Photos of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian Fire Temple) in Tbilisi, Georgia

The photos of the Zoroastrian fire temple or Atashgah of Tbilisi in Georgia were provided to kavehfarrokh.com in late 2017 by Dr. Nader Gohari of Durham University, who is an avid researcher and scholar of Iranian Studies.

Panoramic view of the interior of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

Georgia, like ancient Albania (known as Republic of Azerbaijan since May 27, 1918) and Armenia have stood at the crossroads between Anatolia, the civilizations of ancient Persia or Iran and Eastern Europe.

[A, C] Views of the stairway of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi; [B] Plaque at wall to right of bottom stairway providing a short history of the Atashgah and its protected status as a heritage site by the Georgian government (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

Alongside the impact of the major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the Caucasus continues to bear a strong ancient Iranian imprint as witnessed for example by the Kurdish Yezidis who live in both Georgia and Armenia to this day.

Concave structure at one of the top corners of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

As noted by the late British historian Mark Whittow (1957-2017) who taught as a professor at Oxford University:

The oldest outside influence in Trans-Caucasia is that of Persia…many of its populations, including Armenians and Georgians, as well as Persians and Kurds, the Transcaucasus had much closer ties with the former Sassanian world to its south and east than with the world to the west” [1996, pages 203-204; Whittow, M. (1996). The Making of Byzantium: 600-1025. Berkley: University of California Press].

Despite the conversion of Georgia to Christianity in the 4th century CE, Zoroastrianism continued to endure in local culture of the region. Officially, it was King Mirian (Persian: Mehran) who converted to Christianity in 337 CE. Despite this, the name “Ohrmazd” (Ahura Mazda) continued to be invoked by the local peasantry who referred to their deity as “Armazi”.

Platform providing access into the the interior of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

The Locals of ancient Georgia are believed to have provided offerings to Aramzi or Ohrmazd in a locale in close proximity to what is identified as “Bridge of the Magi” (Lang, 1956, pages 22-23; “St. Nino and the Conversion of Georgia,” Lives and Legends of the Georgian Saints, translated by D.M. Lang (1956), London: Allen & Unwin).

Mock-up view of the interior of the Atashgah (Zoroastrian fire temple) of Tbilisi (Source: Nader Gohari, 2017).

Farroukh Jorat: Iranian Elements in the Culture of the Ancient Slavs

The article below has been written by Farroukh Jorat and first appeared in Fravahr.org. Kindly note that the images and accompanying captions do not appear in the original posting in Fravahar.org. For readers interested in articles highlighting links between ancient Iranian civilizations and Europe, consult the link below:

Europa and Eire-An (ancient Persia or Iran)

=========================================================================

In the early Middle Ages (III-X centuries AD) Eastern Slavs contacted with Baltics in the north, with Germans in the west and with Eastern Iranians in the south-east. Interaction of the Eastern Slavs to the Iranians left their mark on the languages and in the religious culture of the East Slavic peoples (Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians). Let us consider some of the elements of the ancient culture of the Eastern Slavs with Iranian origin.

Semargl (Simurgh)

In 980 in the “Tale of Bygone Years” (Povest vremennykh let) in the list of gods, which were revered in Kiev, was noted deity Semargl. Researcher Vasily Abaev believed that the name of this deity origin from Zoroastrian Simurg. Word Semargl borrowed into the Old Russian language from the Scythian and had the original form Senmarγ [1].

Simurg is the mythological character, combining the traita of dog and bird (Old Iranian Saena mərəγo, “dog-bird”). Russian historian Boris Rybakov believed that the images of winged hounds in the art of ancient Russia represent the image of Semargl [2].

[LEFT] Coat of Arms of Semargl used by the ancient dukes and leaders of ancient Russia (Sarmatia) [RIGHT] Green and yellow Iranian silk decorated with the Sassanian Senmurv motif – this sample was once used for wrapping the relics of St Lupus of Troyes (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006; Simargl image also available in J.H. in Pinterest – Simurgh image from Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris). After the arrival of Christianity in Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine, the Simargl symbol and its cult was denounced as “evil” and “Satanic”.

