A Persian Odyssey: The fire of Zoroaster

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This (above) is the Faravahar (fravahr), a winged disk, often with the figure of a feather-robed archer symbolizing Ashur, and it’s the key symbol of the Zoroastrian religion.

Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Persia prior to the Islamic conquest of the Sasanid Empire in the 7th century and is one of the world’s oldest extant religions, founded by the Iranian Prophet Zarathustra in the second millennium BCE. Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion, from a time when polytheism was the norm, and its  god, Ahura Mazda, is considered to encompass two key attributes: Being, ‘Ahura‘ and Mind, ‘Mazda‘.

The theology includes the duty to protect nature and, in particular, the elements of water, earth and fire and air. Of the four primordial elements, fire and water are seen as purifying and, consequently, are important elements of ritual, incorporated into the fabric of the places of worship. Some people think that Zoroastrians worship fire, but this is not the case. Fire is used for its symbolical power in the worship of the god, signifying purity and truth.

In one of the main modern centres of Iranian Zoroastrianism, Yazd, the Fire Temple Atash Behram, built in 1934, is home to a Zoroastrian fire said to be fifteen hundred years old.

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Taken from Pars Karyan Fire temple in Larestan and brought, by stages, to Yazd. The full story can be read here.  The main temple hall is not open to non-Zothroastrians and the fire itself is housed in the inner sanctum, the atashgah, which is accessible only to the temple priests. Visitors to the temple can view the fire through a window installed in the inner sanctum.

The Fire Temple itself is quite a simple building with a little bit of an art deco feel.

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Zoroastrian fire temples tend to be relatively simple, with little of the surface decoration seen on Persian mosques, for example, but this one is set in a small but lovely garden, with a pool and fruit trees. It’s all very calming, even though there were lots and lots of visitors coming and going.

After dark, the temple looks stunning.

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Some of the most moving Zoroastrian sites can be found in the Yazd region, one just on the outskirts of the city itself. These are the dakhma; the Towers of Silence.

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In his writings about his travels through Persia and Afghanistan, the explorer Robert Byron describes his first view of one of these structures:

“Yezd, March 28th. –  Approaching Yezd (sic) in the early morning, after another all-night journey, we met a Zoroastrian funeral. The bearers were dressed in white turbans and long white coats; the body in a loose white pall. They were carrying it to a tower of silence on a hill some way off, a plain circular wall about fifteen feet high.” (Byron, 2007, p. 207)

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In other cultures this is called ‘sky burial’ or excarnation.

Funerary ceremonies were carried out in buildings at the base of the hills. Then the body was carried to the tower at the top of the hill and laid out on the flat internal floor.

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Men, women and children were laid out separately, with men around the outermost ring, women round the next inner ring and children around the innermost ring.

The process of excarnation involves the exposure of the bodies for wild birds, here vultures, to consume the soft tissues, leaving only the bones. At the very centre is a pit into which the bones of the deceased were collected to be dissolved with the use of lime. I think that the idea is that there should really be nothing left at the end.

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These funerary structures represent a workable solution to the problem of the disposal of the dead within a belief system that seeks to avoid the perceived pollution that the dead would cause to the earth, water, fire and air. Perhaps this sounds a bit gruesome, but it’s quite a logical response to the problem of disposal without contamination.

Iranian Zoroastrians don’t carry out this process any more. Instead, the deceased are buried in graves that are lined with concrete in order to avoid the body making direct contact with the earth. I was told that one of the problems is a shortage of vultures. Numbers in the region have declined and, apparently, this was partly due to the bodies containing ibuprofen (from people self-medicating), which kills vultures!*

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Other signs of the earlier history of Zoroastrianism can be seen at significant sites around the country.

This is me having a look at one of the royal tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam.

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This particular one is the tomb of Darius I, The Great. He was a firm believer in the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda, and in divine support for his rule, but he was pretty relaxed about other religious and spiritual beliefs among his subjects, as were earlier and later Achaemenid rulers.

In the top sections of the rock-carved tombs is the image of Ahura Mazda.

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Here’s a slightly bendy panorama of the main section of the site. From left to right these are the tombs of Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I, Xerxes I cut into the cliff-face, with the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht tower in front on the left.

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Byron didn’t think much of them:

“The accent is struck by the four tombs of the Achemenid kings, regular landmarks hacked out of the cliff in the form of crosses. Each is carved with a tedious uniformity of low reliefs. “ (2007, p.179)

I was a little bit more impressed than that. The size and situation of the tombs was striking, and it was just the impression that it made on me, of standing before the tombs of Darius and Xerxes. If you ask me, Byron was too jaded by half.

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*This is what I was told, but I don’t know if it’s correct.

Byron, R. (2007). The Road to Oxiana. Penguin Classics, London.

http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/yazd/zoroastrian.htm

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