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The Zoroastrians: the faith thrived in Iran before Islam now it is almost gone--but it has left an immense cultural impact.


Iran, as we all know, is a Muslim country. So why is Now Ruz, the Zoroastrian festival that celebrates the arrival of spring, its principal national holiday? Why does a country that has been Muslim since shortly after the Arab conquest in the Seventh Century CE celebrate the vernal equinox with rites of the religion the Arab conquerors displaced?

Much of the West's knowledge of Zoroastrians comes from accounts of 17th, 18th and 19th Century travelers to Iran who encountered this then-suppressed minority and referred to them as "fire-worshipers," a misapprehension of the fires that Zoroastrians keep burning in their temples. When Zoroastrians pray, they stand with their eyes fixed on the temple fire as they tie and untie around their waists a koshti, a threefold cord exemplifying the three-fold ethics of Zoroastrianism--good thoughts, good words, good deeds. The fire is a symbol of the divine grace of their prophet, Zoroaster, and a light that calls on all the faithful to practice spiritual cleansing and purity.


During years of persecution, Zoroastrians often had to hide their temple fires in tiny rooms with doors camouflaged as entrances to closets. Over and over again their temples were destroyed by conquering armies of Greeks, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, and Mongols. However, in a small village near Yazd, two of the greatest fires of Zoroastrian Persia are still burning. Brought there for safekeeping, the fires were joined together and are said to have been burning continuously for over 2,000 years.

The Zoroastrians were once an influential people. Five hundred years before Christ, their religion first gained standing and recognition under the Achaemenids, builders of the first Persian Empire. Although Alexander's conquest of Iran in 334 BCE decimated the Zoroastrian community, the religion managed to survive and eventually to thrive again.

It reached its zenith in the 3rd Century CE under the second Persian Empire established by the Sasanians, the ruling dynasty that made Zoroastrianism the official creed of Iran. Its religious and cultural institutions flourished and prospered for four hundred years. By the time of the Arab conquest, this religion had spread to parts of Anatolia, Syria, Babylonia, Egypt, and the borderlands of India.

Scholars claim that the teachings of Zoroaster influenced the development of the three great monotheistic religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They claim that Zoroaster was the first to preach of life after death, of the rewards of heaven and life-everlasting for the virtuous, and of retribution and the sufferings of hell for the wicked. He taught that good would ultimately triumph over evil, that there would come a last day and an end of time ushered in by the coming of a savior who would be born of the prophet's own seed miraculously preserved in the depths of a lake. Near the end of time, a virgin would bathe there and become of child. Her son would be a divine world savior, but also a man, born of human parents.

Zoroaster taught that at the Last Judgment all the deceased would be resurrected and judged. A great flow of molten metal would pour over the earth, purifying it of evil. To those who were good, the molten metal would feel like warm milk and they would pass safely through it. The wicked, however, would burn and suffer until they were purged of sin--although, in the end, even they would be saved. The world would once again become perfect as it had been, and the blessed would live there in happiness, in the presence of the Almighty, Ahura Mazda.

Zoroastrianism was the first religion to conceive of a single divine being, Ahura Mazda, who was wholly good, all-wise, and uncreated. He alone was eternal, and he alone was to be worshipped. It was also the first religion to posit a single source of evil, the devil spirit Ahriman, who was also uncreated, and who, with great malice, used his formidable powers to oppose Ahura Mazda and all that was good in this world.

Thus, the world was a battleground where good and evil would fight for supremacy. In the eternal battle against evil, it was man's duty to promote good throughout a lifetime by exercising self-discipline, by cultivating the earth and protecting it from contamination, and by spreading joy and gladness. By following these injunctions, Zoroastrians became famous for their high ethical standards, for their philanthropy, for their skills as gardeners and vintners, and for their holy days, among them Now Ruz, the spring festival still celebrated today.


Islam, from its earliest days, gave a respected position to Jews and Christians, who were recognized as Ahl al-Kitab or "People of the Book," referring to recognized holy texts. Persian Muslim governments eventually extended to the Zoroastrians that same recognition. But for a long time, Zoroastrians faced varying degrees of discrimination and oppression. Some found life so intolerable that they fled in the early 10th Century to the coast of Gujarat, in western India, where they settled among the Hindus and became known as Parsis.

But there was much worse to follow, for the Turkish invasions of the 11th Century and the Mongol conquests of the 13th Century brought the Zoroastrians close to annihilation. First the Seljuk Turks and then the Mongols swept into Iran out of the steppes of Central Asia on horseback, destroying and burning everything in their path. They slaughtered men, women and children of every faith, building towers of the skulls of those they killed. In addition, they destroyed the temples of the Zoroastrians and the last great collections of their holy books, the Avestas.

Remnants of the beleagured faithful managed to survive when the province of Fars submitted to the Mongols and escaped the worst of the slaughter. Regrouping, the Zoroastrians settled just north of Fars, in the oasis cities of Yazd and Kerman. The area was far from the courts, on the edges of arid deserts notorious for their harsh climate. Not until the late 19th Century was the persecution of the Zoroastrians finally eased. With the lifting of the jaziyeh, the poll tax on non-Muslims, the Zoroastrians were able to prosper. They rebuilt their temples, developed reputations for their mercantile skills and gardens, and pioneered in the education of girls.

In spite of the improvements, however, as late as the 19th Century, Zoroastrians living under Qajar rulers were still discriminated against in a number of ways. Prohibited from riding horses, donkeys or mules--in a time when there were no other forms of transportation--they were compelled to travel on foot. They were forbidden to wear anything but long robes of undyed wool or cotton, ghaba , and cotton footwear, giveh, even in winter. Sometimes they were attacked and beaten by Muslims in the streets. In the bazaars, they were not allowed to touch food or fruits, and upon entering a Muslim home they were forced to place a large shawl under their feet so as not to pollute the carpet.


The Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, however, resulted in the establishment of the Majlis (parliament) and a Constitution that protected the Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian minorities and gave them representation in the Majlis. The Zoroastrians thereby gained a voice to express their concerns.

For the second session of the Majlis in 1909, the Zoroastrians elected as their representative Arbab Kaykhosrow Shahrokh, my grandfather, who became a great leader and was re-elected to 11 subsequent Majlises, until his assassination in 1940. During all that time he refused to accept any remuneration for his service in the Majlis, where he promoted not just Zoroastrian interests, but those of Iranians as a whole.

He advocated for the development of national markets, worked to establish a library and printing press for the Majlis, helped establish a memorial for the 10th Century epic poet, Ferdowsi, and promoted the development of roads, railways and the first telephone lines. He worked in varying positions in government and cultural institutions with such leading pre-revolutionary figures as Foroughi, Hakimi, Taghizadeh and Mostowfi al-Mamalek. One of the most distinguished Muslim clerics of the day, Modarres, paid him the highest compliment when he stood up in the Majlis and said, "If there is one good Muslim in the Majlis it is Arbab Kaykhosrow."

My grandfather's career as a reformer began in 1892 at the age of 17 when he returned to Kerman from Bombay, where he had been studying, to become principal of the Zoroastrian School. Landing at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf coast, he defiantly bought a donkey to transport him to Kerman. He wore a long cloak, trousers, a hat and boots--all forbidden to Zoroastrians.

The day after his arrival, he was summoned by the governor of Kerman, Prince Farmanfarma. Against the advice of his friends and associates who thought he was endangering his life, he rode to the governor's mansion on a horse, dressed in the forbidden garments. Then, to the consternation of all present, instead of standing deferentially at the back of the reception hall, he walked up to the governor and shook his hand. To everyone's surprise, instead of reprimanding him, the governor invited him to be his English tutor. From then on, in spite of many threats on his life, Arbab Kaykhosrow rode horseback to the governor's mansion.

Some years later, in 1923, following an audience with Reza Shah in which my grandfather pleaded the case of the Zoroastrians, the proscriptions against them were lifted and life gradually improved for the followers of this ancient faith.

Arbab Kaykhosrow served his community tirelessly, raising money for a number of schools in Kerman and Tehran. He was so highly respected that he encountered little opposition when he introduced to the Zoroastrian community in Tehran for the first time the practice of burying the dead. He believed that the old practice of exposing corpses on top of funerary towers (dakhmeh) for vultures to dispose of was incompatible with the hygienic requirements of modern life. (The Parsis of India continue the old tradition.)

Although the Zoroastrians prospered under Reza Shah's rule and Arbab Kaykhosrow supported many of the Shah's modernizing programs, he was opposed to the Shah's increasingly dictatorial tendencies. For his liberal, democratic ideals he eventually paid with his life. He was assassinated by Reza Shah's henchmen as so many other prominent public figures had been before him. But his legacy and his reputation live on.

In the early years after the Islamic revolution, when the politics of chaos, violence, terror and counter-terror dominated the nation's social life, Islamist zealots threatened to destroy the ancient architectural remains of Persepolis. This national treasure was saved from destruction by the intervention of Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who became Iran's first president after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. There were also attempts to diminish and play down the pre-Islamic history of Iran, even going so far as to try to prevent the building of bonfires celebrating chahar shambeh soori, the Wednesday before No Ruz when celebrants leap over open fires in observance of an ancient Zoroastrian ritual.

But Iranians, although largely Muslim, are tightly bound to their pre-Islamic history, partly through pride in Persia's ancient culture and civilization, and partly through their familiarity with the poetry of Ferdowsi. This great 10th Century poet melded Iran's ancient history with legend in his Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), an epic poem widely read, memorized and loved by all Iranians.

Following the 1979 revolution, large numbers of Zoroastrians fled the country and only about 90,000 still live there. Today, the early revolutionary zeal that threatened them seems to have abated and they appear to be enjoying widespread respect for integrity, honesty and diligent hard work. They continue to practice their religion, run their own schools, worship in their temples, and send a representative to the Majlis. An article in the daily Ettela'at of January 20, 2009, even extolled the virtues and contributions of Arbab Kaykhosrow, hailing him as a great patriot, an ardent nationalist and a man of considerable accomplishment. In addition, a television documentary was shown portraying an inquest into Arbab Kaykhosrow's death.

It would seem, therefore, that the Zoroastrians' political fortunes in Iran are on the rise. Unfortunately, however, their numbers are diminishing as neither they nor the Parsis of India accept converts. There are those members of the community who believe they will die out unless they do start accepting converts. After all, they argue, Zoroaster himself accepted converts. But so far a council of Mobed, Zoroastrian high priests, has voted against such a practice, fearing it would dilute the faith through intermarriage and assimilation.

Today, there are about 11,000 Zoroastrians living in the United States. Mostly well-educated, they are thriving. But about half of all American Zoroastrians marry non-Zoroastrians. Some see that as the death knell for the faith.

What is evident is that whether the Zoroastrian community thrives or dwindles, the legacy of its religious beliefs will live on in the enduring ethical principles inherited by both the East and the West.

Nesta Ramazani is a free-lance writer who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her current book is, "The Dance of the Rose and the Nightingale."
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Author:Ramazani, Nesta
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Date:Mar 20, 2009
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