In 1873 in Glazov county of Vyatka province was discovered a silver dish with the image of Simurg. It was manufactured in the VIII century AD in Iran or Central Asia. After the adoption of Christianity in Rus in 988 image of Semargl has been replaced and forgotten.

Irey

In the “Instructions” (Pouchenia) of Vladimir Monomakh (1053-1125) is a mention about mythical southern country Irey, where the birds fly away in winter and identified with paradise. The most convincing etymology of the word irey is from Old Iranian *airuā-(dahyu-) “Aryan land”. Apparently, this word was borrowed by the Eastern Slavs from Sarmatian tribes. A similar parallels also observed in the language of the Sami, one of the Finno-Ugric Peoples of Russia: Årjel “south”, år’jān “far to the south”, Old Sami *orja “South”.

A copper-engraved map printed in London (approximately in 1770, unknown publishers) based on ancient Greek sources displaying “Sarmatia Europæa” and “Sarmatia Asiatica” by the River Don (Source: Public domain). Colchis and Iberia are now approximatley in modern-day Georgia, with the region Albania renamed as “Azerbaijan” in May 1918. The historical Azerbaijan (Azarbaijan) has been located in northwest Iran below the Araxes River as seen partly in the region of Media at bottom right of the map.

Div

In the “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” (Slovo o polku Igoreve) (end of XII century) mentioned div as demonic character, sitting on a tree and his whistle presaged the failure of the campaign of Prince Igor at Cumans. The image associated with the Devas — the servants of Ahriman from Zoroastrian mythology.

Dahl VI in his Explanatory dictionary … noted about one of the meanings of Russian word div: “ominous bird, probably an owl”. From this we can conclude that the prototype image of div in the Eastern Slavic culture is owl with a sinister reputation of foreboding.

A reconstruction by Cernenko and Gorelik of the north-Iranian Saka or Scythians in battle (Cernenko & Gorelik, 1989, Plate F). The ancient Iranians (those in ancient Persia and the ones in ancient Eastern Europe) often had women warriors and chieftains, a practice not unlike those of the contemporary ancient Celts in ancient Central and Western Europe. While this topic is often ignored in the media, news outlets, education and academic venues, Ancient Iran has had a profound influence on Europeans and their cultural development. For more on this, see the Dissertation of Dr. Sheda Vasseghi (2017), Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In Origins Of Western Civilization. PhD Dissertation, University of New England, Academic advising Team: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi, Kaveh Farrokh.

Footnotes

[1] Abayev VI. Scythian-European Isogloss. At the crossroads of East and West. (Skifo-evropeyskie izoglossy. Na styke Vostoka I Zapada). In Russian.

[2] BA Rybakov. Paganism of Old Slavs. (Yazichestvo drevnikh slavian). In Russian

Ancient Zoroastrian Temple discovered in Northern Turkey

The News report Ancient Persian temple discovered in northern Turkey could rewrite Religious History” was originally provided on November 6, 2017 by the Daily Sabah News outlet based in Istanbul, Turkey. The text of the Daily Sabah report has been reproduced below with a number of edits. Included in the text below are also translated portions of the Turkish language Ana Haber Gazete News outlet. Kindly note that excepting one photo, all other images and captions do not appear in the original Daily Sabah report.

=====================================================================================

Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient Persian temple from the fifth century B.C. in Turkey’s northern Amasya province that could rewrite the history of the region. Istanbul University Archaeology Professor Şevket Dönmez has noted that the discoveries at the ancient Persian Oluz Höyük settlement in Toklucak village have the potential to change long-held notions of religion and culture in Anatolia.

Artifacts uncovered at the ancient Persian Oluz Höyük settlement in Toklucak village, Amasya province, Turkey (Daily Sabah & AA Photo).

