncovered in 2006 as "a monumental building remarkable for the strict geometrical forms and brilliant architectural design. The central part of the "shrine" (sic) which has the walls sometimes 1.5 meters thick and strictly oriented to the sides of horizon is of particular interest. The rooms have the complementary angles. The principles of planning some architectural blocks indicate the specific purposes of using the temple complex. E.g., three single-type corridor-like rooms directly correspond to the architectural design of monumental constructions in the ancient Orient." We note that the contorted language used in the report makes a clear understanding of its contents difficult.

In the photograph of the excavated rooms of the "temple" shown above right, the larger room has a circular foundation which the Turkmenistan new agency article describes as a "furnace" with an inner and outer chamber. The inner chamber contained burnt material presumably residue of the fuel used but which the article does not identify. The article further notes that pots found in the vicinity of the building had an internal lining that made them waterproof, thereby making them capable of holding liquids.

As we have stated earlier, we have serious concerns about the conclusions reached by Sarianidi some of which we know to be factually incorrect. Others scientists have not only failed to verify Sarianidi's claims to have discovered residues of narcotic substances stored in containers within these "temples" (sic), but have also identified the residues of impressions of the seeds stored within the containers as a food grain.

Sarianidi has been obsessed with the notion that the primary function of the "temple" was to support the ritual of preparing a narcotic which he describes as the Zoroastrian haoma. We discuss the absurdity of this notion below. He also states that these so-called temples at Togolok-21 and Gonur "had fire altars as well, that were always located in secret places inside the temples and were hidden behind high blind walls."

We should keep in mind that the early Zoroastrians did not as far as we know construct urban temples. In any event, Zoroastrians have never at any time constructed temples to produce a narcotic - never. That suggestion is highly insulting to Zoroastrians.

Speculation About the Use of Haoma

The State News Agency of Turkmenistan article cited above quoting Sarianidi, further states that the archaeologists found evidence that a haoma-like ritual (according to their bizarre understanding of haoma & Zoroastrianism) was performed in one of the Gonur buildings. This understanding includes haoma being a narcotic - something that is entirely bogus. There is no evidence whatsoever of haoma ever being a narcotic. Haoma used in Zoroastrian rituals is made from a small quantity of natural ephedra and pomegranate stems and the entire haoma system is intended to promote health and vitality only. In addition, the veracity of Sarianidi's speculations and conclusions is disputed by scientists (Hiebert 1994: 123-129; Parpola 1998: 127;) using more credible analysis techniques (at the laboratory of the Helsinki University). The sensationalistic claims by Viktor Sarianidi (see Sarianidi, page 3) proclaiming the discover of narcotic material with completely unsubstantiated links with the haoma ritual were found after a more careful study to be implausible. [Click here for the article by Viktor Sarianidi titled Margiana and Soma-Haoma published in the electronic Journal of Vedic Studies (EJVS) Vol. 9 (2003) Issue 1d (May 5) and with Jan E.M. Houben of Leiden University as Guest Editor. We note that Sarianidi's references do not include a single authentic Zoroastrian source even though he claims to associate certain findings with Zoroastrianism.]

According to James P. Mallory 1989 & 1997 "... remains of ephedras have also been reported from the temple-fortress complex of Togolok 21 in the Merv oasis (ancient Margiana – Parpola 1988; Meier-Melikyan 1990) along with the remains of poppies. ... In 1990 I received some samples from the site [forwarded by Dr. Fred Hiebert of Harvard University], which were subjected to pollen analysis at the Department of Botany, University of Helsinki. .... The largest amount of pollen was found in the bone tube (used for imbibing liquid?) from Gonur 1, but even in this sample, which had been preserved in a comparatively sheltered position when compared with the other investigated samples, only pollen of the family Caryophyllaceae was present. No pollen from ephedras or poppies was found and even the pollen left in the samples showed clear traces of deterioration (typical in ancient pollen having been preserved in a dry environment in contact with oxygen). Our pollen analysis was carefully checked for any methodological errors, but no inaccuracies were found."

Yet another refutation of Sarianidi's wild and unsubstantiated claims of 1. having found narcotics and 2. associating what he found is found with haoma and thereby a Zoroastrian cult (sic) ritual is found in a journal article of which Jan E.M. Houben of Leiden University, Netherlands [E. Journal of Vedic Studies Vol. 9 (2003) Issue 1c (May 5)]. [Click here for an excerpt of the article by Professor C.C. Bakels titled Report concerning the contents of a ceramic vessel found in the "white room" of the Gonur Temenos, Merv Oasis, Turkmenistan.] Bakels concludes, "The material we examined contained broomcorn millet. This cereal is known from the Merv oasis, at least from the Bronze Age onwards (Nesbitt 1997). The crop plant most probably has its origin in Central Asia, perhaps even in the Aralo-Caspian basin."

