Votive Practices at the Temple of the Oxus

Claire Heseltine is a PhD student in Classics at King’s College, London. Her doctoral project focuses on miniature representations of the gods on personal, portable items in the late Hellenistic period, and the importance of these objects as mediators between believer and divine referent. More widely, her research focuses on the material culture of personal religion, with a focus on artefacts related to women and enslaved individuals. She holds an MSt in Classical Archaeology from the University of Oxford and is an alumna of the Ertegun Graduate Programme – her work on Takht-i Sangin and the Hellenistic East was developed as part of this MSt programme and presented in an early form to the Ertegun Graduate Seminar. 

On the right bank of the Amu Darya, in ancient Bactria and modern Tajikistan, is the Temple of the Oxus at Takht-i Sangin. The temple building was constructed in the early Hellenistic period and epigraphic evidence demonstrates that it was a cult site for the nearby river, the Oxus (the name of which is a Greek transliteration of its local name, the Vakhsh).With limited settlement around the sanctuary site, this temple was likely a religious focus point for a wide area, serving an array of communities and visitors across Greco-Bactria, connected to the rest of the region by the river itself (for excavation reports see Litvinsky & Pichikyan 2000, 2001; for recent scholarship see the extensive writings of Lindström, especially 2009a, 2016). Archaeological evidence of varied votives and rituals at the site points to the multiplicity of practices and groups it served; this is particularly evident in the vast amount of votive dedications excavated at the site, deposited in pits or storage structures in the corridors behind the central hall. This high volume of votives, spanning five centuries of cult practice, aids us in reconstructing both the temple cult and the temple’s wider role within the Bactrian religious landscape through their object category, epigraphy, and decoration.

Figure 1: Map showing the location of the temple at Takhti-Sangin on the Oxus river (Google Maps 2021)

Before moving to the extensive collection of votives at the temple, it is important to offer some context for their deposition. The Temple of the Oxus stands just below the confluence of the Vakhsh and Panj, between the river and the Teshik Tash ridge, which separates the small sanctuary settlement from the more populated region of Qobadiya (Litvinsky & Pichikyan 1994, 47). Engagement with cult is evident at the site from the late 4th century BCE through to the 1st-2nd century CE, with short periods of disuse apparent in the material record, but with a concerted effort for reconstruction and repair in the Kushan period (Litvinsky & Pichikyan 2001, 513; Wood, in press). The foundation of the temple has been associated with the Seleucid kings, mirroring the large-scale temple building projects in Babylonia and across their empire. However, no concrete evidence for the foundation date or patron has been found. The temple’s place in the network of Bactrian religion is evident from the commonalities in finds from this site and from the temples of Ai Khanoum further west: notably, both sites preserve fragments of limestone purification vessels, while a fragment similar to the Cybele Disk from Ai Khanoum has been found among the votives at Takht-i Sangin. The temple is perhaps best known for the famous Oxus treasure found nearby (see https://www.worldhistory.org/Oxus_Treasure/ for details of the hoard). Though it is uncertain whether the treasure originates from Takht-i Sangin or one of the other nearby fortresses and settlements, the hoard contains a ring with an engraving of a man-headed bull, with the legend ‘Wakhshu’ in Aramaic associating it with the Vakhsh and thus likely the cult of the Oxus (Grenet 2005, 378; Bernard 2015, 57).

Figure 2: Gold finger ring with an engraved bezel depicting an androcephalic winged bull. Treasure of the Oxus: Takht-i Kuwad. D. 2.25 cm, L. 1.7 cm. W. 11.5g. London: The British Museum, 1897, 1231.105.

The temple complex itself was a monumental mud-brick structure, raised on an artificial mound around 10 m above the surrounding terrain and fortified with 2 m thick surrounding walls and towers at each corner (Litvinsky & Pichikyan 2002, 134-5; Lindström 2020, 292). Placed at the edge of the river’s flood plain, its position and orientation participate in what Christina Williamson calls the ‘activation’ of landscape to create ‘a ritualized composition of space, timing and experience’, enhancing the sacrality of the space (Williamson 2020, 111-2).  This is reflected not only in its placement at the edge of the floodplain with a ramp leading down to the confluence of the two rivers, but also in the orientation of the facade. The front of the temple faces towards the point where the river breaks through between two mountain outcrops, which once a year would be aligned with the sunrise (Lindström 2016, 286; Wood, in press). The relationship with the river provides a rootedness and permanence for cult worship at the site. The supply of water required for ritual performance and purification, reflected in limestone purification basins found in the infill of the courtyard and the multiple wells and cisterns, would likely have a particular sacral importance given that it was drawn from the river that was being worshipped.

