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Zoroaster and Zoroastrians in Iran
Last Updated: October, 2009

Zoroastrianism spread throughout the empire with Persian households, administration and military being present in every corner of the empire. It suffered greatly by Alexander"s invasion of Persia in 331 BC. During and after the conquest many priests, teachers and lawyers who orally transmitted the ancient teachings were killed and numerous temples were ransacked and some burnt down. Seleucids, Alexander’s hires in Iran followed Greek religious traditions with Kings declaring themselves divine and alienated Zoroastrian priests. Greeks founded cities across Iran and Bactria (Afghanistan) with their own soldiers and settlers, however freedom of religion existed and Iranians continued venerating their own deities.

Greek Gods were introduced and their Statues displayed at public places disguised as Iranian yazata. Zeus and Apollo represented Ahura Mazda and Mithra, while Herakles Kallinikos became Verethraghna and Nike and Demeter replaced Ashi and Spenta Armaiti. In 141 BC, the Parni chieftain, Mithridates I, the Arsacid ruler (Ashkanian) entered Seleucia-on-the Tigris as a conqueror. He was probably born and brought up in Parthava, speaking the Parthian language. By the time of Mithridates II (123-187 BC), the Arsacids established their rule over Seleucids and the great Parthian dynasty of Iran was formed. Parthian kings followed the Greek example and declared themselves of divine descent. The act contradicted Zoroastrian principles but did not receive opposition, which suggests that the priests were cooperating with the new rulers. The clergy did not like the Greeks and by working with the new rulers and accepting their terms they guaranteed their presence at the Royal court. Even the later Sasanian Kings also declared that they were "of the race of gods".

Much of the information about Zoroastrianism during Parthian period comes from non-Iranian territories such as Armenia and other former Soviet Republics. Armenia was Zoroastrian for centuries, gradually they adopted Christianity and received protection from Rome and eventually became fully Christian. Armenians worshiped "Aramaz" (Parthian for Ahura Mazda) as "Creator of sky and earth", and "Father of all gods". "Spendaramet" was honored as protector of the earth, and the veneration of Haurvatat and Ameretat existed. There were temples to Mihr (Mithra) and Anahit, the noble Lady, Mother of all knowledge. Historians Strabo and Pausanias and the Roman spy Isidore of Charax (66-77 AD) describe fire temples and mention image cults. There is a fine Bronze head of a goddess (indistinguishable from the Greek Aphrodite) inscribed to be an image of Anahit one of the few images that has survived the Christian and Islamic destruction of icons and artifacts in shape of humans and other living forms.

The three main sacred fires, Adur Burzen-Mihr, Adur Farnbag and Adur Gushnasp were already venerated at this time. It was in Parthian time that southeastern Iran known as Drangiana, acquired the name of "Sakastan" (Seistan) due to the settlement of Sakas people (Iranian origin) in the area. They became Zoroastrian and adopted the local culture. In time stories of their great warrior-hero Rustam came to mingle with legends of Kayanians (Avestan Kavis), the ancestors of the Avestan king Vishtaspa. The heroes reached the modern era due to Firdausi"s magnificent translation of Avestan mythology and other ancient Iranian stories in his great epic Shahnameh. Other major developments of the Parthian period included the establishment of an artificial date for Zoroaster (see calendar section) and appropriation by the magi of the whole Avestan tradition for their own homeland of Northern Media (modern Azerbaijan or the ancient Iranian province of Atropatene). In short, persons, places and events of northeastern Iran were given new associations with the northwest. Zoroaster and Kavis were placed in these lands that was identified with the legendary home of the Iranian peoples i.e. Airyanem Vaejah (Iran Veej). There are also reports pointing out to king Valakhsh (Vologeses) the Arsacid ruler sending orders to all provinces and instructing people to save all Avestan literature whether written or in authoritative oral transmission. The result might have been the book Vendidad or "Laws against Demons" a major Sassanian text that has survived.

Sasanian were hereditary guardians of a great temple to Anahita at the city of Istakhr in Pars. At the beginning of 3rd century AD, one of their members Papak, seized power from the local prince and his son Ardashir overthrew the last Parthian king Ardaban V (224 AD). He was a brilliant administrator and strategist and used religious propaganda as a mean to expand his power. With help from his equally brilliant herbad (head priest) Tansar, the two undertook the task of persuading their people that their version of Zoroastrianism was the true and the better one. Calendar reforms were introduced and in place of the former fraternity of regional communities, a single Zoroastrian church was established under the direct authoritarian control of Persia. Next a single canon of Avestan texts approved and authorized by Tansar himself was created. How this was done is described in Dinkard and it is made clear that "the interpretation of all the teachings of the Mazda-worshiping religion is our responsibility". The religious tolerance a characteristic of the ruling Iranian dynasties from Cyrus to Ardaban was further abandoned by the appearance of another great priest Kirdir during the reign of Shabuhr (Shapur died 272 AD).

Sasanian were hostile to cult-statues and icons and removed such items from their temples and replaced them with altars and sacred fires. This campaign was resisted by the local population and was not entirely successful. Rock carvings at Naqsh-i Rustam shows Ahura Mazda mounted with crown on his head, and rods in hand, holding the diadem of sovereignty. Anahita (Ardvisur Anahid by this time) and Mithra are also depicted in a number of carvings and continued to exist as image cults. More calendar reforms were introduced and Persian was made the sole official language in the country. As a result all religious literature including the secondary literature such as Zand was written down in Middle Persian or Pahlavi. A major innovation was the creation of a new Avestan alphabet by adding more letters into the Pahlavi alphabet of the mid-Sasanian period. The new system had 46 instead of fewer than 20 letters and permitted the rendering of every vowel and consonant and as a result it was possible to write down the ancient oral tradition with all its sacred sounds adequately.

