Karl's Blog

Zoroastrianism, Zarathushtra, Religion, History

Genocide Of A Nation: Ancient Iran – The Early Years

Genocide Of A Nation - The Early Years

In the history of a nation, it is the rise and its sustainability which are frequently recorded carefully.  The decline and decay, however rapid or measured, are often glossed over.  History is normally written by the victors.   This forthcoming series details only a fraction of what actually happened, historically.  The genocide of a nation which was once considered to be a super power and brought to its knees over the centuries, is strangely missing from the annals of history.   Modern day historians, while acknowledging other smaller massacres which have happened on a global time scale do not enumerate the systematic decimation of the population of a nation, which at one time was largely Zoroastrian in Central Iran.  The purpose of this article is not to attribute blame on any single group for the deeds of their ancestors, for which the current generation cannot be held responsible, but to highlight the holocaust which the Zoroastrian people went through, over the centuries.  We as a community need to pause and reflect upon the single minded intention of our ancestors in preserving their religion in the land of its origin, despite unimaginable suffering, humiliation, torture and extermination. The customs and traditions as preserved by our forefathers have been whittled away, bit by bit, through the centuries.  Perhaps when we realize what we have lost, can we truly appreciate the value of what we have inherited – a priceless heritage, both religious and cultural – which if frittered would wash away the sacrifices of our ancestors in the blood soaked sands of a nation that was once ours – the land of Airyana Vaeja – Ancient Iran!

The assassination of the last Sassanian King Yazdegird III (624 – 651 CE) at the hands of a miller in Merv, to loot his purse, clothes and jewellery, brought an end to the glorious Sassanian Empire in 651 CE.  Such was the sad fate of the last Zoroastrian ruler in death, that it was a Christian Bishop, Mar Gregory, who buried King Yazdegird III.  His son, Peroz III, and many others went into exile to China.  Within a few generations, these Zoroastrians were lost, having mingled and assimilated with the local populace.

Most Parsis today believe that the Zoroastrian Empire then rapidly collapsed upon itself, the country subjugated under the Arab rule, and Islam replaced Zoroastrianism overnight.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Iran fragmented and pockets of resistance developed.  Many regions operated autonomously to a certain extent.

It took a good 200 years (6-7 generations) before Zoroastrianism slowly started receding as Islam crept into the land of the Aryans, one village at a time.  About 130 total uprisings took place during this period and all of them were brutally subjugated.   Infact, even in the mid-1500s there were more than 3 million Zoroastrians in Iran.  However in the next 250 years, they had been whittled down to less than 50,000.  Had a “Saoshyant” (Avestan meaning: “One who brings benefit”) in the form of Maneckji Limji Hataria from India not visited Iran shortly therein at that critical juncture, in all likelihood, Zoroastrianism would have been extinct in Iran, today.

Iran, or Greater Iran as it was then known, with its state religion Zoroastrianism formally established in 224 CE, covered large swaths of present day Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.  In the seventh century, most of the inhabitants of Greater Iran were Zoroastrians, though Buddhism and Christianity had already made substantial inroads at its far borders.  On the map, Greater Iran during the Sassanian rule was almost double in size to what it is now, having been carved down first by the Russians and later by the British, in the nineteenth century.

File:Sassanian Empire 621 A.D.jpgSassanian Empire at its greatest extent

(Photo sourced from Wikipedia)

The bulk of the Zoroastrian massacres were not only at the hands of the invading Arabs, but happened through the centuries, like a relentless tide which crawls in slowly at first and then suddenly floods the shoreline.  The religion of the rulers of multiple Muslim dynasties, starting from the Rashidun Caliphs (651 – 661 CE), through the centuries down to the Qajars (1785 – 1925 CE), overwhelmed the Zoroastrian religion and subjugated its people, whilst firmly establishing its own brand of Shia Islam.  Each invasion brought about a new horror of destruction unseen until then.  Barely two centuries into the second millennium, the most horrific series of massacres had reduced the population of Iran to levels so low, that it took another 800 years (mid-20th century) for Iran’s population to reach pre-Mongol invasion levels!  This genocide of the Zoroastrians from the advent of Islam to the late 19th century, far worse than what the Jews have ever endured, is often absent from most world history books!