Figure 3: View of Takht-i Sangin and the Oxus from the north, with Temple of the Oxus indicated (Drujnina 2008, fig. 1)
Figure 4: Reconstruction of the Temple of the Oxus (Lindström 2016, fig. 3)

One of the most striking parts of the archaeological record of the temple is the preservation of votives across five centuries, with dedicated objects stored from the earliest Hellenistic phase of use through to the 1st-2nd century CE. Some votive objects were even either deliberately or accidentally broken but were not removed from the sanctuary, instead being ‘brought to the corridors and placed in the farthest corners’ (Pichikyan 1987, 47). For example, two unfired clay sculptures of female figures, found in corridor 6, seem to have been broken prior to entering the corridor and were stored in their broken state (Lindstrom 2016, 295). The accumulation and aggregation of votives within the sanctuary site, retained long after their original deposition, speaks to the construction of meaning through the ritual process – as gifts to the god, these objects take on a special status requiring privileged treatment. Votives dedicated in the Hellenistic period are preserved in corridors 2 and 6 at the very back of the complex, furthest from the entrance, seemingly stored in baskets, boxes, or on shelves centuries after their dedication (Lindström 2016, 292). Depositional practices later in the use-life of the sanctuary, after the nomadic invasion in the mid-2nd century BCE, show that objects were buried in large pits which Lindström identifies as ‘bothroi…reminiscent of Greek cult practice’ (2013, 305).

The treatment of 120 items found in a pit at the end of corridor 1 demonstrate the care taken over these retained votive objects. This bothros provides a cross-section of the different votives dedicated at the site, including jewellery, a fragment of gold thread from a piece of fabric, vessels, small furniture, as well as the weapons and armour more typical of the site (see excavation reports Litvinsky & Pichikyan 1994). However, more unusually, the pit contains ‘numerous fragments of gypsum plaster with adhering gold foil’ indicating that these objects were stored in a box lined with gilded plaster, creating an ornate and carefully curated environment for the offerings placed within it (Lindström 2016, 298). This rich treatment suggests ritual processes around the creation of these pits and the storage of the accumulated votives, even within the comparative privacy of the back corridors of the complex. This again speaks to their importance as gifts to the gods, and mediators of communication between the individual and divine referent. Lindström (2016, 302) characterises the care for the votives deposited in the bothroi as following the principle of ouk ekphora – where votives cannot be removed from the site of dedication. While Lindström uses a Greek term, whether this ritual behaviour was thought of as Greek, or even foreign to Bactria, is a complex question; it is not surprising that the act of bringing and dedicating these objects constructs a lasting sacral importance. The process of constructing meaning through ritual does not have to be understood as a Greco-Macedonian import, especially given the lack of wider evidence for Bactrian religious practice.

This importance remained long after the objects were dedicated, and even after they were broken–either accidentally, as is seemingly the case for the statuary from corridor 6, or deliberately (Litvinsky & Pichikyan 1994, 59). Fragments of bronze animal-head bracelets from bothros 2 show signs that deliberate fragmentation took place in the sanctuary, as each piece shows a unique animal head or protome indicating they came from different bracelets (Lindström 2016, 304). Studies of fragmentation suggest that deliberate breakage could be used as a means of decommissioning objects for votive or funerary purposes, or equally as part of the processes of scrapping metal for reuse (Brandherm 2018). The temple context of these bracelet fragments, and in particular their placement within a votive pit seems to indicate ritual processes within their deposition, and so an interpretation based solely on practicalities of scrap metal does not seem likely. However, the number of the bracelets, all broken in the same way, may indicate that these objects were dedicated, collected together, and then broken before secondary deposition in the pit. Given the reuse-value of bronze, it is possible that fragmentation was used as a symbolic means to reappropriate the materials of the offerings for the sanctuary, but while leaving a section as pars pro toto for the god (Lindström 2016, 304-5).

One votive from the site identifies the cult worshipped there, as well as showing the complexity of cultural convergence at Takht-i Sangin and across Bactria. This is the votive of Atrosokes, a miniature limestone altar with attached bronze statuette in the shape of a satyr (often identified as Marsyas) playing the double flute (Mairs 2020, 420). The dedicatory inscription is Greek and follows a traditional Greek formula, identifying the artefact as a dedication to the god of the Oxus, topped with a bronze statuette of the god Marsyas using a Hellenistic visual form (Wood 2011, 148; Mairs 2020, 424-5). However, Atrosokes himself has an Iranian name, transliterated into Greek for the inscription. Further inscriptions from the site, found in more recent excavations, show a similar pattern–a mould of a metal cauldron preserves another dedicatory inscription. The vessel is described as weighing ‘seven talents’, and names ‘Seiromios, son of Nemiskos’ as the dedicator, using the Bactrian language title ‘molrpalres’–both names also appear to be transliterations of Bactrian names (Drujnina 2008, 129; Вексина 2010, 226-32).

