High winds whipped golden sand around the rim of the Tower of Silence. I reached the structure on the road south from Tehran and took the carved steps of sacred sandstone protruding from the desolate desert turf. These same steps have been used for millennia – processions of mourners have climbed this track while hoisting beloved bodies up the rough hewn rock, guiding them to their penultimate resting place. The dust cut my throat as I travelled higher up the rock, and I coughed and spluttered on the spiralling sands.
Towers of Silence are one of the many living examples of Zoroastrianism still found in Iran. Their elevation is designed to maximise exposure, to leave bodies vulnerable to the vultures, whose cyclical, prowling shadows occlude the dusty vestiges left atop the tower. The birds are invited to cleanse the corpses, to alleviate the skeletons of flesh and prepare the bones ready to be burnt and buried. Fire is the most sacred element of Zoroastrians, a symbol of purity that should not be sullied by the impurity of the flesh. I encountered many Towers in my travels in the deserts of central Iran and southern Uzbekistan. Each time, I choked on the graveyard’s rising, spiralling sands.
I started my Iranian journey in the northern mountains, in the jungle on the cusp of the Caspian Sea. I was to travel southwards, to traverse the great cities of Tehran, Yazd, Isfahan and Shiraz. But in the end, my mind never lingered with the grandeur of the great mosques. Nor the elaborate gardens of paradise that draped ancient palaces or the sprawling bazaars. For me, it was those long stretches on blistering desert roads, characterised by empty highways and crumbling caravanserais. Yet these roads, rarely frequented by travellers in Iran, allow visitors access to Persia’s living heritage. Far from the Valley of the Assassins or the ruins of Persepolis, sites such as these Towers of Silence offer a glimpse into the spiritual reality of this ancient empire.
Zoroastrianism is inextricable from Iran’s earliest history. Dominant in the dynasties of the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians, the religion guided Persia’s mightiest rulers and its vast populations. In roughly 2000 BCE, the prophet Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, espoused monotheism for the first time. Praising Truth as the highest good, the religion’s tenants – Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds – centre righteousness, and goodness, above all else. Its tenants prevail today, kept alive by the pockets of communities pious to their traditional faith.
I sought out the sacred Zoroastrian sites that survive on the outskirts of each of Iran’s great cities, preserved in outposts of the mountains and the deserts. After Islam swept the region, the most pious Zoroastrians were forced to abscond from the cities, from the major settlements. They survived in the shadows, in the caves, in the harshest conditions found in this already harsh environment. Their treasured sites were kept safe, preserved for the contemporary Zoroastrian populations, predominantly found in Iran and India.
I got a glimpse of that tradition for the first time as I went south, to explore the mountain village of Abyaneh. In the province of the exalted city of Isfahan, the village is characteristic of those founded by Zoroastrians fleeing invasion in the 7th century CE. The village’s deep red stonework flanks floors of a similar shade, the bodies of the buildings blending seamlessly into the rock from which it was wrought. It is contrasted by the characters sitting out in the street, some of the less than 250 inhabitants still left in Abyaneh. Draped in long white shawls, florally embroidered, the women that perch in brick-laden doorways dress the same now as they did those centuries ago. Their language, too, is unfamiliar to the Iranians living in the cities, their Middle Persian dialect having been isolated here in the mountains for so many years. Its fire temple still stands, the Zoroastrian worship site still the oldest building in the city. Harpak Zoroastrian Fire Temple was built more than 2000 years ago and has been preserved despite the majority of the village’s population adopting Islam. Many of those original outposts of the faith have disappeared over the years, but in this tiny village you can see the results of the determination and the survival of the exiled religion.
Travelling further south, I reached Yazd, the most important stop for any traveller seeking to learn about Zoroastrian Iran. Along the backstreet path to the city’s Zoroastrian district, the adobe walls seemed to undulate as they wound, allowing a brief relief of cool air to slip through the dense desert heat. I travelled to the district to find Yazd’s fire house, sacred structures once found all over Iran. The most impressive surviving is here, inside Atashkadeh, the Dari Persian term for a house of fire. One flame here has burnt for 1550 years, an ever-burning blaze preserved by dedicated fire keepers. These were kept to sustain the entirety of the historic city, where families did not have to struggle to preserve their own fires and could instead seek sustenance every morning from the temple. A ritual of elemental purity, and a testament to the charitable tenant which upholds Zoroastrian theology. Today, inside, Atashkadeh sits in darkness. Sunlight trickles in from the ornate geometric window cuttings, but no artificial light is found inside the temple’s main entryway. Flecks of ancient fire alone illuminate the pictures of the prophet, the scrolls of scriptures draped along the walls, and the worshippers mingling in one of the religion’s most important surviving sites. The city has one of the largest Zoroastrian populations in Iran, congregations gathering close to the physical embodiment of the perseverance of the faith. Two more Towers of Silence flank the city outskirts, Yazd remaining, in perpetuity, enshrouded in its Zoroastrian tradition.
From Yazd, I traveled further south. I had dipped below Shiraz, to the mountains overlooking the Persian Gulf, which engulf a complex system. Gentle drips became cacophonies as they reverberated through the Weeping Caves of Chāhak-e Ardakān. Known also by the onomatopoeic moniker Chak Chak, water has cascaded constantly along the marbled grey walls since the site entered into Zoroastrian legend. Where the temple today sits, it is thought to be the hiding place of Nikbanou, where the daughter of the last Persian Zoroastrian ruler to fall to the 7th century Arab invasion, can be found. She fled up the sand-slicked mountainside, pleading to Ahura Mazda that she may be protected by the earth, and Chak Chak appeared to shelter her from her looming pursuers. Those same intermittent echoes, a product of the ever-dripping spring located within the mountain, were thought to be tears shed by the earth. The mountain itself mourned the loss of Nikbanou, and the Weeping Caves still mourn for the lost Zoroastrian daughter nearly 1400 years later.
As I wandered through the cavernous temple, the priest that led the path explained that the cave’s curiosities were each attributed to the Zoroastrian legend. The immense gnarled tree rising wizened and bending from the side of the spring, a vestige of Nikbanou’s cane. The ochre-tinted marbling blended into the otherwise blue and grey walls, left by the colourful cloth she brought with her when she fled. Zoroastrian history is defined by these stories of survival. While many of its legends and its heroes have failed, its beliefs have not. Every year, pilgrims gather here in their thousands, the descendants of those original dissidents.
My road, like many travellers’ Iranian roads, ended at Persepolis. The greatest surviving relic of the Persian empire, the city that sat at the centre of the ancient world, it today sits just outside the bounds of the modern city of Shiraz. Fravashi juts from the gateway, still sharp and defined after centuries of damage and of wear. The winged-disc symbol was adopted by the kings of ancient Persia, but its spiritual significance to the Zoroastrian faith has kept it preserved long after their defeat. Its name means ‘I choose’. It is the figure of the spirit, the purest part of the Zoroastrian soul, which alone will join Ahura Mazda after death.
Outshone by the famous towering pillars at the gateway of Persepolis, or by the perfectly preserved depictions of travellers across the ancient world congregating in the Persian capital, the prevailing existence of Zoroastrian symbology is significant. In my Iranian travels, the religion had been omnipresent, but as a lingering and long-suffering outlier in the turbulent landscape. Yet here, its inseparability from Iran’s earliest heritage is undeniable. The greatest cities of the ancient world, the ingenuity of the earliest Iranian cultivators and conquerors, all operating under the still watchful gaze of the carved eyes of Zoroaster.