As noted by Dönmez during a press conference regarding his excavations at Amasya (as cited/translated from the Turkish language Ana Haber News outlet):

“The excavations proceeded to explore the Persian (Achaemenid) time period (c. 425-300 BCE) at Asmaya… Oluz tumulus, where cella with sacred fire burned, living quarters, stone pavilions, and potholes where unusable temple goods were buried were discovered … the history of Anatolian religion now has to be revised … Portable fire burning vessels (fire) and skulls used in the temples were destroyed in the course of Alexander the Great’s Asian campaign (300 BCE). Shovels and pots pointing to Haoma (holy drink) were discovered. It is the first time that the ruins of Oluz mound, which reflects the formation and development periods of the Zoroastrian religion which are understood to have come to Anatolia with the Medes and the Persians. these finds are notably unique as he richness of these finds have yet to be found in Iran itself which is the Zoroastrian religion‘s  geographical source.”

 Professor Şevket Dönmez of Istanbul University presents his findings at Asmaya, Turkey in a news conference followed by questions by Turkish academics and reporters (Source: Ana Haber). Note the Zoroastrian artifacts also on display at the lower right of the photo.

In 11 seasons of excavations, the team uncovered thousands of artifacts, as well as temple structure. In respone to questions by the Anadolu news agency Dönmez noted:

“In this settlement from the fifth century B.C., we discovered a temple complex which is related to a fire culture, more precisely to the early Zoroastrian religion, or to the very original religious life of Anatolian people … They built a massive religion system here [Asmaya]… No 2,500-year-old artifacts have been found in Iran, yet they appeared in Anatolia. [With this discovery] Anatolia has entered the sacred geography of today’s Zoroastrians” 

Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest extant religions, is believed to have originated from the prophet Zoroaster in present-day Iran. The discovery of a temple for fire worship suggests the religion may also have had roots in Anatolia, as well.

Professor Şevket Dönmez of Istanbul University provides the architectural layout of the Zoroastrian temple that he and his archaeological team have excavated at Asmaya (Source: Ana Haber),

Describing the temple, Dönmez said it includes a holy room for burning fires and other stone-paved areas with many goods used in worship practices. Dönmez also said Oluz Höyük is the only known Persian settlement in the region.

Excavations at Oluz Höyük started in 2007, after the site was first discovered during surface research near Tokluca village in 1999.

Dönmez and his team plan to continue research work at the site, possibly working on restoring the temple area in the future.

Remains of ancient Zoroastrian urns at Gonnur Tappeh which were once filled with the sacred drink known as “Soma/Haoma” (Source: Balkh and Shambhala). Gonnur Tappeh is situated  at approximately  sixty kilometers north of Mary in modern-day Turkmenistan.

Sheda Vasseqhi PhD Study: Positioning of Iran And Iranians In Origins Of Western Civilization

Sheda Vasseghi has completed her PhD Dissertation at the University of New England entitled:

Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In Origins of Western Civilization. PhD Dissertation, University of New England (download this at Academia.edu …)

Sheda Vasseqhi

Vasseghi’s PhD academic advising team were composed of the following members: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi and Kaveh Farrokh.

Her study explored a number of widely taught college-level history textbooks in order to examine how these positioned Iran and Iranian peoples in the origins of Western Civilization. As noted by Vasseghi in her abstract:

“Western Civilization history marginalizes, misrepresents, misappropriates, and/or omits Iran’s positioning. Further, the mainstream approach to teaching Western Civilization history includes the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman narrative.”

Vasseghi used a multi-faceted theoretical approach—decolonization, critical pedagogy, and Western Civilization History dilemma—since her study transcended historical revisionism. This collective case study involved eleven Western Civilization history textbooks that, according to the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), are most popular among American college faculty. Vasseghi reviewed and collected expert opinion on the following five themes:

(1) terminology and definition of Iran, Iranians, and Iranian languages

(2) roots and origins of Iranian peoples

(3) which Iranian peoples are noted in general

(4) which Iranian peoples in ancient Europe are specifically noted

(5) Iranians in connection with six unique Western Civilization attributes.