Professor Houben states, "After a few months I received messages indicating that no proof could be found of any of the substances indicated by Sarianidi. Rather than hastily sticking to this conclusion, Prof. Bakels made efforts to show the specimens to other paleobotanists whom she met at international professional meetings. At the end of this lengthy procedure, no confirmation could be given of the presence of the mentioned plants in the material that was investigated. The traces of plant-substances rather pointed in the direction of a kind of millet."

We must also wonder on what basis Sarianidi and his cohorts came to the conclusion that some of the building were part of a temple complex. The containers that Sarianidi claims stored narcotics were simply grain containers, the likes of which are found all over the region. Any oven in the same building could have been used to cook or bake bread. What Sarianidi and his cohorts fancy to be a temple could have been a bakery.

When the careful analysis of the residues in pots did not support Sarianidi claims of the discovery of narcotic substances, the excuse offered is that the vessels are now exposed to the sun and the evidence has been destroyed. Unfortunately, this excuse uncovers yet another problem with Sarianidi excavations - careless exposure of the artefacts and the ruins.

The speculation guised as an assertion regarding the preparation and use of haoma / hom in Gonur is bad enough. The association of haoma with a narcotic is pathetic - a thoughtless imaginary construct which is deeply insulting to Zoroastrians and Zoroastrianism.

These so-called archaeologists who know little about Zoroastrianism other than what they read in some fanciful books, should refrain from their wild and sensational speculation that does a great deal of harm to Zoroastrians and Zoroastrianism. Their energies would be better directed at using best practices in digging up buried history that is being destroyed by careless and disgraceful methods.

Claims Regarding Gonur/Margush/Turkmenistan as the Birthplace of Zoroaster or Zoroastrianism

If the absurd claims regarding Haoma were not bad enough, Sarianidi is quoted as claiming that either Gonur, Margush or Turkmenistan were the birthplace of Zoroastrianism and Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) himself.

The online article published by State News Agency of Turkmenistan as well as Turkmenistan's Federal Service for Supervision of Compliance with Legislation Governing Mass Communications and Protection of Cultural Heritage - the article cited above carries the heading: Professor V. I. Sarianidi: "The First World Religion - Zoroastrianism - Emerged In Turkmenistan". Apparently quoting Sarianidi, the article goes on to state:

"The people in Turkmenistan and other countries know the words from Ruhnama (*see below), "Two and a half thousand years ago Zarathushtra from Margush appeared in the world. Reining his sorrel camel he exclaimed, "People, worship Fire, its sources will lead you along the right path, illuminate each nook in your souls!" For all these years we have been uncovering the tangible evidence proving that there, in the old delta of the Murghab River, the oldest religion in the world Zoroastrianism emerged. The spring archelogical (their spelling, not ours) season (headed by Viktor Sarianidi) ended in uncovering a monumental temple building near the central palace in Gonur-depe. The building is linked with the process of cooking a ritual drink of importance among ancient Zoroastrians which is mentioned Avesta (the Zoroastrian scriptures) as Haoma....

[* Note the Ruhnama means "The Book of the Soul" according to Wikipedia, which goes on to say, "...is a book written by Saparmurat Niyazov, late President for Life of Turkmenistan, combining spiritual/moral guidance, autobiography and revisionist history; much of it is of dubious or disputed factuality and accuracy. Further, "It was mandatory to read the Ruhnama in schools, universities and governmental organizations. New governmental employees were tested on the book at job interviews." "In March 2006, Niyazov was recorded as saying that he had interceded with God to ensure that any student who read the book three times would automatically get into heaven." Sarianidi has also written a book titled Zoroastrianism: A New Motherland for an Old Religion.]

Amongst everything else, the apparent contradiction in the late President-for-life's statements that "Zarathushtra from Margush" lived 2,500 years ago (an incorrect date we may add) and Sarianidi's assertion that Gonur was abandoned a thousand or so years before that date, seems to escape the proponents of this fantasy.

