You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
There is no doubt that this art of magic originated in Persia, under Zoroaster, this being a point upon which authors are generally agreed; but whether there was only one Zoroaster, or whether in later times there was a second person of that name, is a matter which still remains undecided.
Pliny the Elder - The Natural History 30.2 - Transl. John Bostock, H.T. Riley
A faravar, a Zoroastrian symbol at the Temple of Yazd, recalling a similar symbol at the Tomb of Darius the Great at Naqsh-e Rostam
The Sassanid kings who ruled Persia from 228 AD to the Arab invasion in 633-651 endorsed Zoroastrianism as the sole religion of their empire. The long confrontation between Sassanids and Byzantines was to some extent a religious war between Zoroastrians and Christians. In 614 Sassanid King Khosrau II seized Jerusalem and carried away the True Cross from the Holy Sepulchre to Ctesiphon, his capital. He conquered Syria, Palestine and Egypt profiting from the rifts among different Christian creeds, but his attempts to impose Zoroastrianism facilitated the reaction of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. The latter won back the lost territories by 628 and recovered the True Cross.
Yazd - Zoroastrian Museum - painting showing symbols of the current Zoroastrian religion framed by decorative elements taken from the Gate of All Nations at Persepolis
The Gaurs (Infidels, in this case Zoroastrians) would not be thought to give Honour to Fire under the title of Adoration. For they do not account themselves Idolaters, saying that they acknowledge but only one God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, whom they only adore. As
for the Fire, they preserve it and reverence it, in remembrance of the great Miracle,
by which their Prophet was deliver'd from the Flames.
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier - Travels through Turkey and Persia (1630s-1660s)
According to Muslim sources King Khosrau II was invited to convert to Islam and refused (most likely right before he was overthrown and assassinated in 628 on the orders of one of his sons). In the following years the Sassanid Empire was torn apart by dynastic conflicts and was unable to oppose the Arab invasion of Mesopotamia in 633. A second campaign in 642-651 led to the Arab conquest of the whole of Persia.
According to the Prophet's teachings Jews and Christians, the "People of the Book", were allowed to practice their own religion in countries conquered by the Muslims, as long as they did so in private. Zoroastrians instead were regarded as practicing idolatry and their religion was to be eradicated.
(left) Panel at the Zoroastrian Museum of Yazd; (right) Abarquh - Cypress tree near the former location of a Zoroastrian Temple of Fire
Zoroastrians used to plant cypress trees near their temples in memory of one planted by Zoroaster, the founder of their faith. A gigantic cypress said to be 4,000 year old at Abarquh, along the desert road leading to Yazd, is most likely an indication that a Zoroastrian temple existed there. Reliefs depicting cypress trees decorated the Apadana Staircase at Persepolis. The iconography which characterizes current Zoroastrian sites and rites is very much linked to the Achaemenid or (First Persian) Empire, rather than to the Sassanid one. According to a traditional account reported by Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, Zoroaster lived in the early VIth century BC when that empire was founded. Today this dating is challenged and Zoroastrian texts are believed to have been written at an earlier time.
Environs of Yazd - Tower of Silence
They neither burn nor bury their dead, but carry the Corps without the City,
into a wall'd place, where are abundance of Stakes seven or eight Foot high, fix'd
in the ground, and tye the dead Corps to one of the Stakes, with his Face toward
the East. They that accompany the Corps fall to their Prayers at a distance, 'till
the Crows come, for those Cemitaries draw the Crows to them. If the Crow chances
to fallen upon the right Eye of the deceas'd, then they believe the person to be
happy, and for joy they give large Alms, and make a Feast in the field. But if the
Crow fixes upon the left Eye, then they take it for an ill Omen, return home sad,
without speaking to one another; give no Alms, nor eat nor drink. Tavernier
Two large deserts cover the eastern part of the Persian tableland and for some time they formed a natural barrier to Muslim expansion. Some Zoroastrian communities living in towns near these deserts, such as Yazd, were eventually allowed to practice their faith, as long as they paid a special tax.
Almost all of the Achaemenid kings were buried in imposing tombs, but the same cannot be said for the Sassanid ones. It is therefore believed that the Zoroastrian practice of disposing of dead bodies by leaving them to the action of scavenging birds and to the calcination effects of the sun was adopted during the Sassanid period or immediately after.