Vasseghi selected experts specializing in Iranian, Western Civilization, and Indo-European studies in formulating a consensus on each theme. She then compared expert opinion to content in surveyed textbooks. Vasseghi discovered that the surveyed textbooks in her study overwhelmingly omitted, ill-defined, misrepresented, or marginalized Iran and Iranians in the origins of Western Civilization.

Readers are encouraged to visit Kaveh Farrokh’s Academia.edu profile cited in the introduction of this post to download Sheda Vasseghi’s Dissertation. Here is one of the quotes from her study:

“The researcher recommends that textbook authors and publishers engage experts in the field of Iranian studies in formulating content. A caveat for engaging those in the field of Iranian studies when writing Western Civilization history textbooks involves making a distinction between a native Iran and post-Islamic invasion and colonization of Iran in early Middle Ages (7th century onwards). That is, in the Age of Antiquity, Iran was under an Iranian governance and ancestral beliefs such as Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.”

This is an important observation given Western Media and academic outlets using sweeping (if not simplistic) terms such as “Middle East”, “Muslims”, etc. without acknowledging the context of Iran’s unique background, ancient history and language(s). Put simply, terms such as “Middle East” are not scientific but geopolitical in origin. The term “Muslim Civilization” for example serves to dilute (or even blur) the critical role of Iranian and Indian scholars in the preservation and promotion of learning, sciences and medicine. Arab historians such as Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) who in his Muqaddimah (translated by F. Rosenthal (III, pp. 311-15, 271-4 [Arabic]; R.N. Frye (p.91) has acknowledged the role of the Iranians in the promotion of scholarship:

“…It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs…thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent…they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar…great jurists were Persians… only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet becomes apparent, ‘If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persians would attain it”…The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…as was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture.”

[For more see: Farrokh, K. (2015). Pan-Arabism and Iran. In “The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism” (Immanuel Ness & Zak Cope, Eds.), Palgrave-Macmillan, pp.915-923.]

Sources such as Ibn Khaldun are now rarely mentioned in many modern-day “Islamic Studies” in Western history textbooks which may explain in part the numerous errors uncovered in Vasseghi’s study. She further avers:

“Critical pedagogy is important in transformational leadership in education. Educators are obligated to point out errors or problems in content and mainstream narratives. In regards to teaching history of Western Civilization, one should recall the warnings of its looming demotion by Ricketts et al. (2011) because unfortunately teaching it “had come to be seen as a form of apologetics for racism, imperialism, sexism, and colonialism” (p. 14). It appears that in perceiving that something is missing from or fragmented in Western Civilization history content, educational institutions are now marginalizing and omitting it from their curriculum in America, a Western nation. Therefore, the significance of this study is the need for authors and educators to shift the currently flawed narrative on the history of the West. Iran’s positioning is a key component in the study of Western Civilization. The researcher argues that Iran and Iranians not only influenced the making of the West; they are part of the West. By placing Iran and Iranians where they belong, historians may also address concerns about teaching the history of the West (Ricketts et al., 2011).”

In her final PhD defense session with her research committee (Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi and Kaveh Farrokh) on Monday, March 20, 2017, Vasseghi noted that she plans to author books tailored to Western audiences to help educate with respect to the role of Iranians in the formation of European civilization. Vasseghi’s books would also be geared towards a lay (non-academic) audience.

Conversion to Zoroastrianism

The article below by Hannah Michael Gale Shapero originally appeared in the CAIS website hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav  in London.

1-hannah-shapero

Hannah Michael Gale Shapero is an artist, illustrator and scholar. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts, US and grew up in the Boston area and in Rome, Italy. Shapero studied Classics-Greek and Latin as an undergraduate at Brandeis University and as a graduate at Harvard. She was also active as an artist and writer during that time. In 1978 she left academia for an art career and in 1981 became a professional artist. She has studied art at the Boston University art school but most of her training has been with private teachers, especially her mother.