The Rashidun Caliphs (632 – 661 CE)

In the immediate years following the Arab invasion, some practices contrary to Islam were prohibited by the Caliphs.  Initially, Zoroastrians were called “Dhimmi” (protected minority) and given the status of “People of the Book” by Caliph Umar (583 – 644 CE).   When the city of Ctesiphon (in current day Iraq) fell in 637 CE, large scale arson was rampant.  Palaces and their archives were burned.  According to Al-Tabari, a prominent Persian scholar and historian who had memorized the Quran by age seven, when the Arab Commander Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas wrote to Caliph Umar asking what should be done with the books at Ctesiphon, Umar wrote back: “If the books contradict the Quran, they are blasphemous. On the other hand, if they are in agreement, they are not needed, as for us Quran is sufficient.”  And so the huge library was destroyed and the books, collated by generations of Persian mathematicians and scholars were burnt or thrown into the Euphrates River.  This was one of the first, of centuries of systematic annihilation of the Zoroastrian religious texts.

Nearly 40,000 captured Persian noblemen from Ctesiphon were taken as slaves and sold in Arabia. The Arabs called these Persians “Ajam”, meaning “mute”.  When the people of the city of Estakhr, which was a religious center in the Fars region near current day Shiraz, put up a stiff resistance against the Arab invaders, 40,000 residents were slaughtered or hanged.

The Umayyad Caliphs (661 – 750 CE)

Within a hundred years after Yazdegird’s death, the Umayyad Caliphs had imposed the “Jiziya (poll) tax upon the Zoroastrians.  The official language of Iran was made Arabic instead of the local Persian.  It was commanded that anyone found speaking Persian would be hanged by their tongue and have it pulled out.  In 741 CE, the Umayyads officially decreed that non-Muslims should be excluded from governmental positions.  Gradually the number of laws governing Zoroastrian behavior increased, resulting in restricting their ability to participate in society, and made life difficult for them in the hope that they would convert to Islam.  As one of the Caliphs had remarked “milk the Persians and once their milk dries, suck their blood”!

Al-Biruni (973 – 1048 CE), a Persian scholar and scientist, in his book “Asar al Baghiyeh” has written about multiple gruesome incidents where so much Zoroastrian blood was shed as to run the water mills with it!  An Arab general, Abdullah Ben Amir (622 – 678 CE), once ordered captives to be hanged on the two sides of the road for 24 miles (4 farsangs) upto Mazandaran, so that the victorious Arab army can pass through between them!  The attack on Tabarestan (present-day Mazandaran) failed, but he managed to bring Gorgan under his control.  He had vowed that he would kill as many Persians such that their blood mixed with water would enable the millstone to grind as much flour so as to produce one day’s meal for him.  So many Zoroastrians were beheaded, that the watermills were run by people’s blood for three days and he fed his army with the bread made from that bloodied flour.   But despite this, Tabarestan and areas near the Caspian Sea, such as Gillan and Dailaman remained unconquered until the majority of Zoroastrians converted to Islam gradually during the Safavid dynasty in the late 1500s or later migrated towards India.

The Abbasids (752 – 804 CE)

As the Abbasids came to power with the help of Iranian Muslims, the status of Zoroastrians was reduced from “Dhimmi” to “Kafir” (non-believers), as only Christians and Jews were considered to be the “People of the Book”.  They were discriminated against and thought to be polluted.  Fire-temples were destroyed and in its place mosques were set up.  It was during this time of the Abbasid rule, that the Zoroastrians, though still large in number, were reduced to a minority for the first time in Iran.  Those Zoroastrians who converted to Islam were called “Mawalis”, but they were also discriminated against by the Muslims.  It was some of these converted people who then started taking advantage of the situation by siding with the rulers, while being vicious with their erstwhile brethren.  It is from their conversion that you get the Parsi-Gujarati term “mawali”!  If in a family one of the brothers became Muslim, the family property would automatically belong to that brother who had converted.  To avoid such situations, other brothers would also outwardly convert, but the next generations would be born Muslims and the Zoroastrian faith would slowly disappear.

A Governor of Khorasan (the place from where the Parsis of India originate) banned publication in Persian and all the Zoroastrians were forced to bring their religious books to be thrown in the fire.  It was a common practice to burn scholars in the same pyre where their books were burnt, or cut their fingers so that they could no longer write.  Due to such acts, invaluable scriptures written in Pahlavi script were lost forever.

