The Odyssey is Non-Profit, but Not Non-Prophet
April 15, 2000
You've no doubt heard the story before -- God speaks to one man, and gives him a message that will save all of humanity. That man goes out and, against all odds, shares that message with the people and converts many to his new religion. It hasn't happened to any of the trekkers yet, but if it's going to, I think we're in the right place.
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Are we closer to God here, or are the people more spiritual than in other parts of the world? Is it in the water? Maybe it's the vast deserts, or the beautiful rugs. Why is it that so many influential prophets have come from the Middle East through the ages? There was Abraham who was born in what is now Turkey, and Jesus, of course, and then came Mohammed in Saudi Arabia.
Not to be outdone, Persia has produced at least two similar "messengers of God," and two subsequent major religions. The first, named Zarathustra or Zoroaster, lived anywhere from 1500 BCE to 1200 BCE (depending on whose research you believe) and his religion, Zoroastrianism, strongly influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The second Persian prophet, Bahá'u'lláh, started the Bahá'í faith here in the 1800s, and a lot of his teachings stem from Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Since the revolution in 1979, when Iran became an "Islamic Republic" ruled by Muslim clergy, many followers of Zoroastrianism, and almost all of the Bahá'í, have left the country.
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The Bahá'í faith, which we learned about back in Haifa, Israel, has five million followers worldwide and is still growing. Zoroastrianism, however, has fewer (some estimates say up to 150,000; other say less) and could be dying out. Still, in the big picture, Zarathustra has had a larger effect on the world.
Before Zarathustra came along, the people of ancient Persia worshipped many gods. But Zarathustra's God, Ahura Mazda, the "Wise Lord," came down and told him to reject these "demons." For Zoroastrians, life is a battle between good and evil, and everyone -- man and woman alike -- is a warrior. The battle, however, is spiritual, not physical.
About 10,000 devout Zoroastrians live here in Yazd, Iran. Ateshkadé, the Zoroastrian fire temple, holds a fire that has burned for 1,530 years!
"We believe that fire is a living thing," my new Zoroastrian friend Parvis told me. "So when a fire is made, it is important to remember, kind of like a birth certificate."
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We were really fortunate to meet Parvis. He showed us around the fire temple and the old homes of his grandparents. The homes are built in the shape of a cross, to represent the four directions, a building custom which reminds me of ancient Native American religions and European pagan symbolism.
"Every time they (Zoroastrians) want to bless anything, they touch the four corners," Parvis explained. "All the prayers, they spread to the four corners. So a cross of equidistant sides with four dots is a very important symbol. In all of the Persian rugs you'll see the central medallion will be a cross. In the Mitraic religion you have hot cross buns way before in the Christian religion!" (Mitraism is a sect of Zoroastrianism that has spread to the West.)
There are seven elements in Zoroastrianism that represent the one God. You can learn more about that in Kavitha's article, or go straight to the source: the holy book of Zoroastrians is known as the Avesta, and it was passed down orally for more than 1,000 years, until it was written down during the Sassanian dynasty in Iran, between the 3rd and 7th centuries CE. The oldest parts of the Avesta are the Gathas -- seventeen intricate poems supposedly written by Zarathustra himself.
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After 10 years of getting NO converts, Zoroastrianism started growing, and eventually became the official state religion of Persia under the Sassanians, who controlled this area between 224 and 637 CE. Instead of the Islamic Republic of Iran, did they call it the Zoroastrian Kingdom of Persia? Well, it really doesn't matter, because once Mohammed brought Islam to the Arabs, they went out and conquered all of the Middle East, and Zoroastrianism went into decline. But despite Islam's hold on Iran, many of the traditions and customs date back to the Zoroastrian days.
Now, Parvis told me, there is a large, thriving Zoroastrian community in Bombay, India, where they still leave their dead on the Towers of Silence. Whoah! We visited these desolate hilltop structures here in Yazd, where the local Zoroastrians used to leave their dead to be eaten by the vultures.
clergy - people involved in religious service (a priest, or an Imam, for example)
subsequent - following in time, succeeding
pagan - a person who has no religion, or whose beliefs predate Christianity, Judaism and Islam
"Once a person dies," Parvis explained, "the fire of life is gone from them." Therefore, the body is polluting and shouldn't be buried in the earth or burned on the fire, two of the sacred seven elements. Cool!
"When I die," I told Brian as we climbed the dusty hill, "I want my body to be eaten by vultures!" Brian thinks I'm weird.
THE ZOROASTRIAN CREED
Come to my aid, O Mazda (3).
I profess myself a Mazda-worshipper, a Zoroastrian, having vowed it and professed it. I pledge myself to the well-thought thought, I pledge myself to the well-spoken word, I pledge myself to the well-done action.
I pledge myself to the Mazdayasnian religion, which causes the attack to be put off and weapons put down; which upholds khvaetvadatha (kin-marriage), which possesses Asha; which of all religions that exist or shall be, is the greatest, the best, and the most beautiful: Ahuric, Zoroastrian. I ascribe all good to Ahura Mazda. This is the creed of the Mazdayasnian religion.
(Note: Asha, which has been translated variously as truth, righteousness, world-order, eternal law and fitness, is a key concept in Zoroastrianism.)
Frequently Asked Questions About Zoroastrianism
Traditional Zoroastrianism Home Page
Seriously, though, I've really enjoyed learning about the Zoroastrian religion. I like it that they believe in guardian angels, because we trekkers can really use them. I also like some of the quotes I've found from the Avesta, so I'll leave you with a parting inspirational scripture -- words to live by 'til the vultures come!
"A thousand people cannot convince one by words to the extent that one person can convince a thousand by action." (The Avesta, SDk6.e15)
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...email@example.com
Brian - A Chat with a Mosque
Jasmine - No More No Ruz
Kavitha - Trekkers and Mongols in Iran's Desert Plateau
Kavitha - An Iranian Dead Poets' Society
Team - Turn Off That Faucet! Water Doesn't Grow on Trees, You Know
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