====================================================================================

The question of whether Zoroastrianism should allow converts is one of the most divisive and bitter issues facing the whole community. While other religions, such as Christianity and Islam, depend on converts to increase their numbers, Zoroastrianism has been, at least in recent centuries, strictly based on ethnicity. You have to be born a Zoroastrian in order to be one; you cannot enter into the faith from outside. But the question is continually asked: why must this be true? Can this policy be changed? And has this always been true in the long history of the faith? In this essay I will try to describe the many problems, arguments, and reasons on both sides of the question.

Can you convert to Zoroastrianism? The official answer, which is given by the Parsi priestly hierarchy in Bombay, and supported by a large number of traditional Zoroastrians, is NO. In order to be a Zoroastrian, you must be born of two Zoroastrian parents. One is not enough! No children of mixed marriages are officially Zoroastrian. In practice, however, the children of Zoroastrian fathers and non-Z. mothers are sometimes given admission to the faith – but not the children of Zoroastrian mothers and non-Z. fathers. Zoroastrian identity descends through the father’s line, unlike Jewish identity, which is defined by the mother being Jewish.

Why has this rule against conversions come about? There are many levels of reasoning behind it. Conservatives who support the ban on conversions will cite philosophical, religious, political, social, and emotional reasons for it. Here are some of the arguments against conversion, which are commonly used by Zoroastrian traditionalists to justify their belief in the ethnic exclusivity of their faith.

The philosophical and religious reasons are represented by educated Zoroastrian conservatives. They say that all great religions are equally true, and that no one faith is better or more desirable than any other. All religions that lead to righteous and constructive actions are inspired by God, and will lead their good believers to a heavenly reward. Therefore there is no reason to choose one religion over another. These conservatives recommend that a spiritual searcher should seek within his/her own faith, without trying to adopt other religions. In this view, not only should there be no conversion to Zoroastrianism, but the need should not even arise. Christians should be good Christians, Muslims good Muslims, and Jews good Jews – without coveting the illusory benefits of someone else’s faith.

2-sedreh-pushi-ceremony-in-russia

Sedreh Pushi of a group Russian converts to Zoroastrianism – Moscow, Russia (Source: CAIS).

A religious version of this argument claims that God Himself has placed everyone in his/her faith in a kind of religious destiny, and thus conversion is a disobedience against the God who has given you your specific religion. Many Zoroastrian traditionalists, especially Parsis, believe that the soul, which pre-exists birth into a material body, has chosen, in union with the will of God, to enter a specific religion. Attempting to convert is going against the true nature of one’s own Soul. For traditionalists, conversion to Zoroastrianism is just short of blasphemy – an act of contempt for the God who has given you birth in a specific tradition. It is true, the traditionalists admit, that many of the great faiths were originally built on conversions from other religions, but these early, founding conversions are justified because they were done under the inspiration of a true Prophet – such as Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed. Once the era of the Prophet is gone, then conversions again become invalid, for only a divine Prophet has the authority to convert people.

This leads to the conclusion that hundreds of millions of people are worshiping invalidly, because their ancestors, without the benefit of a Prophet, chose an alien faith – whether willingly or because of coercion. This includes numerous Iranians, who were originally Zoroastrian but were converted to Islam. The conservatives, though they are aware of this, still maintain that even an Iranian Muslim whose Zoroastrian ancestors were forcibly converted to Islam cannot return to the faith of his/her fathers. God, and those individual souls, chose that particular birth, no matter what went on historically. History cannot be reversed. Only a divine Prophet can convert people back to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrian traditionalists rely on their religious beliefs about a coming Savior – the _saoshyant_- as a final answer to the problem of conversion. When the Savior arrives (a Zoroastrian idea that pre-dated Jewish Messianism and may have inspired the Jewish idea of the Messiah) this divine man will have the authority to convert people. Zoroastrians then hope that all people will be converted to Zoroastrianism through the power of the Savior, who will appear at the End of Time.