While Pahlavi books were being destroyed, Iranian scholars found a solution to save such books – they translated them into Arabic!  One such rare book to survive was the “Khodai-namak” from the Sassanian era.  It was translated into Arabic by Dadbeh “Ebn-e-Moghaffaa”  under the title: “The Book of Kings”.  Later, intellectuals like Dadbeh were burned alive by the Muslim clergy.  Firdausi refreshed this book in Persian, expunged it of all Arabic words and called it the “Shahnameh”.  Today UNESCO recognizes this as the masterpiece of epic poetry!

Ferdowsi Quotes

(Photo Source: wordsonimages)

There were Zoroastrian leaders like Babak-e-Khorramdin (795 / 798 – 838 CE) who fought for over 21 years.  Babak had remarked: “Better to live for just a single day as a ruler than to live for forty years as an abject slave.”  He was betrayed by an Iranian called Afshin and as a result Bakak was taken as a prisoner to Baghdad.  As his limbs were cut off from his body, Babak is said to have drenched his face with his own bleeding arms so as to deprive the Arabs from seeing his face turn pale due to the loss of blood!  He was then hung and sewn onto a cow’s skin with the horns as ear level so that his skull would be crushed as the cow skin dried out.

The Saffarids (861 – 1003 CE)

Under the rule of the Saffarids, the Zoroastrians lived under the leadership of their High Priest.  The political center of the Sassanian Empire in Iraq suffered much destruction and confiscation of property.   With lack of imperial patronage, the Zoroastrian clergy quickly declined after it was deprived of state support.  The Zoroastrian nobility who voluntarily converted to Sunni Islam came to power.  They were called the Samanids (819 – 999 CE).  During their rule the fire temples were still found in almost all the provinces in Iran, including Baghdad.  Historian Al-Masudi, a Baghdadi born Arab, records that the religion of Zarathushtra continued to exist in many parts of Iran as well as other regions including Sindh in the Indian subcontinent, which later came under Muslim rule.

It was during the reign of the Samanids that a group of Zoroastrians, in order to preserve their religious beliefs and customs, left the shores of Iran and made their way to India.  They gave up all their worldly possessions for the survival of their faith.  This group from Nishapur in the district of Khorasan and Sanjan (not to be confused with a similar sounding city of Zanjan in Iran) in the present day area of Turkmenistan, landed on the island of Diu off the coast of Gujarat in 936 CE.  They stayed there for 20 years before they finally settled on mainland India and called the place they landed at, Sanjan, after the city of their ancestors.

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The Sanjan Memorial in Gujarat

This first group of refugees was followed by a second one, and having procured their religious implements with them (the alat), consecrated an Atash Behram Fire (Fire of Victory) and called it the Iranshah – their King in exile!  In addition to these Khorasanis or Kohistanis (mountain folk) as the two groups are said to have been initially called – at least one other group is believed to have come overland from Sari (in present-day Mazandaran, Iran).  The establishment of another city in Gujarat “Navsari” i.e. ‘new Sari’ is a reflection of this Iranian city.  After that, it is assumed, there were several smaller migrations from different parts of Iran into the same region of India.  Later these refugees of the once mighty Achamenian, Parthian and Sassanian empires, came to be known as the Parsis of Western India.

As we shall see almost a millennium later, a member of this group of refugees played a pivotal role in the survival of those that were left behind in Iran, to face even more horrendous atrocities which were yet to rain down upon our Zoroastrian brethren, in the coming centuries.

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Genocide Of A Nation – The Holocaust From Mongolia

Genocide 2a

Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly, dated 30th July 2017

….Continued from: “Genocide Of A Nation – The Early Years

With the Parsis having settled into their new country on the west coast of India by the turn of the first millennium, the interaction with those who were left behind in Iran receded slowly until a few centuries later, neither knew much of the existence or survival of the other group.  To this day, some Zoroastrian in Iran jokingly insinuate that the Parsis “ran away” from Iran, while they stood their ground, faced genocide at the hands of the invaders, and yet preserved the religion of Zarathushtra in its homeland!

