Most visitors travelling to Iran are unfamiliar with Zoroastrianism and discover it for the first time during their trip. But Zoroastrianism is actually one of the world’s oldest living religions, whose teaching resonates to this day, and getting familiar with this ancient Persian religion will amplify your experience while visiting Iran.
Zoroastrianism in Iran
Zoroastrianism, sometimes called Mazdeism, is an ancient Persian religion that found its roots in Central Asia around 3500 years ago. It is the first monotheistic faith and one of the world’s oldest organized religions that has later influenced Judaism, Christianism and Islam.
Zoroastrianism is based on the speaking of a prophet, Zarathustra, also called Zoroaster. Shared orally at the time, his teachings were later kept in sacred texts, the ensemble of which is called the Avesta. The Avesta was composed in Avestan, a language relative to the ancient Achaemenid language and Sanskrit, and the poetic beauty of some of the most ancient texts, called the Gathas, can still be appreciated today.
It is unclear when and where the prophet Zarathustra was born and lived. There is little consensus among scholars about this, but based on linguistic and socio-cultural evidences, some suggest he was born during the second millennium BCE. Other date his life back to the 7th and 6th Century BC, making it a contemporary of Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great.
What is certain is that by the time these two great Persian kings were in power, Zoroastrianism was made the state religion of the Achaemenid Empire (550 – 330 BCE). It remained as such during the following empires, under the rule of the Parthian (247 BCE – 224 CE) and the Sassanian (224 – 651 CE) kings.
With the Arab conquest of Persia in 651 CE, and the defeat of the Sassanian Empire, Zoroastrianism not only lost its position of state religion in favor of Islam, but the followers of Zarathustra were also forced to flee, most of them settling down in the Indian subcontinent. Nowadays, there are between 100.000 and 200.000 disciples of Zarathustra in the world, among which a small religious minority of 20.000 to 30.000 persons in Iran.
The revelation of Zarathustra
Before the birth of Zoroastrianism, in Persia, the existing religions were polytheistic. People believed in a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses who represented either human activities (such as warfare or herding cattle), natural phenomena (such as storms or fire), or celestial beings and the order of the universe (the moon, sun, bright stars, etc.).
Zarathustra was a priest in the ancient Persia. But he was disturbed by some of the current religious practices, such as the ritual slaughter of cattle, and the unethical actions attributed to the deities in its mythology. Due to his critical position, he was harassed and persecuted for ten years, when he finally received the revelation which formed the basis for his new religion.
He claimed that Ahura Mazda came to him to reveal that he was the only supreme God, and others were false deities. The belief in the existence of one invisible God became one of the main pillars the Zoroastrian faith.
What do Zoroastrians believe in?
At the core of Zoroastrianism as revealed to Zarathustra is the continuous war between good and evil forces, which are twin spirits. Zoroastrians believe that the world was created by Ahura Mazda so that these two forces can confront each other, to eventually see the victory of the good forces. The good is incarnated by Ahura Mazda, while the evil takes the shape of Ahriman (or Angra Mainyu), that controls horde of demons and evil entities.
Behind this duality is the idea that the purpose of life is to choose between good and evil. Humans indeed play a key role in this cosmic drama, as they combine both spiritual and material qualities and are ha
ve free will to decide which path to choose: the path of righteousness or the path of deceit. Those who choose the path of righteousness will be rewarded afterlife with eternal paradise at the end of time, once Ahriman will be destroyed and the savior (Saoshyant) will appear.
But what does it mean to live a life of righteousness? It’s the idea of living a life of honesty, charity, love and moderation. That concept lies in the famous Zoroastrian principle: “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds”. These words are incarnated in the symbol of Zoroastrianism, the Faravahar. The Faravahar represents a bearded man with one hand forward and another one holding a ring. Around him are a pair of wings with three layers of feathers, each of them being a symbol of this principle.
The fundamental beliefs of Zoroastrianism have also been accompanied by the development of practices that have persisted throughout times. Members of the Zoroastrian community traditionally wear a ritual girdle (“kusti”) with a cord wrapped three times around the waist (symbolizing the commitment to good thoughts, words, and deeds) and knotted at the front and back over a white inner shirt.
Young men and women first put this on as a kind of initiation rite when they are teenagers and then are supposed to wear it for the rest of their lives. Celebration of seven ritual and communal feasts (“gahambars”) throughout the year serve both to commemorate the good things brought into existence by Ahura Mazda, and to promote the solidarity and social harmony within the Zoroastrian community.
There also exist strict rules to maintain cleanliness and ritual purity, as it’s essential for Zoroastrians not to pollute the creations of Ahura Mazda such as water, earth, and fire. Formal worship typically consists of reciting five daily prayers and, for the priesthood, the maintenance of sacred fires, symbol of light and Ahura Mazda, at special temples.
Visiting Zoroastrian sacred places in Iran
Many places and ceremonies in Iran still bear the testimony of Zarathustra and its followers. Nowruz itself, the Persian New Year and the most important celebration in Iran, find its roots in Zoroastrianism. It’s in the regions of Yazd and Kerman that you will be able to experience best Zoroastrianism as it still hosts Iran’s largest Zoroastrian communities.
In the city of Yazd, you can visit the Fire Temple, also known as Yazd Atash Behram. Fire Temples (Atashkadeh) are places of worship for Zoroastrians, that contain a fire burning day and night. Indeed, for Zoroastrians the fire is a sacred element and represents Ahura Mazda’s eternal power. While the temple dates back to 1934, this fire is stated to have been burning for 1500 years. That makes it the longest burning fire in Iran, and one of the 9 most important fires to Zoroastrians – the other ones being located in India.
Another important place for Zoroastrians in Yazd is the Towers of Silence. Located outside of the city, they are two high towers that were related to burial rituals. When someone would pass away, Zoroastrians would leave that person’s body at the center of the rounded opened tower. They will let the corpse be exposed to vultures and elements for decomposition, in order not to contaminate the soil, another sacred element.
Near Yazd and the city of Ardakan, you can also visit the mountain shrine of Chak Chak. It’s a semi-natural cave located high on the footstep of a mountain, inside which drops a thin flow of water. It is said that the mountain saved the life of the daughter of a Sassanid king, that prayed to Ahura Mazda to hide her from the invaders in 640 CE. Since then, it has been an important pilgrimage point for Zoroastrians.
While visiting Persepolis, near Shiraz, you will also be able to learn a lot more about Zoroastrians. Indeed, the city’s main purpose was to host the royal ceremony for Nowruz. Most inscriptions and reliefs are related to Zoroastrianism and Ahura Mazda.
Traces of Zoroastrianism remain throughout many regions of Iran and in many sites. Another interesting historical place related to this religion is Takhte Suleiman, a UNESCO site located in West Azerbaijan. Takhte Suleiman is a fortified citadel that was the main Zoroastrian sanctuary under the Sassanid. It hosts a Fire Temple as well as a sacred temple dedicated to Anahita, the deity associated with water in Zoroastrianism.