Discovering Zoroastrianism: An Ancient Religion

We were on a mission: Investigate the World’s Big Religions. On our travels through the Middle East, our interactions had mostly been with Muslims. However, during our foray into Iranian society, we stumbled upon Zoroastrianism, an obscure but fascinating religion that has endured in Iran throughout the ages.

If Prophet Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism don’t sound familiar, maybe the name “Zarathustra” will ring a bell. Nietzsche titled his book “Thus spoke Zarathustra”, which is another name of Prophet Zoroaster. Believers always pray towards a source of light, whether it is the sun or the eternal fire burning in the temple. It is a beautiful metaphor for defeating darkness and ignorance with light and darkness.

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Invited into the home of a local

Our journey through Iran had taken us through the polluted capital of Tehran, to villages off the beaten track and into the homes of warm and welcoming locals. We were smitten. However, it was the city of Yazd, “the pearl of the desert”, that left a unique mark on all of us.

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Christmas in Yazd

Locals told us that the name of the city meant “divine” because it was literally an oasis on the Silk Road. Surrounded by Dasht-E lut desert on one side and Dasht-E Kavir desert on the other, Yazd had survived centuries of sandstorms and scorching desert heat. We spent our Christmas exploring the meandering narrow lanes and colourful bazaars on every corner. The aged mud architecture, the calmness we sensed in the locals, the tuneful callings from the minarets and symbols of Zoroastrianism all around the city made us feel like time had stopped in these old quarters. The city remains in our minds as an authentic image of ancient Persia and its culture.

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Rooftop view over Yazd

We were left speechless by Zoroastrians’ dedication to their faith. Yazd’s fire temple Atash Kadeh, or Atash Behram, houses one of only 9 remaining consecrated Zoroastrian fires in the world. The other 8 are found in India. It takes 2 years of complex rituals for a fire to reach the third and highest level of consecration to become Atash Behram, or “victorious fire”. 32 qualified priests conduct the consecration and involves fires from 16 other sources which undergo their own specific rituals before becoming part of the Atash Behram. The last time this ceremony had taken place in Iran was in 470 CE. Since then, the fire we were privileged to see inside the temple had burned steadily under the care of high priests.

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Dakhma in Yazd

Around the city we also found several Dakhma, or Towers of Silence. Traditionally, Zoroastrians left their deceased at these burial sites to decompose and be eaten by birds in the towers as a mark of being returned to nature. The Zoroastrians would then move the bones to an ossuary. Don’t be scared to visit though! The last Dakhma burial was decades ago, in 1960.

A hundred kilometres from Yazd is the holiest of Zoroastrian mountain shrines where thousands of pilgrims from all around the world gather every June. We were there in December but what a sight the pilgrimage must be to witness!

Experiencing life in Yazd and learning that Zoroastrianism had had a place in Iran since 600 BCE made us realise how quick we had been to assume the homogeneity of Islam in Iran. As for our encounters with locals, stay tuned for more about those experiences in future posts!

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