Our World Echoes of Persia ring true in Iran

Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, Yazd, Iran.
Picture: Stephen Scourfield The West Australian
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Zoroastrianism dates back thousands of years but continues to be a part of life in modern-day Iran.

Heaven and hell, judgment day, angels, the fight between good and evil. Waiting for three days after death, to see if there might be a resurrection. A phrase from my Christian childhood, of priests leading the penitence, acknowledging sins “...in thought and word and deed..." 

The echoes come with an unexpected reverberation in Iran.

They come as I follow the flame of Zoroastrianism.

“Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest theosophies (or religions) in the world,” says Karan Jami, 17 years a guide and showing me around. “It has had, and has, a great influence on Iranian lives.”

Zoroastrianism was founded by Zarathustra, an Iranian prophet, who was born in 1768BC and lived to the age of 77. When he was 20, he chose meditation and solitude to ponder the questions of the world.

“You can see Zoroastrian principles in many faiths,” Karan points out.

At the core of Zoroastrianism are three principles: good thought, good speech, good deed. Moral choice is at its essence.

And in that there is immediately that echo from my high Church of England childhood, of priests leading the penitence, acknowledging sins "...in thought and word and deed ..." with the same in Roman Catholic confession and reconciliation.

Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Iran long before Islam was brought by Arab conquerors, and in those early days of the Persian empire all religions were tolerated.

Interestingly, despite the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the power of hardline Muslim clerics, it is still present in Iranian life. But members of the Zoroastrian community — the Parsi or Parsee — have also spread around the world.

“Zoroastrianism is wrongly known as fire worshipping — that is not right,” Karan says. “Fire is only a symbol of fighting against evil and darkness. The definition of heaven and hell are different in Zoroastrianism. The people here originally came from the Siberian north, so hell is an extremely cold place in the north and heaven a warm place in the south. It reflects geography.”

All of which rather makes sense to me.

“Those who don’t follow the principles will end up in the cold dominion and realm of the evil in the north.”

Zoroastrians wear a thin rope around the waist — 72 threads representing the 72 chapters of Zarathustra’s writings, Avesta. Zoroastrianism inspired Friedrich Nietzsche to write the book Thus Spake Zarathustra (in just 10 days) and the book inspired Richard Strauss to compose his epic of the same name, his Opus 30, which was used in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and its initial fanfare, call Sunrise, to be used to open sporting events since.

Zoroastrianism also plays a significant part in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. The main character is Sarastro, which might ring a bell. There are three angels. There are tests by fire and water.

In the 18th century, there was a lot of interest in Zoroastrianism, before the Arab invasion converted Iran to Islam. “There’s still a very large community of Zoroastrians in Iran,” Karan says.

 “They are allowed to practise their religion because everything that we have in Iran, from the names of the days of the week to events and ceremonies, is based on Zoroastrianism but with the Islamic touch these days.” Zoroastrians are represented by members of parliament.

And here in the city of Yazd, we go to an active Zoroastrian fire temple to see what many think of as the holiest fire in the world. It has been burning since AD470. The mother flame.

“Any new temples will have fire from here,” Karan explains. “This is the mother fire of all Zoroastrian temples around the world.”

As we are about to step inside to stand before the flame, living on slow-burning almond wood, Karan pauses. There’s a point to be made. “In India, they won’t allow non-Zoroastrians to visit the temple. In Iran they are more tolerant.”

And now come more echoes. The priests who keep and protect the fire are called magi, from which we have the word magic.

The four elements of earth, water, air and fire are vital. But of these, only fire was not around them all the time — it came from above, a bolt from the blue, and was difficult to keep alive.

Indeed, after the Arab invasion, this fire was kept alive in secret until more tolerant times came. “Ninety nine per cent of the mosques in Iran are built on foundations of ancient fire temples,” says Karan.

In soft morning light but already warm sun, we drive to the outskirts of Yazd, to hills upon which there are Towers of Silence. This is where the Zoroastrian deceased were brought for sky burial.

At the bottom of the hill are fire temples, based on the shape of a cross, which itself represents the four elements, and clearly represent the roots of mosque design.

The shrouded bodies, washed in bulls’ urine so that no bacteria could grow, were carried by donkeys from here to the top of the hill and placed in the Towers of Silence, while the families waited and held ceremonies here.

“No one wore black. They believed that if the person was a good person, they would fly in the sky with the birds,” Karan says.

For the first three days, a dog lived in the tower with a body. It had two jobs. The first was to keep vultures away. 

“They believed that the Angel of Death needed three days and nights to come to them and ask them what they had thought, said and done in their lives.”

And in those less precise medical times, the three days also allowed time to make sure the people were really dead. 

At any sign of life, the dog would bark.

And in those three days, and the possibility of a “corpse” arising, there are other Christian echoes, of course.

Only after three days was the body exposed for vultures and worms to dispatch it. After seven days, a priest would collect the remaining bones, put them in a cotton bag and drop them into the hole in the centre of the Tower of Silence, with lime. 

When the hole was filled, they would leave the tower and build a new one. There have been no sky burials since 1971, for health reasons, and bodies are now buried in cement casks, so that they do not pollute the Earth.

Zoroastrians also believe that a soul has to cross a river to heaven. It does this across a bridge like a sword laid flat. 

But if they were a bad person, the sword would turn its blade, edge up, cut the soul in two, and it would be washed to the cold north by the river.

Heaven and hell, the fight between good and evil, waiting for three days after death, and three kings from the east bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh — Zoroastrian magi coming to the baby Jesus.

Resonating echoes.

At top: A Zoroastrian Tower of Silence in Yazd, Iran. Picture: Stephen Scourfield

Fact File

Travel Directors’ 29-day Treasures of Persia and the Caucasus tour visits Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. It includes two days in Yazd, and visits to the Towers of Silence and fire temples. 

In 2017, the first departure is May 8 to June 5. The tour is $16,550. It includes international flights, all travel within countries, accommodation, all meals, all tips, gratuities and entrance fees, tour manager and local guides. traveldirectors.com.au, 9242 4200 and 1300 856 661.

Disclaimer

Stephen Scourfield was in Iran as a guest of Travel Directors.

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