The priests were able to record all surviving Avestan texts and by the time of Anoshirvan twenty-one divisions were published and the great Sasanian Avesta was fully composed. The twenty-one "nasks" or divisions corresponded with the 21 words of the Ahunvar prayer; and the nasks were then sub-divided into three groups of seven. The first group contained the Gathas and all the texts associated with them, the second, works of scholastic learning, and the third, treatises of instruction for priests (such as Vendidad), law books and others such as yashts (prayers). Copies of the massive work were sent to leading priests in the provinces in Pars, Media, Parthia and Sistan and were placed at the libraries of the great temples in these areas. What is left today from Avestan literature belongs to this massive collection composed in Sasanian period.

Yazdegird III the last Sasanian king met his death in Merv in 652 AD. The Arab invasion of Iran was utterly different from that of Alexander. The attack on Persian and Byzantine territories by the newly converted Muslims was carried out in the spirit of verse (surah) 9.29 of the Quran. "Fight those who believe not in Allah and the last day and do not forbid what Allah and his messenger have forbidden-such men as practice not the religion of truth, being people of the book-until they pay tribute out of hand and have been humbled". "People of the book" or "dhimmis" (Zamis) in Quran are named as Jews, Christians and Sabians, who had adherents among the Arabs. To them Muslims presented three choices, death, conversion or the payment of tribute (jizya). To other infidels including Buddhists and followers of other religions two options was offered; death or conversion to Islam. Zoroastrians theoretically belonged to the second group, however because of their sheer numbers Muslims were forced to regard them as dhimmis.

So once the conquest was over, with its slaughter, enslavement, looting and destruction, local terms were agreed on and the Muslim rulers collected tributes. In one account people of Ray and vicinity had to pay 500,000 dirhams but managed to keep what was left of their temples. The Sasanian tax system was taken over and "jizya" was made an special poll tax on non-Muslims and since the surah 9.29 had mentioned "humbling the non believers" special provisions were made to make sure that the non Muslims were humbled at the time of paying taxes. "The dhimmi has to stand while paying tax and the officer (emir) who receives it sits. The dhimmi has to be made to feel that he is an inferior person when he pays. He offers the poll tax on his open palm. The emir takes it so that his hand in on top and the dhimmis below. Then the emir gives him a blow on the neck, and one who stands before the emir drives him roughly away. The public is admitted to see this show".

The number of laws and restriction governing the life of non-Muslims got worst after the first four orthodox caliphs. Originally most Iranians remained Zoroastrian despite the fact that by remaining true to their faith they had no place in the new power structure. However his would not last for long and forced conversions would sooner or later end the legacy of Zoroastrianism in Iran. "The Arab commander, Qutaiba, thrice forced citizens of Bukhara to convert to Islam, but they repeatedly apostatized and became infidels. The fourth time he seized the city and established Islam there after much difficulty he made their religion very difficult for them in every way. Qutaiba ordered people of Bukhara to give one half of their homes to the Arabs. He built mosques and eradicated traces of unbelief. He built a grand mosque and ordered the people to perform the Friday prayers there. That place had been a temple". Thousands of Iranians were enslaved by Arabs one way to get out of slavery was to become Muslims since Muslims could not be enslaved and as a result many converted. All these pressures, humiliation at the time of paying jizya, deliberate destruction of temples and forced conversions resulted in massive conversions. There are accounts of Muslim rulers forcing mass circumcision on the newly converted males to make sure they had truly become Muslims. The Arab governor of Sogdia was faced with 7000 males reconverting back to Zoroastrianism once circumcision was forced on them. Tabari records that Arab tax collectors in the eight-century would mistreat Zoroastrians, tearing off the sacred girdle and hanging it round their necks in derision.

The worst blow to the old faith and Iranian nationalism in general was struck under the Umayyads when the use of Middle Persian, written in Pahlavi script was abandoned by the administration and Arabic was used instead. The change imposed around 700 AD, emphasized the permanence of the Arab presence in Iran and enforced a widespread knowledge of Arabic and further separated the Muslim Iranians from their Zoroastrian past. Massive efforts were made by many Iranians to save the ancient heritage by translating Pahlavi books into Arabic and eventually new Persian. Most literature that is saved from pre-Islamic Persia was preserved this way, the most famous was the great Sasanian chronicle, the "Khwaday Namag" that was translated into elegant Arabic. Ferdowsi’s brilliant translation of the text into modern Persian "Shahnameh" has preserved the ancient Zoroastrian myths and accounts of the Persian history and has made this book one of the most important works in Persian language and a cultural icon.

A further blow came when Iranian Muslims succeeded in shaping a tradition, which made Islam, appear as a partly Iranian religion by appropriating the Iranian Shiite movement. A legend was made that Husayn, son of Ali the fourth caliph had married a captive Sasanian Princess called Shahrbanu, the "Lady of the Land". This wholly fictitious character was held to have born Husayn a son and as a result Iranians supported Shiite movement and descendents of Ali claiming the caliphate to be their right. The movement led to the victory of Abbasid dynasty (claiming descent from the prophet) against the Umayyad in 750 AD. The Abbasids revived the magnificence of the Sasanian court and their authoritarianism in religious matters. They employed many Iranians at the beginning but gradually executed and eliminated most including Abu-Moslem Khurasani who was responsible for restoring caliphate to Abbasid.

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