Environs of Yazd - Tower of Silence - Ossuary
Approaching Yazd in the early morning, after another all-night journey, we met a Zoroastrian funeral. The bearers were dressed in white turbans and long white coats; the body in a loose white pall. They were carrying it to a tower of silence on a hill some way off, a plain circular wall about fifteen feet high.
Robert Byron - The Road to Oxiana - Macmillan 1937 (piece written in March 1934).
When Byron saw the Zoroastrian funeral the task of depriving dead bodies of their flesh was carried out by domesticated vultures. The bones were collected in an ossuary pit at the centre of a circular building. The use of towers of silence was introduced in the XVIth century and they were located far away from towns. This practice was gradually discontinued and was eventually forbidden in the 1970s. It has been replaced by cremation or by a form of burial which prevents the dead body from being in contact with the ground.
Chak Chak aka Pir-e Sabz (Green Shrine)
Many Sassanid supporters fled to the desert mountains east of Yazd where they fought a sort of guerrilla warfare against the Arab invaders. According to tradition Princess Nikbanou, a daughter of the last Sassanid king, was about to be taken prisoner by the Arabs when she prayed to Ahuramazda, the Zoroastrian God of Good, to protect her. The mountain opened up and she disappeared into it (for a similar account relating to St. Thecla see a page on Maaloula). Every year in June, Zoroastrians gather at a shrine in the remote location where the miracle occurred.
Chak Chak - View from the shrine
The Zoroastrian gathering place is located in a very hostile environment. Even today, notwithstanding a modern road, not a single house or evidence of human presence is in sight for miles and miles. For centuries a tall plane tree hidden by a rock was the only sign of the shrine. It stood near a small spring. The falling of its drops (believed to be tears in memory of Princess Nikbanou) has given the name to the location.
Chak Chak: (left) plane tree; (centre) decoration of a door recalling the reliefs at Persepolis; (right) fire cups
Zertoost their Law-giver charged them to keepe a perpetuall fire, not to bee fed with common combustibles, nor to be kindled or inflamed with prophane Ayre but such as comes from the beames of that glorious eye of heaven the Sunne,
lightnings, flings or the like. The water also by no means was to be corrupted with dead carkasses, durt, urine, raggs, or what shewed nastyness.
Sir Thomas Herbert - Some Yeares Travels Into Divers Parts of Asia and Afrique - 1638
A series of open air terraces have been built near a modern shrine which incorporates part of the plane tree trunk. Fire in today's Zoroastrianism is regarded as a symbol of purity and spiritual ascension. Its worship might have started for the practical need of providing an easy source of fire to the community, as it most likely started in Rome with the creation of Vestali, priestesses in charge of keeping a sacred fire alight.
After the Persians began to persecute the Gaurs, great numbers of them retir'd
to Surat , and others into the Province of Guzerat. Now the King of Persia
lets them live in quiet and there are now above 10000 in Kerman, where I staid
three Months in the year 1654. All that live in India are Tradesmen, and for the
most part Traders in Ivory; those in Kerman deal with Wool. (..) Some of these Gaurs live
near Ispahan. Tavernier
Here they have over since lingered, maltreated but undismayed: and from this centre was directed in later times that happy migration which has transformed the down-trodden Guebre of Iran into the prosperous Farsi of Bombay.
George N. Curzon (Lord Curzon) - Persia and the Persian Question - 1892
A number of Zoroastrians fled to North-Western India in the VIIIth century. Zoroastrian communities in India and Persia were separated until the XIXth century. Persian Zoroastrians received help from the Society for the Amelioration of the Conditions of the Zoroastrians in Persia which was founded in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1834. Eventually some Persian Zoroastrians were able to prosper and to build new temples and facilities for their community, including a small museum at Yazd. The image used as background for this page shows a panel depicting a burning fire in that museum. See a temple of fire built by Zoroastrian Indian merchants at Baku in Azerbaijan, the Country of Fire.
Pasargadae and Persepolis
Achaemenid Tombs and Sassanid Reliefs near Persepolis
Seljuk small towns (Ardestan, Zavareh and Abarquh)
XIVth century Yazd
XVIIIth century Shiraz
On the Road
An excursion to Abyaneh
People of Iran
and in another section on Iranian Azerbaijan:
Tabriz: The Blue Mosque
Tabriz: Azerbaijan Museum