The Ghaznavids (977 – 1186 CE)

The dawn of the new millennium saw the rise of a regional power from Ghazna (also known as Ghazni) in eastern Afghanistan, close to the borders of current day Pakistan.  Sultan” Mahmud of Ghazni (998 – 1014 CE) as he is famously called was the first to assume the title of Sultan or “authority”.  Son of a Turkic Mamluk and daughter of a Persian aristocrat from Zabulistan, at the age of 23 he accompanied his father in the capture of Khorasan in north-eastern Iran.  One must not forget that swaths of eastern Iran and Afghanistan, like Multan, Nishapur, Merv etc. still had substantial Zoroastrian population.  In 1002 CE, Mahmud invaded Sistan and ended the Saffarid dynasty, after which he turned his focus to invade the fertile lands of Punjab.  During his reign, he is said to have invaded India 17 times, converting the former provincial city of Ghazni into the wealthy capital of an extensive empire which covered most of today’s Afghanistan, eastern Iran, and Pakistan!  His expeditions against India were not motivated by religion but by love for plunder.

The Tomb of Sultan Mahmud at Ghazni

According to historians of those times, Sultan Mahmud transformed Ghazni, the first center of Persian literature, into one of the leading cities of Central Asia, patronizing scholars, establishing colleges, laying out gardens, and building mosques, palaces, and caravansaries.  He brought whole libraries from Ray and Isfahan to Ghazni.  Here, we deviate for a moment to take a look at revival of the outlawed Persian language which was a direct result of the composition of Firdoshi’s Shahnameh or “The Book of Kings”. 

Image result for shahnameh

Honolulu Museum of Art: Simorg gets Zal

Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni patronized Firdoshi Tusi (940 – 1020 CE), who after working on his magnum opus for 27 years, went to Ghazni and presented the beautifully-written epic poetry to him.  According to legend, Mahmud had promised Firdoshi a Gold Dinar for every couplet written in the Shahnameh (60,000 Gold dinars), but he was presented with Silver coins instead.  Some say he was given only 200 Gold dinars.  A furious Firdoshi gave the money away to a bath-keeper, a refreshment seller and a slave.  Having written a satire on Mahmud’s parsimony, Firdoshi fled Khorasan to save himself from the Sultan’s wrath and spent most of the remainder of his life in exile.  When he returned to Tus years later, Mahmud eventually relented and sent him a new gift of 60,000 gold pieces.  As fate would have it, just as the caravan bearing the money entered the gates of Tus, a funeral procession exited the gates on the opposite side – the great poet had already died.

The Ghorids (879 – 1215 CE)

As violence begets violence, the Ghaznavid dynasty was overthrown in 1186 CE by the Ghorids  from the Ghor region in central Afghanistan.  The Ghors had been forcibly converted to Sunni Islam from Buddhism when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked Ghor.  The Ghor province is adjacent to the Bamiyan province which was famous for the Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed in 2001 after the Taliban government declared they were idols and the destruction was merely about carrying out Islamic religious iconoclasm. It is now generally accepted that the actual name of the Ghorid family, Āl-e Šansab, is the Arabic pronunciation of the originally Middle Persian name Wišnasp, hinting at a (Sassanian) Persian origin.

Muhammad Ghori was the Sultan of the Ghorid Empire from 1202 CE to 1206 CE.  He is considered to be one of the greatest rulers of theGhorid dynasty, and is credited with laying the foundation of Muslim rule in South Asia.  He reigned over a territory spanning current Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.  In Indian folklore, his death was caused by Prithviraj Chauhan but this is not borne out by historical documents as Prithviraj died much earlier before the death of Muhammad Ghori.

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Muhammad Ghori

During the next few centuries, as one Islamic dynasty overthrew the other, the Zoroastrians of Greater Iran were caught in a pincer movement.  Irrespective of which side won, being subjugated, the loss was always theirs!  In the course of this period, the “Chahar-takt” or ‘four arches’ style of fire temples with its domed roof were blend into Islamic architecture as domed mosques.