While not mentioned in the Avesta, it is in the realm of possibilities that Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) could have conducted a ministry in or near Gonur - and elsewhere in the vicinity as well. And while Zoroastrians could have lived in the vicinity of Gonur, there is no basis for the claim that Zarathushtra was born in, or that Zoroastrianism originated in, Gonur, Margush or Turkmenistan. The Zoroastrian text, the Bundahishn at 20.32 states that Zarathushtra's father house was on the banks of the Daraja River in Airan-Vej (Airyana-Veja, the first nation of the Avesta-Vendidad's list of sixteen nations) and at 32.3 it states that Zarathushtra, when he brought the religion, first celebrated worship and expounded (the religion) in Airan-Vej. The Avesta's Farvardin Yasht at 13.143 & 144 list individuals who were the first "hearers and teachers" of Zarathushtra's teachings as from five nations: Airyana-Vaeja (called Airyanam Dakhyunam in the Yasht), Tuirya, Sairima, Saini and Dahi. The Farvardin Yasht extols Vishtasp as accepting the faith and the poet Ferdowsi's epic the Shahnameh states that Vishtasp was the King of Balkh (Bakhdhi), fourth in the Avesta-Vendidad list of nations and Mouru's northern neighbour.

Mouru (the predecessor nation to Margu(sh) and eventually Turkmenistan) is not mentioned at all in the context of being part of Zarathushtra's ministry. Mouru, the third Avestan nation was likely a neighbouring nation to Airyana-Vaeja, the first Avestan nation and Zarathushtra's birthplace, and Mouru was certainly close to Balkh (Bakhdhi), the fourth Avestan nation.

In conclusion, was Gonur while it existed Zoroastrian? Possibly - depending on the date you feel Zarathushtra established his religion. Was the Murgab delta, Mouru, part of the greater Aryan federation? Yes. Was the Murgab delta, Mouru, a nation with early Zoroastrians? Most likely. Was the Murgab delta, Mouru, the birthplace of Zarathushtra/Zoroaster or Zoroastrianism? No.

Necropolis & Burial Customs

A pit grave in the necropolis
Pit grave in the necropolis
Ceramic vessels & a bronze mirror
lie next to the skull

In one section of Gonur North, is a burial site, the necropolis, west of the palace site, containing mostly small children buried in pots. An article by Kate Fitz Gibbon of Anahita Gallery states:

"Their tiny, newborn bones are so fragile that they crumble at a touch. The beautiful Bronze Age beads from plundered sites in Afghanistan have long fascinated me. Most often, buried bead materials are found in vessels placed close to the body, and as any stringing material has long since disintegrated with age, it is not even possible to guess how they were worn. In the Gonur Tepe palace, an unexpected find of a youth buried inside a large ceramic vessel included not only rich grave goods, but also clues as to how some beads were worn. Skull and neck vertebrae were held together with hardened mud, and as the dirt was removed, lapis, talc and a single, inch and a half long carnelian bead carved in chevron patterns were found encircling the neck. A single gold earring was embedded near the ear, and a half-dozen large, finely polished banded agate beads lay in the bottom of the vessel in which the youth was buried.

An apparent royal burial site at Gonur
An apparent royal burial site at Gonur contains luxury goods,
a cart with bronze-sheathed wheels, and the remains of a camel.
Photo Credit: various. tzaralunga at Flickr &
Kenneth Garrett at Discover Magazine

"My mother and I spent most of our days at Gonur in the large necropolis to the west of the palace site. We used fine brushes to remove the last of the dirt from the whitened bones and grave goods uncovered by the diggers. Each day, three or four grave pits were uncovered and cleared of dirt to the undisturbed earth - about four feet below the present surface. After each day's excavations at the necropolis, the pits were photographed and partially filled in again. Most skeletons appeared still to lie as they were buried; knees and elbows flexed, the head often resting on or near a small pile of ceramic and stone vessels. It was clear, however, that the necropolis had been robbed in antiquity. Very few items of jewellery were found, and in one grave, a fine, carved alabaster cylinder seal was unearthed under just a few inches of surface soil. A too hasty grave plunderer had apparently dropped it, several thousand years before."

Gonur's Exquisite Artefacts

The quality, artistry and workmanship of the artefacts unearthed at Gonur has surprised observers. They include intricate jewellery and metalwork incorporating gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and carnelian.

