Religion is a central aspect of human culture, and religious worship and religious edifices make up some of the most interesting and important sights for a traveler to a foreign land. In truth, however, the number of distinct, well-developed religious traditions is limited. As one becomes familiar with the basics of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, travel offers the opportunity to discover greater details, distinctions among the various subfaiths of these religions, but not the original sense of wonder that is afforded to a Western traveler first encountering Islam in the domes and minarets of Istanbul or an Eastern traveler’s first sight of the great European churches such as St. Peter’s Basilica or Notre Dame Cathedral.

All of which makes it so exciting, as a relatively seasoned traveler, to see an entirely different faith in the flesh. The world’s Zoroastrian population may be limited (at most, 200,000 people), but Zoroastrian communities are highly visible in parts of both India and Iran.

Estimates of the lifetime of Zoroaster (also called Zartosht and Zarathustra–as in Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) vary, but many scholars currently believe that he lived in the eleventh or tenth century BC. He is regarded as the prophet of the religion named after him, which caught on especially as the dominant religion of the Persian Empire in the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods. The sacred texts, called the Gathas, which are part of the Avestas, are written in an ancient script and chanted by the priests as part of Zoroastrian worship.

audio clip of Zoroastrian chant

Most importantly, Zoroastrians believe in one god, Ahura Mazda, who created the universe and will prevail despite the presence of certain evil forces. It is often said that Zoroastrianism was the world’s first monotheistic religion.

The faravahar is the most important symbol of Zoroastrianism, seen here as carved at Persepolis. The man with his right hand shows obeisance to Ahura Mazda while he holds in his left hand a ring showing his promise to the god. The three layers of feathers in the wings represent good thought, good words and good deeds, while the three layers of feathers in the “tail” represent bad thoughts, bad words and bad deeds, which we should aim to put under us. The ring in the center represents the connectedness of the world and causality. The “leg” to the left represents evil spirits while the “leg” to the right represents good spirits.

We were told that people pray five times a day, oriented toward a light source if possible. The most important light source is the fire that burns at a Zoroastrian fire temple, but it is not considered essential for Zoroastrians to pray at the fire temple–any light suffices. Zoroastrians revere fire as one of the four sacred elements of creation (in addition to water, earth and air), but do not worship it–a common misconception in historical times.

Fire temple, Yazd, Iran

The fire inside the fire temple in Yazd. It is said that the fire, brought from older fire temples, has been burning without interruption since 470 AD.

A water, or Anahita, temple ruin at the city of Bishapur. When used, the central courtyard would have been flooded along with channels that run around an interior perimeter within the walls, on the other side of the doors that are visible.

Zoroastrianism became a state religion under the Sassanids (224-642 AD), who practiced a form of Zoroastrianism that is said to have been contaminated by Mithraism, another local faith. Since Islamic Arab conquest of now Iran in the seventh century, most of the population of Iran has converted to Islam, but around 40,000 Zoroastrians remain. It has been suggested that the decline of Zoroastrianism was due in part to its close association with the Sassanid state.

The Zoroastrian pilgrimage site of Chak Chak, to where it is believed that the last Sassanid princess fled. Low on water at this desert site, she is said to have thrown her staff at the mountain, at which a stream of water began to drip (“chak, chak, chak…”). The bronze doors depict Zoroaster.

At the time of the Arab conquest, a number of Iranians fled to India, where as a minority of around 70,000 centered around Bombay they retain their Zoroastrian faith. The Parsis, as the Zoroastrians of India are called, see themselves as Indians and not Iranians (they speak Gujarati, the language of Gujarat, India, where they first settled after leaving Iran), but maintain their historical and religious links to Iran. Parsis travel to Iran for pilgrimage and communicate with Iranian Zoroastrians on theological matters (although there is no central combined hierarchy), and there has also been intermarriage between the Zoroastrians of Iran and India. Parsis have been very successful, financially, and have provided material support to Zoroastrians in Iran.

A Parsi temple in Bombay, India

Tiled plaque inside the Chak Chak shrine, in Gujarati, the language of the Indian Parsis.

One of the most famous stories of Zoroastrians is that they do not bury the dead. Traditionally, Zoroastrians leave the bodies, which to them are meaningless vessels once the soul has departed, to decay and be eaten by scavenger birds in “towers of silence.” One Zoroastrian priest explained to us with unusually scientific vocabulary for a religious man that this allows the proteins of our bodies to be reincorporated as quickly as possible in another living animal. Towers of silence are no longer used in Iran, where they have been prohibited on health grounds since the Islamic Revolution, but are still used in India, with the help of chemical accelerants to promote decomposition, as the urbanization of Bombay has resulted in fewer and fewer scavengers.

A tower of silence outside Yazd. In the foreground is a cistern, with wind towers to cool the water.

Inside the tower. After the bones had been picked clean of flesh, they were deposited into the ossuary/well in the middle.