It was around this time that one of the 3 Great Fires of the Persian Empire was lost forever.  Adar Gushnasp, the “Fire of the Stallion” as it was called, was a Zoroastrian sacred fire of the highest grade – an Atash Behram Fire.  It was installed somewhere in Media at an unknown date, presumably in the late Achaemenian or Parthian period.  However legends attribute it as being uncreated, existing since the time of creation and the legendary Kayanian kings having paid obeisance to it.  Encyclopedia Iranica mentions that like the other great fires, Adar Gushnasp once used to move about freely, giving its protection to the world; but when Kay Ḵosrow the Kayanian was “destroying the image-shrine of Lake Čēčast, it settled on the mane of his horse, dispelling darkness and shadow, and shedding light, until he had destroyed the image-shrine.  In that same place, upon Mt. Asnavand, he established fire-altars. For this reason it is called ‘Gushnasp’, because it settled upon the mane of his horse” (in Avestan ‘asp’ means horse).

Archeological excavations have proved that this Great Fire was enthroned in the Azerbaijan district of Iran, in a place currently known as ‘Takh-e Sulaiman’ or the ‘Throne of Solomon’.  More than 23 years ago when this author had visited this mystic place, tons of ash, presumably of this great fire, was still seen in the ruins of one of the rooms (Khak-khaneh) of this complex.  The story goes that with the invasion of the Mongols, Takh-e Sulaiman was irrevocably destroyed.  Even today, one can see the layers of civilization within the walls of this complex.  Achemenian block stones at the base upon which the Sassanian tiles were built. Upon the ruins of these Sassanian tiles, the flat bricks of the Mongol era can be seen. It is said that the keepers of this fire, the people residing within the complex were mercilessly slaughtered and their bodies thrown into the Crater Lake which lies at the center of this magnificent complex.  The life-giving waters of this lake turned blood red and remained so until the next 30 years.  Since then, it is said that nothing lives in the lake, though the overflowing water which runs from this small hill is used in the surrounding fields to irrigate it! 

Genocide 2b

Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly, dated 6th August 2017

The Mongols (1206 – 1368 CE)

It is often remarked that the sins of the father visits upon his sons.  When Muhammad II of Khwarazm executed a contingent of merchants dispatched by the Mongols, Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227 CE) declared war on the Khwārazm-Shāh dynasty in 1219.  The Mongols overran the empire, occupying the major cities and population centers between 1219 and 1221 CE, resulting in a holocaust that Greater Iran had not seen until then!  Persian Iraq was ravaged by the Mongols which left the area in ruin.  The Khwarazm Shah ultimately fled and ended up hiding on an island in the Caspian Sea.  Any resistance to Mongol rule was met with massive collective punishment.  Entire cities were destroyed and their inhabitants slaughtered if they defied Mongol orders.  It is said that when the Mongols went through a city, they decimated it completely; not even a door was left standing and neither a nail was left in the door! 

With the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire after 1259 CE, Greater Iran became a functionally separate state and was no more part of the bigger Mongol Empire, which was the largest land empire after the Roman rule.  At its greatest extent, reformatted Iran expanded into countries that today comprise of Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Western Afghanistan and southwestern Pakistan.  Later, its Mongol rulers, beginning with Ghazan in 1295 CE converted to Islam and hence the adoption of the “Khan” name and legacy into Islam.

Timurid Empire (1370 – 1507 CE)

A few decades later from the lands beyond the Oxus River, what in the Shahnameh is known as Turan, rose Timur (1336 – 1405), also known as Taimur or Tamerlane, the Mongol.  Timur, taking advantage of his Turco-Mongolian heritage, frequently used either the Islamic religion or the law and traditions of the Mongol Empire to achieve his military or domestic political goals.  Though he is considered the last of the great nomadic conquerors and his empire gave rise to the more enduring Gunpowder Empires in the 1500s and 1600s, in reality, scholars estimate that Timur’s military campaigns caused the deaths of 17 million people, amounting to about 5% of the then world population (an assertion impossible to verify).  To compare, the casualty of the entire 2nd World War was 3% of the world population. This holocaust by Timur, restricted mainly to the lands of Greater Iran and its periphery, was equal to the all-inclusive death toll of the 1st World War, nearly 700 years later!

His conquests led him from Khorasan, along the Caspian Sea thru Mazandaran.  It soon encompassed almost every province in Iran, including Baghdad, Karbala and Northern Iraq.  The Greek historian Herodotus described Herat (in present day Afghanistan) as the bread basket of Central Asia.  This city was brought to rubble and its citizens massacred when it resisted.  Herat, known as the ‘Pearl of Khorasan’ by poet Rumi, dates back to the Avestan times and was traditionally known for its wine.

