Exploring Iran’s early religion: Zoroastrianism

Mohammed educates us on Zoroaster and ‘Ahura Mazda’

In a way, I always make fun of my American friends when they treat an older American building as some major historical site. They really do cherish their legacy while here in Europe there are so many monuments, each with great stories, that when we travel to the USA, we barely have an eye for their history. But when I travelled to Iran I was thinking that the Iranians must probably have the same sort of feeling when dealing with us Europeans.

Persepolis (550BC) played a major part in that feeling, it felt like the ancient city was abandoned only some 50 years ago and I was amazed that you could walk around with only a few barriers in place. But even Persepolis is relatively young compared to the remains of the ancient sites part of a religion called Zoroastrianism.

Zoroastrianism is arguably one of the world’s oldest religions. It was founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in ancient Iran, approximately 3.500 years ago. Some of the structures around Yazd, such as the Fire Temple and ‘Towers of Silence’, are part of that ancient religion.

Zoroastrianism is centred on the words of the prophet Zoroaster and focuses worship upon ‘Ahura Mazda’, the Lord of Wisdom, and it acknowledges two competing principles representing good and evil. Humans are intimately involved in this struggle, holding off chaos and destruction through active goodness.

For 1000 years Zoroastrianism was one of the most influential religions in the world. It was the official religion of Persia (modern day Iran) from 600 BCE to 650 CE, and it likely influenced the major Western religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The winged symbol associated with Zoroastrianism, is known as the Faravahar. The central human figure of the Faravahar is generally taken to represent the human soul. The fact that he is aged in appearance represents wisdom. One hand points upward, urging believers to always strive for improvement and be mindful of higher powers. The other hand holds a ring, which may represent loyalty and faithfulness. The circle from which the figure emerges can represent the immortality of the soul.

The two wings are composed of three main rows of feathers, representing good thoughts, good words and good deeds, which is the basis of Zoroastrian ethics. The tail is likewise comprised of three rows of feathers, and these represent bad thoughts, bad words and bad deeds, above which every Zoroastrian strives to rise.

The two streamers represent the spirits of good and evil. Every person must constantly choose between the two, so the old figure is facing one and turning his back to the other.

Okay, so far the primer on Zoroastrianism 🤔, back to our trip. The first Zoroastrian site we visited was a ‘fire temple’ on the outskirts of Yazd. I have to admit that the particular building by itself was not exactly impressive, that is an understatement, but our guide Mohammed used the site to explain us the basics. He told us that Goodness and pureness are strongly linked in Zoroastrianism, and pureness features prominently in Zoroastrian rituals. There are a variety of symbols through which the message of purity is communicated, but fire is by far the most central and often used symbol.

All traditional Zoroastrian temples or “places of fire,” include a holy fire to represent the goodness and purity toward which all should strive. Once it is properly ‘blessed’, a temple fire should never be allowed to go out, although it can be transported to another location if necessary. Many of these fires have been burning for years or even centuries. Apparently, the fire in Yazd is the only one of the ‘highest grade’ in Iran, but a few more similar grade fires can be found in India.

Visitors to fire temples normally bring an offering of wood, which is placed in the fire by a masked priest. The mask prevents the fire from being contaminated by his breath. The visitor is then smeared with ash from the fire.

I cannot remember the role of the depicted cypress tree in the images above, it may be a symbol for life, agelessness, freedom or fairness. I do remember however that some cypress trees played a significant role in Zoroastrianism and it is said that they may have sprung from a branch brought by Zoroaster from paradise. I read that one of these cypress trees in nearby Abarkuh is around 4.500 years old, making it one of the oldest trees alive, but I forgot how old the one was that we saw.

Another Zoroastrian site we visited was a dakhma just outside Yazd. A dakhma, also called a Tower of Silence, is a wide tower with a platform open to the sky.

Zoroastrian tradition considers a dead body, but also cut hair and nail parings, to be unclean. The corpse demon was believed to rush into the body and contaminate everything it came into contact with. To prevent the pollution of earth or fire, the bodies of the dead are placed atop the tower and so exposed to bird of prey to be picked clean, a process which only takes a few hours. The bodies are not placed on the ground because their presence would corrupt the earth. For the same reason, Zoroastrians do not cremate their dead, as it would contaminate the fire.

Each of the villages around Yazd had a mortuary where the body of the deceased was bathed and wrapped in a shroud. When the body was brought to the dakhma, sixteen individuals carried the body to the top in teams of four individuals. At the door of the dakhma, the body was placed on a platform after which the priest prayed for the departed’s soul.

The ritual area at the top of the tower may be entered only by a particular group of pallbearers. These so called salars, took the body into the dakhma where they laid the body at its appointed place and removed the shrouds. They would use tools rather than bare hands to remove and destroy the clothes of the dead.

The towers have an almost flat roof, with the perimeter being slightly higher than the centre to keep the dogs out. It is a bit difficult to see on the image above but the roof is divided into three rings: the bodies of men are arranged around the outer ring, women in the second circle, and children in the innermost ring.

After thirty or forty bodies were consumed by birds of pray, the bones, bleached by the sun and the wind, were gathered and placed in the central pit. Acid, made from lime, was poured over the bones to aid their decomposition.

In the Iranian Zoroastrian tradition, the towers were built atop hills or low mountains in desert locations away from population centres. The structures near the dakhma were build to house the pallbearers.

Apparently the tall face-shaped building was used to store foods. I am not sure how to say this, but, from a distance, the buildings seem to have such a friendly appearance. Perhaps because of the cute, round, shapes and natural materials used, but unquestionably, because of some buildings akin to the form of a face.

Adobe structures are extremely durable in dry climates. They account for some of the oldest existing buildings in the world, but they require continuous maintenance. Many of the buildings near the dakhma’s have not been used for a long time as finally many of the Zoroastrians themselves found the system with the towers outdated. They now use graves lined with rocks and plastered with cement to prevent direct contact with the earth. As can be seen on the images many roofs have collapsed, perhaps due to earthquake damage, giving the little town a ghostly atmosphere.

Personally, I had never heard of Zoroastrianism before. I did not know that at one point, by percentage of the world’s population, it was the largest religion. Many elements of the religion were later likely used in the major Western religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But today it is one of the world’s smallest religions. Ten years ago the New York Times reported that there were probably less than 190,000 followers worldwide and you will find them mostly in Iran and India.

Three of the four sites we visited can be found on the map above. I believe the old Cypress Tree was on the Southern outskirts of Yazd, but I am not sure. The temple is relatively close to the city centre, it is called ‘Zoroastrian Temple’ on the map. The first series of images from a Tower of Silence are from the one near town, called ‘Zoroastrian Dakhmeh’ on the map. And the last series, with the nearby small village is just called ‘Dakhmeh’ on the map. Need help or the whereabouts of the guide we used? Simply leave a comment :-).