Necklace with carnelian obsidian beads found in the necropolis at Gonur
Necklace with carnelian obsidian beads found in the necropolis at Gonur.
Carnelian is a hard reddish translucent semiprecious gemstone that is a variety of chalcedony, a form of banded quartz.
Obsidian is a jet-black volcanic glass, chemically similar to granite and formed by the rapid cooling of molten lava.
Photo credit: Anna Garner at Flickr. The beads are now part of Anna Garner's collection.
Pin with camel ornament
Pin with camel ornament. Photo credit:
Katy Tzaralunga at Flickr
Fine containers
Fine containers. Photo credit: Katy Tzaralunga at Flickr
Artistic wall decorations(?)
Artistic wall decorations(?). Photo credit: Katy Tzaralunga at Flickr

The prowess of the Gonur metalworkers - who used tin alloys and delicate combinations of gold and silver - were on par with the skills of their more famous contemporaries in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley. Their creations display a rich repertoire of geometric designs, mythic monsters, and other creatures. Among them are striking humanoid statues with small heads and wide skirts, as well as horses, lions, snakes, and scorpions.

Tile-work(?) of a griffin-like creature
Miniature animal artefacts. Photo credit: Katy Tzaralunga at Flickr
Tile-work(?) of a griffin-like creature
Tile-work(?) of a griffin-like creature. Photo credit: Katy Tzaralunga at Flickr
A rich find of pottery at Gonur
A rich find of pottery at Gonur. Photo credit: josephescu at Flickr
Seal of the type found and used in the Indus Valley
Seal of the type found and used in the Indus Valley

Gold and other metals are not found in the region. The lapis lazuli likely came from the Badakshan mountains that are now in the northwest of Afghanistan.

Wares in this distinctive style had long been found in regions far and near. As close as Gonur's southern neighbour Balkh in today's Afghanistan, and as far as Mesopotamia to the west, the shores of the Persian Gulf to the south, the Russian steppes to the north, and to the southeast across the Hindu Kush - the great cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, which once flourished on the banks of the Indus River in today's Pakistan.

Archaeologists had long puzzled over the origin of the fine artefacts found in the Indus Valley and in the distant lands - artefacts made from materials not native to those areas. The Gonur excavations provide one possible answer: that the items originated in the region around Gonur. For the artefacts to have spread to lands thousands of kilometres apart indicate the presence of an active trade network consisting of artisans, traders, merchants, an extensive road network and possibly even bazaars. It is conceivable that the hub of the network was Central Asia and that Gonur lay at its heart. The merchants of Gonur and Central Asia could even have been the possible originators of the Silk Roads.

That all of this together in an advanced urban setting supported by an irrigated agricultural system was already developed and functioning in the Bronze Age (2500-1700 BCE) is astounding.

The Abandonment of Gonur

The archaeological artefacts found in Gonur's ruins are dated to a period that spans a few hundred years. During their excavations, archaeologists did not find artefact containing over-layers dated later than than the Bronze Age layer that contained Gonur's ruins. This has led researchers to surmise that Gonur was abandoned either for reasons of warfare or because of the receding waters of the Murgab, compelling residents to move towards Merv and the surrounding foothills.

In the Avesta's Vendidad, the virtues associated with the people of Mouru are that they were brave and holy. The evils associated with Mouru are plunder and bloodshed. We do not know if the people of Mouru engaged in bloodshed and plunder or if they were the victims of plundering aggressors. The fortifications at Gonur (three walls) are far more extensive that those found in other Aryan lands. Mehrgarh on the western Indus Valley slopes had no fortifications.

The people and nations of the Avesta, the Aryans, were a settled, organized people who farmed and lived in towns. Zoroastrian texts tell us that it is from the north that an ill wind blew and that brought with it a violent and destructive people who raided and plundered the towns of the Aryans.

To the north of the central Asian Aryan kingdoms lay deserts and grazing land inhabited by nomads, a pastoral people who relied on herds that were constantly on the move seeking new pastures. The nomads also hunted for their food and raided the settlements of their neighbours.

There is evidence that extensive fires destroyed some of Gonur's central buildings - building that they were never rebuilt.

Age, People & Culture

Prof. Fredrik Hiebert of the Univ. of Pennsylvania (who during the 1988-89 field season, excavated part of Gonur in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture of Turkmenistan and the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow), in his book Origins of the Bronze Age Oasis Civilization in Central Asia (Harvard University Press, 2004) writes on page 2:

"The archaeology of Margiana is fundamentally tied into the Kopet Dag foothill chronological framework of the Namazga culture (see note 1). Of prime importance has been the association of the monumental architecture in Margiana with numerous miniature stone columns, steatite bowls, bronze seals, and stone amulets. None of the materials of these objects is locally available (see note 2), yet they have a style distinctive to the desert oases of Margiana and Bactria. The oasis sites have provided the first known cultural context for the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex."