When Khorasan revolted in 1385 CE, Timur destroyed Isfizar, and the prisoners were cemented into the walls alive!  The next year the kingdom of Sistan was ravaged, and its capital at Zaranj was destroyed.   Because Isfahan surrendered in 1387 CE, he treated it with relative mercy as he normally did with cities that surrendered (unlike Herat). However, after it revolted against Timur’s taxes by killing the tax collectors and some of Timur’s soldiers, he ordered the massacre of the city’s citizens.  As per historians, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people were killed.  An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers constructed of about 1,500 heads each.  This method of warfare has been described as a “systematic use of terror against towns…an integral element of Timur’s strategic element”, which he viewed as preventing bloodshed by discouraging resistance. His massacres were selective and he spared the artistic and educated. This meant that the few remaining Zoroastrians in these cities who were deprived of basic education would also bear the brunt of Timur’s wrath. 

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A Tower of Skulls

Whilst the horrors faced by Indians when Timur ransacked Delhi in 1398 CE are well known, Ibn Arabshah in his book ‘Timur the Great Amir’ writes when Timur invaded Baghdad in June 1401 CE, 20,000 of its citizens were massacred.  He ordered that “every soldier should return with at least two severed human heads to show him.  When they ran out of men to kill, many warriors killed prisoners captured earlier in the campaign, and when they ran out of prisoners to kill, many resorted to beheading their own wives.”

Timur’s bloody campaigns ended with his death in 1405 CE.  His body, exhumed in 1941 CE, confirmed that he was lame; with a leg bent at all times, he would have had a pronounced limp.  It is unproven that Timur’s tomb was inscribed with the words, “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble.”  It is also said that an additional inscription inside his casket was found, which read, “Whomsoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.”   Three days after his exhumation, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest military invasion of all time, upon the Soviet Union. 

Timur’s facial reconstruction from his skull (Source: Wikipedia)

Timur’s most famous descendant Babur founded the Mughal Empire and ruled over most of Afghanistan and North India. Babur’s descendants Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, expanded the Mughal Empire to most of the Indian subcontinent. 

It is from the 14th century onwards that we hear of two villages – Torkabad and Shariefabad – as being the ecclesiastical seat in Iran of the “Dastur-e Dasturan” and the two important fires resided here.  One of the fires, “Adur Farnbag” is said to be the name of the great Sassanian fire temple in Fars.  As per Prof. Mary Boyce, one can assume it was during this period that this great fire was brought here.  The other was the sacred fire of the city of Istakhr, in whose presence the last Zoroastrian King Yazdegird III was crowned in 632 CE.

Nature works in mysterious ways.  Regardless of Timur’s ethnicity, Persian became the primary language of Greater Iran.  While the religion of Zoroastrians was being snuffed out, this language of its people – the original inhabitants of Iran – which the Arabs sought to extinguish, arose like a Phoenix from the blood and ashes of its downtrodden!  It reclaimed centre stage, both outside and within the country of its origin once again, where it remains as its national language to this day!


Many months ago, my daughter gave me an idea to start with my own blog. Today on Meher Roj, Shehrevar Mah, 1386 Yz (29th January 2017), with her assistance, I have started “Karl’s Blog”!  Periodically, I hope to publish articles here, which may be of interest to all.

The purpose of this blog is to highlight the kernels of Zoroastrian history, art, culture and its people.  Being the first revealed religion, Zoroastrianism has influenced not only Judaism but also Christianity and Islam.  It’s ancestral language, Avestan, shares many commonalities with the Indo-Aryan Sanskrit text, the language of the Rig Veda.

Amongst other things, this blog aims to bring to its readers not only the lost glory of the Achaemenian, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties, but also the philosophy behind them.

It is only when we know who we are and where we came from, that we can appreciate this invaluable heritage that we have inherited.  A heritage which if frittered away would make not only Zoroastrianism, but the entire world a poorer place.  We would then have to wait.  Wait to live… wait to die… wait for an absolution which would never come!

Photo copyright: Karl Sahukar

Who Created The Image of Zarathushtra?

