Historic Monument of Kangavar

Photo by Roman Bruehwiler.

Historic Monument of Kangavar is part of the Tentative list of Iran in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

The Historic Monument of Kangavar comprises the Temple of Anahita, a Persian goddess. The 220x212m building was built on a rock platform and has 2 stairways at the front and 1 at the back. It probably dates from the 2nd century AD.

Map of Historic Monument of Kangavar

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

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UK - 05-Feb-23 -

Historic Monument of Kangavar (T) by Solivagant

If you visit the WHS of Bisotun then you are likely to pass Kangavar 60 kms earlier on the road from Tehran/Hamadan. The site is an open untidy, scrubby area to the west of the town - it will probably take less than 30 minutes for anyone not “into” Iranian archaeology! The problem isn’t seeing it, but getting much from the visit! Indeed, if it wasn’t for that T List “tick” (and with it the potential for an inscribed one in the future!) I suspect that most people would give it a miss. When we were there in April 2016 the site was fenced and an entry fee was payable. There was no museum, and, apart a very general one at the entrance, no interpretation boards. And no other visitors.

The current T List description can’t be accused of over-hype! I can even quote it in its entirety without extending this review by much – “A monument known as the Temple of Anahita built on a rock platform overlooking the plain of Kangavar. This is a huge building measuring 220m×212m. The monument has a two-sided stairway on its southern front and a one-sided stairway at its northeastern corner. Historical sources and archaeological evidence attribute this monument to the Achaemenid period until the Islamic period.” The word “huge” is perhaps the one to home in on. It is often claimed to be the “second largest stone building in Iran after Persepolis”. The dimensions of the platform and the stairways up to it. are indeed large, as is the size of the few remaining (“in situ”/ re-installed) pillars (Photo)…. But, beyond these, in all honesty, there is not a great deal else on view other than a jumble of stones and broken pillars on and around the platform, together with a fine view over the valley to the mountains beyond. Nevertheless, the site has its “interests” and “issues”…

The first “problem” is to work out what might it have looked like before it became ruined. Without some idea, it is even harder to make sense of the site. This drawing suggests that those enormous pillars running along the edge of platform were NOT the remains of some covered building but rather formed a boundary “wall” with horizontal lintels above. This could explain why the pillars, enormous as they are in girth, are also rather “squat”, The majority of the platform is shown as an open courtyard (Often titled as a “Temenos” ) containing a rectangular structure with yet another building on top of it. The drawings in this second article, however, hypothesize a more “zigguratic” form for any structure in the courtyard. Encylopedia Iranica (“EI” - see later) suggests arches with a building above. It would seem that no one really knows!

One of the reasons for this uncertainty is that the exact purpose of the building and even its age (both originally and in its final form) are up for debate. The T List title is “Historic Monument at Kangavar” which, the description states, is “known as the Temple of Anahita” (my bold). The site's Wiki article gives more background on this; but, note - “Until detailed further excavations are carried out, no definite judgments may be declared on the function of Kangava platform”. It appears that a 1st C CE Greco-Roman geographer, Isidore of Charax, described it (or was it something else in the general area?!) as a “Temple of Artemis”. Artemis was the Roman deity of Nature who also supervised water and wells…...whilst the Zoroastrian deity, Anahita, was goddess of water …. so 2 and 2 were added together to draw a “conclusion”! The trouble is that the structure doesn’t seem to possess the right attributes to be a Temple to Anahita. Another building in Iran also thought to have been such a temple is inscribed as part of the Sassanian WHS at Bishapur (also visited by us). However, although this demonstrates aspects which are far more relatable to Anahita – viz. it is close to running water, has “conduits” to channel that water and seems to possess a “pool”, even its “godly assignment” is often described as doubtful.

Could the monument’s “age”/period help determine its purpose? The UNESCO description states that it dates from “the Achaemenid period until the Islamic period.” The suggestion is that the main platform is Achaemenid (550 - 330BCE). Its location along the Royal Road from Hamadan to Ctesiphon would certainly have been important to that dynasty and there are undoubtedly similarities between Kangavar’s platform and staircases and those at Persepolis. However, the Hellenistic pillars whose remains can be seen today are thought to be Parthian (247 BCE-224 CE) or Sassanian (224- 651 CE) - Here is a nice summary of the dynasties! Since different parts of the structure display different characteristics (E.g the varied quality of the stonework), parts of it may be from very different periods and it may have undergone significant changes in use and design across the c900 years mentioned. The main suggestion for other uses (which, may not be mutually incompatible with alternative earlier uses) are that it was a Summer palace/hunting lodge for the last Sassanian King Kosrow II (c570-628AD). The Kangavar entry in EI expands more on its possible history but doesn’t really come down in favour of any of the theories!.  