After earlier independent work by Soviet archaeologists that would have included Viktor Sarianidi, Hiebert worked with Sarianidi, an effort that resulted in a change of previous conclusions. Hiebert writes, "This study is based on collaborative excavations conducted by V. Sarianidi and myself (our note: misplaced reflective pronoun "myself" here – should be the object pronoun "me") at the Bronze Age site of Gonur Depe in Margiana. It is proposed that the rapid occupation of sites in the Murgab delta oasis was contemporary with the Namazga V settlement in the foothill region, which was the period of largest urban settlement at the site of Altyn Depe (see note 3). The present study proposes that the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex developed from local traditions at the beginning of the second millennium (our note: say 2,000 – 1,600 BCE see note 4). In contrast to previously suggested reconstructions of the origins of the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex, I show that this development does not result from migrations from Iran, South Asia, or Mesopotamia, nor from the sedentarization of nomads (see note 5).

"The diverse geography and natural resources of Central Asia form a framework for the pattern of human settlement. The differential development of culture in the areas of oasis and foothill plain is largely due to this diversity of environments.

"The archaeological context of the Bronze Age sites of Margiana is special, in that very little post-Bronze Age architectural remains are preserved just below the surface. The area is highly deflated, leaving little more than the ground plan and a small amount of deposit just above the floors. These have been cleared over wide areas, exposing entire building complexes."

"the oasis regions of ancient Bactria and Margiana developed their own artistic tradition on stone and metal artefacts despite the lack of natural resources on which they were made."

Note (general): It seems the Margians imported the raw material of the artefacts in main part from their southern Arian neighbours, the Bactrians and others, and then fashioned the artefacts for domestic use and export for the artefacts are reported to have been found in the Indus Valley. This activity points to a shared understanding between the Arian nations, a network of roads that connected them and policed to assure safe passage of the travellers, knowledge of tools suitable to work with the properties of different materials, and craft shops if not small factories. Aryan society would have had to be fairly complex, with agriculture supported by a network of canals, cities supported by a water and sewage distribution network, architects, builders of buildings and infrastructure, traders, administrators, a military and laws to govern society and keep the peace.

Note 1: Namazga or Namazgah (meaning prayer-place, "ga" is a contraction of "gah" meaning place) is a Bronze Age archaeological site in Turkmenistan, some 100 km from Ashgabat, near the Iranian border. Numbers in Roman numerals beside the name indicate the age of an excavation layer (at times settlements were rebuilt on top of previous ones). Namazgah IV is dated around 2,500 BCE, V to around 2,000-1,600 BCE, and VI to around 1,600-1,000 BCE.

Note 2: This phenomenon of the discovery of materials not native to an area is a common denominator of the various nations of Ancient Aryana who actively traded amongst themselves.

Note 3: Namazga(h) V is dated to around 2,500 BCE. An article (1989 updated 2011) by V. M. Mason at Iranica states, "The excavations (at Altyn Depe) show continuous development of an early agricultural culture from the 5th to the early 2nd millennium BCE Though a settlement of the Neolithic Jaitun culture (6th millennium BCE) is situated nearby… in the 4th millennium B.C. the inhabited area of Altyn Tepe increased to 12 hectares… at the end of the 4th to the early 3rd millennium B.C., Altyn Tepe covered 25 hectares, acquiring the character of a large inhabited center… Altyn Tepe reached its most flourishing stage at the end of the 3rd-early 2nd millennium B.C. (complex of the Namazga V type), when it was a settlement of the early urban type."

Note 4. Hiebert notes on page 2, "The previous radiocarbon dates from Margiana and from other areas of Central Asia have provided unsatisfactory results for archaeologists." (Hiebert's) "chronology is based primarily on a new series of radiocarbon dates, which came from the Margiana excavations, both from my own excavations and from previous excavations."

The residents of Gonur did not, however, materialize from nowhere. They were residents of the area who built Gonur. We do not know if any lower excavation layers have been found.

Note 5: Saka and Turkic migrations occurred later – after Alexander’s invasion and subsequent occupation weakened the infrastructure. Nomadic raids from the north were constant – thus the fortifications. The raids were for plunder and not for settlement (the nomads had no interest in settling and working for a living).

According to Discover Magazine, "Fredrik Hiebert, a young American graduate student, learned Russian, visited Gonur in 1988, and then a few years later returned with his Harvard adviser, Lamberg-Karlovksy. A team of Italians followed to dig at nearby sites and to examine Gonur's extensive cemetery."

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