Zoroastrianism is an iconoclastic religion which abhors veneration of symbols and religious images.  Though these are visible during the Achaemenian dynasty, the Zoroastrian iconoclast movement during the early Sassanian period purged it completely.  Prof. Mary Boyce observes evidences of this in the case of the cult-image of the temple of Anahita at Istakhr being replaced by a sacred fire which the Arabian historian Al-Masudi characterized as “one of the most venerated of Zoroastrian fires.”  The association with Anahita persisted, however, and another prominent historian Al-Ṭabari says that the sanctuary was known as “the house of Anahid’s fire”.  It was in the presence of this fire at Istakhr, that Yazdegird III was crowned king!  This fire still continues to burn in the village of Sharifabad in the Yazd district.

With this background of iconoclasm, one often wonders who first drew the image of Zarathushtra which adorns most Parsi houses and have now become a standard object of reverence in all Agiaries and Atash Behrams.  It is obvious that this drawing was an imagination of an artist – just as the picture of a person with a crown of thorns depicts Jesus of Nazareth and a dark blue skinned man with a peacock feather in his crown depicts Krishna of the Bhagwad Gita.

The lives of these spiritual people have been documented eons after their passing.  The life of Zarathushtra, for example, has been recorded in various books, by various authors across the millennium; but no early visual images of Zarathushtra are known to have existed.

The oldest image that one can arrive at relates to a 2nd century CE frieze in the city of Dura-Europos, situated on the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria.  This city, founded by the Seleucids in 303 BC had temples of Greek gods, local deities, and a shrine dedicated to Mithra.

A Belgian archeologist, historian and Professor at the University of Ghent, Franz Cumont’s paper “The Dura Mithraeum” was published posthumously in 1975.  In it he postulated that the friezes of the seated figures in Parthian clothes, on each of the two supporting columns inside the Mithraeum represented the two primary images of Zarathushtra (Figure 1) and Ostanes.  However, this hypothesis is now no longer accepted.  It is generally agreed that the two figures are Palmyrene in their characteristics and are probably portraits of leading associates of that Mithraeum’s congregation.


Figure 1 – Purported to be the earliest image of Zarathushtra, but historians reject this outright and say it is not so.

It is good providence that a part of this shrine was transported and rebuilt at Yale University’s Gallery of Fine Arts during the last century.  The site uncovered remarkable findings during its excavations, before it was severely looted by the terrorist group ISIS in the ongoing Syrian Civil War and demolished by them.  According to satellite imagery, more than 70% of Dura-Europos has been destroyed by looters.  National Geographic reports further looting on a massive scale by the ISIS in order to fund their aggressive devastation on the region.

No further images purported to be of Zarathushtra have been discovered through the centuries.  Neither during the Achaemenian period nor during the consolidation of religious texts during the revival of the religion in Sassanian times, has any image of Zarathushtra come to light.  It is therefore clear that until as recently as approximately 200 years ago, Zoroastrians in Iran and India did not have any image of Zarathushtra as their object of worship or adoration. However, it did not stop human imagination from taking flight.

Pictures of Zarathushtra as recognizable today are a consolidation of multiple frames, each derived from a separate source.  For instance, this 19th century Indian-Zoroastrian perception of Zarathushtra (Figure 2) has been modeled on a bas-relief of Mithra (Figure 3, left) wearing a rayed-cap and holding a barsom in his hands.  The barsom is a bundle of rods or sticks which are not bound together and are even today, used to solemnize Zoroastrian religious ceremonies.  The bas-relief shows Mithra standing on a lotus flower.  The picture of Zarathushtra is also shown similarly standing on a lotus flower, holding barsom in his hands and wearing a ceremonial headgear of a priest as he is said to have been a descendant of a priestly family.

Figure 2 – The 19th century Indian-Zoroastrian perception of Zarathushtra
Figure 3 – A bas-relief shows Mithra (left) standing on a lotus flower. The earliest picture of Zarathushtra is also shown similarly standing on a lotus flower. Photo Credit: Philippe Chavin.

In the academic literature of 19th – early 20th century, this bas-relief was earlier thought to be of Zarathushtra.  This assumption is no longer valid today.  It is agreed that it is Mithra who is a part of the panel which depicts the investiture of Sassanian king Ardeshir II by his predecessor Shapur II at Taq-e Bustan in Iran.  Ardeshir II ruled from 379 CE to 383 CE.  Despite enduring 1,700 years of wind, snow and rain the image is still clearly visible and can be considered to be a prototype of most illustrations of Zarathushtra, as being venerated by the community today.