Modern Zoroastrian cemetery, Yazd. The bodies are buried in inert cement containers so as to not pollute the earth, one of the four sacred elements.

It’s often possible to recognize Zoroastrians in Iran because though they are ethnically fairly similar to the Muslim Iranians (unlike the Christians, who are largely Armenian), they tend to dress more casually. While they are required to adhere to the Islamic dress code, it seems they take it less to heart. One Iranian Zoroastrian told us that it is a bad time in Iran, with the current Iranian government, and many Zoroastrians, who on average are relatively well off, are emigrating.

Due to strict rules regarding conversion (the Parsis do not permit non-Parsis to convert to Zoroastrianism and the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran forbid Muslims from converting to other faiths under penalty of death), it seems likely that the world’s Zoroastrian population will further dwindle. [One Parsi told us that complicating the matter is that a majority of Parsi men are gay!] Unless there is a renaissance in conversions to Zoroastrianism by Iranians seeking a return to their ancient religious roots (that is, after a change in Iranian law), it would seem likely that the religion will, eventually, die out.

An Iranian Zoroastrian man. [Note: Not the source of any information for this or any post.]

5 thoughts on “Zoroastrianism

  1. Did you ever read Creation by Gore Vidal (i know, gv, groan…)? I don’t remember anything about it (it’s been 20 years, omg) but the protoganist practiced zoroastrianism and was a relative of its founder or something. This was the first and only time I heard of Z until college, when an Indian-American classmate originally from Florida mentioned she practiced this.

  2. Not sure if you’ve already touched upon this, but much has been written about Zoroastrianism as a progenitor of Judiasim, Christianity and Islam. In fact, many of the stories of the Old Testament (e.g. Noah’s Ark and even Deuteronomy) are just retellings of old Zoroastrian tales that religious leaders adopted to help make their belief system more easily accessable to the indigenous populations. At least according to the books, among the similarities are duality of good v. evil, an ominiscient god opposed by a satanic figure, a linear conception of history with beginning and end, receipt of sacrament, etc.

    Zorastrianism has, of course, had its influence on Western culture, although like many things that originate from outside the immediate cultural sphere (see above paragraph), it goes unrecognized as such. Zoroaster is Greek (right?) for Zarathushtra — as in Also sprach Zarathushtra, Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, of Nietzsche fame, which gave us Richard Strauss, which gave us Space Odyseey 2001. It also gave us Clark Kent, i.e. Superman, and, after reading your blogs, I wonder if not also the Klingons, for whom the body was, similarly, nothing but a husk to be discarded after departure of the soul….

    BTW, w/r/t your previous post, you say that “of course gas is cheap.” From what I’ve read, it is not that simple at all — the Gulf states have oil, but it must be REFINED to make gasoline, and this is expensive — too expensive for some, in fact, so that Iran is a net importer of gasoline(!). The reason it is cheap, apparently, is that it is so heavily subsidizied by the government! (http://www.slate.com/id/2177387/ and http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_50/b4013058.htm)

  3. I can’t imagine that too many Muslim Iranians would convert to Zoroastrianism, even if it weren’t illegal to do so.

  4. The comments of Dave on 28/05/2008 are very factual. I may add that
    At the dawn of civilization, Zarthushtra spoke to the people,
    “ To all those who have come fro far and near,
    Listen with your ears,
    See with your Mind,
    Then choose your path, person by person,
    Each one for himself/herself”
    [all my references in this comment are from Gathas ]
    And thus laid the foundation of a sublime philosophy and preaching based on rationality with freedom to think and decide as human beings, not to be a slave to any dogma or imposed belief, and having the sovereignty to make free and independent decisions – all within the self-elected bounds of ethical values.

    A philosophy based on ever progressing evolution of this universe, by All Wise Creator –Ahura Mazda [God] symbolic represented by the Light emitting upward soaring flames of Fire,

    driven by cause and effect with our role —

    “ May you be like those who make this universe progress” working tirelessly and diligently to help build a world free from want, fear, and evil; preserving and protecting the environment.”

    by a balanced life of action governed by the three noble ideals of
    Good Thoughts. Good Words, Good Deeds,

    choosing goodness for it’s own sake without any temptation of a reward of a celestial haven in life after death, but living the current life working tirelessly and diligently to help build a world free from want, fear, and evil; preserving and protecting the environment.

    Thus believing in ” rational religion” does not mean you do not believe in science.
    In fact knowledge of science only makes us aware that the more we know, more we realise the amount of possible things, about which we do not know. In fact like the ever expanding universe, the ocean of awareness of not having scientific knowledge of many phenomenon is also ever expanding.

    At this stage I would like to add that Zarthustra in Gathas –[the only text which are the words spoken by Zarthustra, and only 5% that has survived the Great fire of library during invasion of Persia by so called Alexandra the Great.

    May I also add that in the Gathas, Zarthustra asks what makes the celestial bodies go round, and what makes moon wax and vane and so on showing that he too had an inquiring mind and eager to find the cause.

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