3-sedreh-pushi-ceremony-in-the-uk

Sedreh Pushi of a group Iranian converts to Zoroastrianism by Dr Vandidad Golshani in London, United Kingdom (Source: CAIS).

Meanwhile, traditionalist Zoroastrians wait patiently and continue to oppose conversion to their ancient faith. The next reason they use to justify their opposition is political and cultural. When groups of Iranian pilgrims fled an oppressive Muslim regime in Iran in the 10th century AD, they came to Gujarat, a kingdom on the west coast of India. The Kisseh-i-Sanjan, an epic poem written by a 16th-century Parsi priest, documents the history of his people in India. According to the poem, the pilgrims negotiated with the rulers of Gujarat for safe haven there, and they worked out an agreement. The pilgrims were required to explain the tenets of their religion to the ruler; they were also to learn the local language and speak it rather than Persian. They were also required to adopt the dress of the area rather than wear Iranian garb, they were to celebrate their weddings in the evening rather than in the morning, and they were to put aside their weapons and not wear them at any time. Other traditions say that the Zoroastrian pilgrims were never to convert their Hindu or Muslim neighbors. This promise of non- conversion may not be documented in the poem or other surviving texts, but it is oral tradition, handed down in Zoroastrian culture for a thousand years and more. And the Parsis, as these pilgrims to India were called, have kept their promises. Thus the prohibition against conversion has a longstanding political background.

The social argument against conversion relies on the idea that Zoroastrianism is a strictly ethnic religion. In the traditionalists’ historical view, Zarathushtra was not an innovator, but a reformer who practiced the priestly traditions of his ancient Indo-Iranian people. Zoroastrianism, then, does not break traditions, but continues them – reformed from polytheism to monotheism by the divinely inspired Prophet. And these traditions are from time immemorial the exclusive possession of a people known as Aryans. In the West, the term “Aryan” has been permanently discredited by its misuse by the Nazis, and the more neutral “Indo-Iranian” is preferred. For a conservative Zoroastrian, especially those with a more extreme outlook, only those who are Indo-Iranian Zoroastrian, with an unbroken lineage unmixed with any non-Zoroastrian heritage, can be true Zoroastrians.

Proselytizing and conversion: Parsi Zoroastrians do not proselytize. In recent years, however, Zoroastrian communities in Iran, Europe and the Americas have been more tolerant towards conversion. While this move has not been supported officially by the priesthood in Mumbai, India, it has been endorsed by the Council of Mobeds in Tehran.

4-sedreh-pushi-ceremony-ceremony-in-stockholm

Sedreh Pushi of two Iranian converts in Stohkolm, Sweden (Source: CAIS).

Traditionalists regard Zoroastrianism as more than just a religion. It is an integral culture, which comprises not only faith and practice but an entire lifestyle: language, symbolism, law, clothing, calendar, festivals, food, family life, songs and literature, humor, history, etiquette, gestures, even interior decoration. This integral culture is learned from the earliest moments of life – transmitted from parents to children in an education that no school or sociological study could ever provide. In the traditionalist view, it is impossible to enter into this culture if you have not been born into it – you cannot learn as an adult things you should have learned along with your first steps and words. This culture, and the religion that goes with it, thus cannot be transferred. A non-Zoroastrian married to a Zoroastrian will always be at a loss to understand things his/her spouse takes for granted. And the non-Zoroastrian spouse will bring elements from his/her own culture that are alien to the Z. culture. It is better never to marry outside the culture, as conflict will always follow. The religion is a precious heirloom, which will only be misunderstood and adulterated by outsiders. In this view, intermarriage can only be seen as a threat, which will result in the dilution or even the extinction of the precious culture. And as Zoroastrians, both Iranian and Parsi, migrate away from their native countries, the immigrants are terrified, with good reason, that this heirloom culture will be swept away by the polluted ocean of “Western” culture which surrounds them. Modern culture is a deeply fearsome thing to many traditionalist Zoroastrians.