Later variations of this image, shows Zarathushtra holding a stick having 9 knots known as the “Navgreh” or “Navgar”.  The special stick having 9 knots is used in the Bareshnoom ceremony.  Other images show him holding a glowing ball of fire which does not burn the hand of the righteous.  This spiritual fire is Adar Burzin Meher.  In some images he is shown holding a mace, the “Guraz”, usually stylized as a steel rod crowned by a bull’s head which the priests carry when they are ordained during the “navar” ceremony.  Similar to most other Indian Zoroastrian images of Zarathushtra, the facial features have been influenced by the depictions of the bearded Jesus Christ.  Most show the Prophet looking slightly upwards, as if beseeching.  In most of these, his right hand index finger points upwards.

During the 15th century CE, as Europeans speculated about their intellectual past, the famed Italian Renaissance artist Raphael Santi (1483-1520 CE) painted his masterpiece fresco “The School of Athens” (Figure 4).

Figure 4 – The famed Italian Renaissance artist, Raphael Santi, painted his masterpiece fresco titled ‘The School of Athens’.  In the lower right corner of this fresco he portrayed Zarathushtra.

In the lower right corner of this fresco he portrayed Zarathushtra in a white robe (Figure 5), holding a luminous globe of the stars, conversing with Ptolemy.  Painted between 1509 and 1511 CE in the Vatican, in Rome, this fresco depicts the subject Philosophy as nearly every great ancient Greek philosopher can be found in this painting.

Figure 5 – Raphael Santi’s portrayal of Zarathushtra in a white robe, holding a luminous globe of the stars, conversing with Ptolemy

While Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and many others are easily identifiable, the identity of a few others can only be speculated.   In the center of this fresco is Plato (Figure 6) with his right hand index finger pointing heavenwards and his student Aristotle on the right, his hand gesticulating downwards.

Figure 6 – Plato, with his right hand index finger pointing heavenwards, and his student Aristotle.  The impression of this right hand of Plato has been copied in many of Zarathushtra’s portraits.

The impression of this right hand of Plato has been copied in many Zarathushtra’s portraits (Figure 7).  Thus the esoteric philosophy of Plato representing a sense of timelessness and his very influential treatise on the cosmos has been incorporated into Zarathushtra’s image by later Parsi-Zoroastrian artists!

Figure 7 – Prophet Zarathushtra with rays of light emerging from a halo, pointing his right forefinger towards heaven.

Eventually both images, that of the Sassanian rock relief and the painting of Plato’s right hand, were fused together to depict Prophet Zarathushtra with rays of light emerging from a halo pointing his right forefinger toward heaven.  This particular image remains extremely popular in fire temples and homes, although most Zoroastrians do not know of its origins.

A German painting of Zarathushtra is another image found in a few Parsi homes.  In this the Prophet is shown as an old sage standing in an archway, in a robe covering his head, holding a chalice in which burns a sacred fire.

Besides these, in some images he is also shown holding a book in hand, presumably the Avesta, whilst in others he is depicted performing some deed of legend.  Many Zoroastrians who are a part of the Freemasonic brotherhood believe there are hidden signs painted in the clothes which Zarathushtra is portrayed in.  For instance, the inverted 4 right-angled “tiri” (the Masonic square) prominent in most images may convey an emblem of virtue to an eye trained in semiotics (study of signs and symbols).  In general, all portrayals present him in white garments which are also worn by Zoroastrian priests.

A sculpture of Zarathushtra at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in the Campus of the University of Chicago stands amongst other prominent religious figures.  Another sculpture representing the ancient Persian judicial wisdom – the law of the Medes and Persians as Herodotus called it – stands atop the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York on E. 25th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

Whether all these images have been divinely inspired or not, it is certain that much thought has gone into portraying them.  Even as expressions of human fancy these images are culminations of the efforts of various artists through the centuries, producing the image of a man who brought to humanity the first revealed religion, Zoroastrianism.

The sublime message of Zarathushtra remains as fresh today as it was when revealed.  Other later revealed religions imbibed many of its characteristics which then went on to shape the world as we know it today.  Whether we look upon these images of Zarathushtra as objects of reverence and adoration or shun them as iconoclasm, the choice depends upon the belief structures of his followers.

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