Zoroastrian Towers of Silence
The Ancient Burial Ground in Yazd
The Zoroastrian used Yazd “Towers of Silence” as open burial pits, placing their deceased relatives in rows so their bodies would be feasted upon by birds of prey.
It is almost impossible to think up an itinerary for traveling to Iran and not include Yazd. This historic city, with its preserved earthen architecture, mud-brick houses, astonishing ancient monuments and the amazing cooling system -which is done through the wind catchers (also known as Badgir) – is considered to be a ‘must-see’ destination among domestic and foreign travelers in Iran.
In addition, this ancient city was home to different religions throughout the centuries and as a result, many mosques, synagogues and Zoroastrian temples exist in Yazd.
During Sassanid times, Yazd- that literally means God- became the center of Zoroastrians, as in time of conquering Iran by Arabs, many of them migrated to the city and settled down there.
Although Islam gradually became the dominant religion of the city, there are still fire temples and other monuments related to Zoroastrians which certainly worth a visit. ‘Tower of Silence’ is among the most interesting places outlasted from that era that will leave you with an overwhelming sense of wonder after visiting it.
The tower, which because of its remote location in the middle of the desert has remained largely unaffected to the battles and destruction of wars, is an 8-meter circular structure built on top of a hilltop in southeastern of Yazd and primarily was used for funerary purposes by adherents of the Zoroastrian faith.
The roofless structure of the tower, or as the local people call it ‘Dakhmeh’, lets the birds of prey like vultures to dive in and out.
The interior part of this monument consists of three concentric rings: The outer row was used for males, the central ring was for females and the innermost ring was dedicated to the body of children.
Additionally, a well is located in the middle of this structure for keeping the bones of the dead bodies of Zoroastrians after getting cleaned by vultures.
Based on ancient Zoroastrian beliefs, dead parts of physical body like clipped nail or cut hair are impure and unclean, ‘nasu’ as they say. Moreover, physical purity has a close connection with spiritual purity and as soon as the breath (the spirit) has left the physical body, it becomes pollutant, as it is contaminated by demons.
The corrupting influence of this process is considered to be spiritually dangerous; Consequently Zoroastrian people try to keep contagion away from their community as far as possible. In addition, according to Zoroastrians, fire, earth, air and water are four ‘sacred ‘elements and should be kept clean from any contagious or unclean material.
For this reason, instead of burying the corpse directly into the earth or burning it- which would also dishonor the fire like the earth-, they would apply another method as the funeral process of their loved ones’ dead bodies.
In the first place, they would wash the corpse of recently deceased with water and ‘gomez’ – which is bull’s urine- and after that, they would also wash the clothes and the place where the body would lie.
Furthermore, by bringing a dog into the dead body’s presence, they would attempt to hold back the demons. This process is known as ‘Sagdid’ which means the glance of dog (‘Sag’ in Persian means dog and ‘-did’ means to see) and forms an essential part of Zoroastrian funeral ceremony.
Afterwards, they would use the cloth as a shroud to cover the body and put it on a stone or a shallow hole in the ground. They would also draw some circles around the corpse to create a distance between visitors and the body and as a spiritual barrier for keeping away the evil forces.
In this ritual, fire acts as a sacred element and by burning fragrant woods, Zoroastrians would keep the place clear of disease and contamination. During the process, which dates back to around 3000 years ago, non-Zoroastrians would not be allowed to observe any of the actual funeral traditions. Within a day, the corpse would be carried to the tower of silence.
This part of ceremony has to be done only during the day and the number of bearers should always be even. Furthermore, weepers and mourners should move in pairs while they are following the corpse. For three days, family and friends would pray for the soul of the deceased and avoid eating meat and cooking in the house where the body was prepared for the funeral.
By putting the corpse over exposure of the sun and the air, Zoroastrians would use these sacred elements for purifying the dead body by creating a balance between ‘the good and evil forces’.
Meanwhile, prey birds would clean the bones of the corpse. This way, the impure body would vanish and the remaining bones would be moved into the well which is located in the center of the structure.
However, after 1970s, this tradition became illegal in Iran and the government made the Zoroastrian community to adjust to other methods as the funeral process. As a result, many of them have applied burying the corpse beneath concrete as a way to avoid all contaminants.
Today, this tower is no longer used in funeral ceremonies for its original purpose and has turned to a touristic attraction. The remote location of the tower was primarily selected for being far enough from Yazd, but with the growth of the city, it is now easily within reach.
In addition, ascending the tower requires a basic level of fitness, but the view of the city (especially during the sunset) would surely be worth it. At the foot of the hill, a modern Zoroastrian cemetery and some other abandoned buildings and temples exist.
Dedicating a few hours to visit this place for people who are interested in ancient religions and rituals would be an unforgettable experience on their trip to Yazd.
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