Figure 5: Miniature votive altar with Greek inscription and bronze statuette depicting Marsyas playing a double flute. Limestone with bronze attachment. H: 16cm, W: 7.2cm, D: 6.2cm. 3rd-2nd century BCE. National Museum of Tajikistan, Dushanbe (Lindström 2013, fig. 2)

While this gives us an indication of the communities using the temple, as well as cult practices of dedication there, it is very difficult to use evidence like this to map communities of worshippers. These Greek language dedications have often set the terms for scholarly approaches to the temple, raising questions about the extent to which religious practices familiar from Greek contexts can be identified here, and leading to attempts to map the traditions of different ethnic groups (Greek, Bactrian, Iranian) as if they existed as discrete entities in this region. It is important to note firstly that these are some of the more expensive dedications surviving from the temple, and so may not be representative of wider practice. Nor is it necessarily surprising to find Greek used for written inscriptions in the Hellenistic and early Kushan period. Recent scholarship has shown that Bactrian as a written language did not develop until the Kushan period, and that written Greek was a significant foundation for this development (Ivanchik 2012). This indicates that the use of Greek inscriptions is not indicative of a privileging of Greco-Macedonian culture and language, but that more likely it was the available written language for inscriptions at the time. It is important to establish that cultural convergence in Bactria, both inside and outside religious spaces, was more complicated than the interactions of isolated and discrete communities of Greco-Macedonians and indigenous Bactrians. With this being said, the Atrosokes votive is invaluable in both its identification of the cult and as evidence of some level of cultural convergence at the site.

The majority of other votives preserved are undecorated weapons, vessels, or pieces of ornament without inscriptions; however, some artefacts preserve figural decoration that shows a range of different iconographic and mythological traditions. This decoration has often been studied for what it can tell us about the diffusion of Greco-Macedonian images and forms across the Hellenistic world. Images of Heracles on a miniature makhaira handle and a ceremonial xiphos, both carved from ivory, for example, show that images from Greek mythology were present in Bactrian visual culture (Litvinsky and Pichikyan 1995b, 129-131; Wood 2011, 145). However, this approach can often develop into more complex attempts to identify the gods worshipped in the temple from those depicted on votives, which are less convincing. Litvinsky and Pichikyan’s interpretation of the xiphos handle depicting Heracles wrestling Achelous as indicating the temple was dedicated to a syncretic ‘Marsyas-Achelous-Oxus’ is one example.

Figure 6: Fragment of a makhaira handle depicting Heracles in a lionskin. Ivory. H: 3.1cm, W. 2.9cm. 3rd century BCE. National Museum of Tajikistan, Dushanbe (Litvinsky & Pichikyan 2001, plate 71)

This reading demonstrates the difficulty of reading the iconography of votives in relation to the temple cult; in this case in aprticular, desire to locate a straightforward reception of Greco-Macedonian practice in the colony of Bactria leads the excavators to privilege that iconography in the reading of the cult. Thus, in Litvinsky and Pichikyan’s interpretation the figure of Achelous is brought in unnecessarily as an additional Greco-Macedonian aspect of a syncretised deity–far more compelling is an apparent role for Marsyas within the temple cult. The votive of Atrosokes with its bronze statuette speaks to this, as do the finds of flutes made as votive offerings at the site. Over 43 fragments of flutes have been found, dating predominantly to the 3rd-2nd century BCE, situating them as a relatively common votive offering at the site (Hagel, Sutkowska & Lindström 2021). While it is uncertain what ‘official’ character we can give to Marsyas within the cult, it is clear that the imagery of the satyr playing the flute was highly present at Takht-i Sangin and may reflect a close relationship between the Oxus and the figure of Marsyas, at least for some groups of worshippers. The image of Marsyas, and to some extent Achelous, may have been seen as particularly fitting for dedication at the temple of a river god by someone with knowledge of their mythological background – however, without epigraphic or textual evidence for a syncretised deity, we cannot assume that they were subsumed into the central deity of the cult at Takht-i Sangin. We should understand these objects through the frame of their co-existence in the Bactrian religious landscape and their meaning for individual worshippers.

A considerable number of the votive offerings preserved at Takht-i Sangin are weapons – both practical and ceremonial, and in a number of different types identified as Greek, Near Eastern, and Iranian (Wood 2011, 148). The ivory handles previously mentioned represent a small category of finely carved ceremonial objects – more common are the fused aggregations of a huge number of iron weapons. This practice of dedicating weapons occurs not just in the Seleucid period, but continues in the Kushan period where the variety of dedications narrows, becoming predominantly characterised by the dedication of iron spear and arrow tips (Lindström 2013, 305). The number of weapons dedicated there, even in the earlier period, appear in even higher numbers than at the sanctuaries of the Mediterranean (Wood 2011, 148).