After the Arab conquest (633-654 CE) the site seems to have been abandoned for any “State” purposes and a “village” grew up within it, making use of its stones (A practice carried through to the 19th/20th Cs for the growing town beyond). EI states that its mosque was “partly constructed in the Il-khanid and Safavid periods”. This print from the 1840's demonstrates, albeit in somewhat romanticised form, what it might have looked like. It might be worth mentioning at this point that, whilst the Achaemenid Royal road had faded into history, Kangovar wasn’t an “isolated” place but sat on a branch of the Silk road from Parthian times onwards (and gets a mention on page 72 of the ICOMOS Silk Roads Thematic Study of 2014 as being a “Silk road location already on the T List” – one of 38 in Iran!). Also that the Site is situated in a seismic area and suffered from a major earthquake in 1957 (and possibly on other occasions?) when its stones were again used for rebuilding. Thus, excavations by Iranian archaeologists which started in 1968 (and continued for 9 seasons) had to commence with “the matter of buying and demolishing and removing the houses, residences, neighborhoods, roads and shops of the village which completely covered the historical architecture of the Anahita shrine….”.

Given all the above, what is the likelihood of a nomination and what might be its chances? The excavations of the 60s/70s don’t seem to have ushered in a regime of “care”. The Web refers to the use of fires to keep the area clear - unfortunately the rock used for the construction doesn’t react well to heat! And then there was the Iranian Revolution! That small mosque built in the corner of the site isn’t just any old mosque but contains the “Imamzadeh of Ibrahim”! I have written elsewhere in Iranian reviews of the role and significance of “Imamazadeh” in Shiism. The title is used to describe descendents of the original “Twelver” Imams and also for the locations where their remains are buried. These became sites for pilgrimage because of the belief in the perfection of Imams. This, in turn, bestows their descendents and their burial places with miraculous properties and the ability to heal – a capability which transfers down the generations! The number of such shrine-tombs multiplied particularly in the 16th C CE when Shiism became Persia’s official religion - many with doubtful authenticity (My “contact” in Iran has absolutely no idea who the “Ibrahim” of Kangavar was)! Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 there has been another massive increase in the number of shrine tombs and of interest in those already existing. Thus, hardly had Kangavar been added to Iran’s T List in 2007 with the announced intention to try to improve management of the site, than it faced a plan to increase the size of the Imamzadeh within its boundaries!!! However, in what seems to have been a battle between hard line clerics who are hostile towards pre-Islamic sites and those wanting to preserve them, that was prevented. See this article and this

Fast forward another 10 years to this article from 2017  titled “Kangavar’s UNESCO inscription delayed” which refers to another management change and also to the inadequate “single paragraph” UNESCO description! “It’ll take two to five years to prepare the site for its global inscription and that is only if we have a solid plan”.  Other articles, like this scientific paper from 2020 regarding deterioration of the rock from weathering, at least indicate some degree of concern and investigation regarding the site!

A major change of direction seems to be indicated in the most recent WHS “news”, which suggests that Kangavar might be included as one of a series of Sassanid sites along the road from Hamedan to Ctesiphon. See this from July 2020  and this from Jan 2023 stating that “Qasr-e Shirin’s ensemble is a part of a Sassanid axis stretched from Iran’s Kangavar to ancient Ctesiphon, now situated in Modern Iran”. Such an approach would sweep up several Iranian T List sites (Kangavar, Takh-e Bostan and Qasr-e Shrin?) under a “Sassanian umbrella” and would add in Ctesiphon in modern Iraq which was Sassanian from 226-637 CE (though was founded by the Parthians). Iran may well have looked at its 2018 success when it pulled together 3 Sassanian sites in the East and overcame ICOMOS objections that they didn’t all “belong together”. Kangavar, however, could be considered more "Parthian" than “Sassanian” in age/purpose and, at least, requires further excavations in the hope of discovering more.

Finally, 2 more recent “announcements” regarding Kangavar; A start on restoration has been made (reported in Jun 2021) - “After 20 years of silence in the Anahita Temple, a restoration project has begun on the southwestern side of this historical sanctuary,” Morteza Geravand, the director of the ancient site, announced on Tuesday.” and (from Oct 2022) there are plans for an Archaeological Museum on the site! So, something might well be afoot for Kangavar, but whether it can build an adequate case is another matter!


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Full Name
Historic Monument of Kangavar
Archaeological site - Near Eastern
2007 Added to Tentative List

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Historic Monument of Kangavar (T)
WHS 1997-2024