Monday, August 1, 2011

A Flame Burns In the Desert

Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd. Iran
Photo by Maziart
When the Arabs conquered Persia in the seventh century and imposed Islam as the dominant religion, they assassinated the last Zoroastrian king, Yazdgerd III, and massacred his family. Only one daughter escaped the carnage, Princess Nikbanou. She fled to a cave near Yazd, a city in the Iranian desert, where she begged Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god, to save her life. In response, the earth opened up and offered refuge from the attackers.

Today, a shrine inside the cave is a major pigrimage site for Zoroastrians from around they world. It’s located near the village of Chak Chak, which means “drop by drop” in Persian, a reference to the dripping spring that marks the spot where Nikbanou disappeared. The drips symbolize the princess’s tears.

Let’s backtrack a thousand years from Nikbanou’s time and visit the Zagros Mountains in modern Iran’s western province of Azerbaijan. A man named Zoroaster (sometimes known as Zarathustra) had a religious vision that changed his life. God appeared to him in the form of Ahura Mazda, a figure with the body of a man and the wings, tail, and claws of a bird.

Zoroaster’s conversation with Ahura Mazda led to the birth of the world’s first monotheistic religion whose philosophy influenced the later faiths that grew in the region: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Zoroaster’s followers were the first to believe in the struggle between good and evil, embodied by the concepts of heaven and hell, as well as a final day of reckoning. At the heart of Zoroastrian philosophy is the trinity of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, reflecting the idea that humanity’s journey is a struggle for the triumph of light over darkness, salvation over damnation.

Tower of Silence in Yazd Province
Photo by Cate Bramster
This quintessentially Persian religion could also be described as the world’s first Earth-friendly one. Because Zoroastrians believe that the earth is a symbol of purity and represents the good side of the cosmic duality, while death is the ultimate evil, they do not bury their dead in the ground. This would contaminate the earth. Instead, they lay the corpses out on “towers of silence,” tall round structures atop mountains, where the bodies are exposed to the elements and birds of prey. When the flesh is consumed, the bones are raked into an ossuary pit in the center of the tower, avoiding contact with the earth. This practice may seem gruesome to modern sensibilities, but when you consider Zoroastrian philosophy, it makes perfect sense.

Zoroastrians are often mistakenly referred to as “fire worshipers” (atesh parast in Persian). This misunderstanding comes from the Zoroastrian practice of worshipping in front of a flame burning in a fire temple. In fact, the fire is not the object of devotion but a symbol, much like a Christian cross.

At the height of the Persian empire, Zoroastrianism dominated the geography of the ancient world, spanning the territory from Greece to Egypt to India. Today, adherents of the religion have dwindled in numbers along with the empire’s shrinking borders. In Iran today, only 45,000 people out of a total population of 70 million follow the Zoroastrian faith, and some put the Zoroastrian population at far less (10,000 to 15,000). So what happened to them?

A great many fled to India shortly after the Arab Conquest, where they still form the world’s largest Zoroastrian community, known as Parsis. (See Supriya’s post on the Parsis here.) Another wave of Indian migration followed nearly a thousand years later during the Safavid Dynasty (1501—1736). At other times, periods of persecution and forced conversion to Islam caused the population to dwindle further.

In the modern Islamic Republic, the official policy toward religious minorities is one of tolerance, as long as the different faiths do not proselytize or try to convert Muslims. However, official policy doesn’t always mean tolerance in practice, and many Zoroastrians have emigrated in the last 30 years. Zoroastrianism has never had much focus on preaching the faith to others, and Iranian Zoroastrians do not believe in inter-faith marriage, which has caused further attrition. Even in Yazd, the desert city where Princess Nikbanou disappeared, and the country’s holiest Zoroastrian center, the community has shrunk to only 200.

In terms of sheer numbers, Zoroastrians in Iran are indeed a vanishing culture. But when you consider the deep legacy the religion has left in Persian life today, the Zoroastrians are still a very strong presence. Their philosophy is found everywhere from fire and water symbols to Iran’s most important secular holidays (Norouz, the Mehregan harvest festival, and Shabeh Yalda, which celebrates the Winter Solstice), and even architecture, garden design, and the Persian reverence for nature.

Consider this: If you look up the city of Yazd on a map of Iran, you’ll find it at the very center of the country, situated in an oasis between two deserts. At the heart of the city stands a famous fire temple where a flame has been burning continuously for the past 1,500 years.

Does that sense of continuity give you a little chill? It sure does me.

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