The increasing dedication of weapons as votives may speak to the construction of cultural memory around the cult; the dedication of weapons in the early period may have been preserved in memory as a key element of the cult, causing a greater number of weapons to be dedicated as this memory was passed down by the changing communities of Bactria. From the preservation of Seleucid era objects and continued dedications through the Kushan period, it is clear that there was a continuous line of votive practice at the site across almost five centuries (Lindström 2016, 305). Particularly fascinating among the preserved items are the miniature weapons, such as the ivory makhaira handle depicting Heracles in a lionskin (previously mentioned) and the ivory scabbard with relief decoration showing a mounted cavalryman charging a foot soldier (Pichikyan 1987, 46; Wood 2011, 145-6). As miniature items, these acted as semiotic signs representing their full-sized counterparts, but having undergone a process of ‘defunctionalisation’ that separates them from the everyday sphere (Pilz 2011, 24; Kiernan 2015, 45). These miniature examples underline the importance of dedication of weapons at the site, as they reflect a self-conscious choice to commission or purchase a votive object for the site in this form. Due to the habitual storage and deposition of votives in pits or the back corridors of the temple, it is difficult to know where they were originally displayed–it would make a considerable difference to the experience of the temple if these weapons were clearly displayed around the site in large numbers, shaping ongoing votive dedication and cult engagement (Litvinsky & Pichikyan 1994, 55; Lindström 2016, 292).

Figure 7: Fragment of an ivory makhaira scabbard depicting a charging cavalryman and foot soldier. 3rd century BCE. National Museum of Tajikistan, Dushanbe (Wood 2011, fig. 5)

Votive offerings of used weapons (as many of these likely were) are discussed by Hughes (2018, 49-50), who suggests that the history of the weapon might ‘enrich and ennoble’ it as a dedicatory gift to the gods, using evidence from Hellenistic epigrams. Against the background of the ongoing wars after the fall of the Achaemenid empire, it is possible some of these votive weapons were used in conflicts before their dedication, with the past use of the weapon contributing to its suitability as a dedication to the god of the Oxus (Lindström 2009b, 132).  Bactria in this period was regularly under threat, with the Seleucids giving way to the Diodotids in the mid-3rd century BCE before further invasions by the Parthians, Saken and Yuezhi before the Kushan tribe came to power (Drujnina & Lindström 2013, 184; Lindström 2016, 300). Against this background, we can also understand the dedication of arms as holding a potential political component; victors might dedicate the spoils of the opposing army, or claim the victory in the name of the god, thereby asserting supremacy and legitimacy through reverence to this local cult. On a smaller scale, individuals might dedicate weapons in thanks for their safety, or as a prayer towards their preservation in future battle. We cannot confirm who offered these gifts to the gods, as the Greek and Iranian types identified in the corpus may not correlate to the identity of the dedicant, but the variety of arms dedicated over an extended period indicate that this was a central part of the community’s interaction with the temple– and that it may have become even more important against the background of regular conflict from the Seleucid period onwards.

The votive practice at Takht-i Sangin was clearly shaped by the needs of Bactria’s diverse communities and the changing political landscape of the region–it functioned as a platform for their communication with the gods and their individual emotional expression. The high prevalence of certain categories of votive, notably the iron tips of arrows and spears, increasing throughout the use-life of the temple, shows a strong votive tradition at the site that continued across five centuries and many different generations, even through the changing rule of the region. While reconstructing the cult deity or belief from the votives remains fraught, wider evidence from the site suggests a multi-valent place of worship. Alongside the images of Cybele, Marsyas and Achelous mentioned earlier, we find images of Nana, one of the chief goddesses of the Sogdian-Bactrian pantheon, and even early Hindu iconography on an ivory cylinder representing Samkarsana-Balarama (Rapin 1995, 277ff; Abdullaev 2003, 24; Shenkar 2012, 139). The temple lacks both a central altar and a confirmed cult statue (for debate around a statue base in the courtyard, see Bernard 2015), but provides distinct spaces for purification, open-air sacrifice, and interior spaces for fire rituals.This, alongside the many different deities represented in the votive record, is indicative of the sacred space as shaped by individual need and action–a platform for individual communication between worshipper and deity. The temple itself was deeply rooted in the local landscape and in patterns of seasonality that came with the annual flooding of the river. This rooted nature was likely part of its enduring appeal for communities from the 3rd-century BCE to the 3rd-century CE, despite widespread political disruption in the form of repeated nomadic invasions. Continued dedicatory practice attests to the maintained cultural importance and memory of cult practice in the local imagination, even as the area underwent significant social and political changes.

by Claire Heseltine


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