The third set of reasons that Zoroastrian traditionalists give for their opposition to conversion is emotional and psychological. Zoroastrianism, ever since the Muslim conquest of Iran, has been a minority religion. It has been persecuted in Iran for centuries. Even in India, where the Parsis lived more or less undisturbed by their hosts, the Zoroastrians have always remained separate from the majority. The main reason why these minorities have been able to survive through the centuries is because their religion gives them strength. Zoroastrianism has been the coherent core of the people, the rallying point that keeps them going through hard times, poverty, and persecution. Why, then, should it be given away to those who have not earned it, not suffered through the long years of trial? It would mean nothing to an outsider. And so conversion becomes meaningless, or even an insult.

4-sedreh-pushi-Istanbul

Sedreh-Pushi ceremony of a group of Turkish Kurds and Iranians in Istanbul who are recent converts to Zoroastrianism (Source: CAIS).

There seems to be a series of good arguments for banning conversion to Zoroastrianism. The trouble is that the number of “true” Zoroastrians continues to decrease. There are many reasons for this: a low birth rate, economic problems, the difficulty of finding qualified mates and raising families with a high standard of living, emigration, intermarriage, and simple apathy or ignorance of the faith. The resistance to any religious change has alienated many Zoroastrians, who question ancient laws and practices that they say were appropriate for the agrarian society of the past but have no relevance in a modern, technological world. If Zoroastrianism does not accept converts, say these questioners, it risks going the way of near-extinct sects such as the Shakers, whose inflexible practices (in the case of the Shakers, maintenance of celibacy and thus non- procreation) made it impossible to continue as a group.

It must be added that most of the anti-conversion sentiment in the Zoroastrian world comes from the Indian Parsis. Iranian Zoroastrians are much more likely to accept converts, marriages to non-Zoroastrians (who are then welcomed into the community) and people of mixed ancestry. The problems with conversion in Iran are mainly political: converting someone away from Islam is an offense against the Islamic Republic and may be seriously penalized. Therefore, conversions in Iran are done very quietly.

Since the late 1980s, new Zoroastrian congregations have been founded hroughout the world, including Brazil, Norway, Venezuela, Germany, Sweden, United Kingdom and the newly created republics of Central Asia. The yare mainly inspired by the missionary organization The Zarathushtrian Assembly, based in Los Angeles, California, and in line with Zoroaster’s original teachings, these congregations have, contrary to the Indian Zoroastrians which accept converts. 

What arguments do the “liberal” Zoroastrians use to counter the conservatives? The liberal reformists claim documented history as their strongest argument in favor of conversion. According to the scriptures of Zoroastrianism, which range from the original Gathas of Zarathushtra to doctrinal works written in medieval times, conversion has not only been mentioned but accepted as a practice throughout the long history of the religion.

6-sedreh-pushi-ceremony-in-oslo

Sedreh Pushi of a group Iranian and Norwegian converts, Oslo, Norway (Source: CAIS).

There are many passages in the original hymns of Zarathushtra, the Gathas, where the Prophet explicitly claims a mission to convert all people – not just Indo-Iranians. References to conversion occur throughout the Avesta and even in the latest book of the Avesta, written about 200-400 AD, the Vendidad. Scholars both Western and Zoroastrian have written extensively on the spread of Zoroastrianism to Armenia, Central Asia, and as far east as China; other historical texts and archaeological studies prove that Zoroastrianism had spread, through Persian traders, as far west as Asia Minor, Syria, and possibly even Eastern Europe. In lands bordering Iran, many people became Zoroastrians who were not of Indo-Iranian ethnicity. Even after the Islamic conquest, Zoroastrianism was still open to converts, especially servants in Zoroastrian homes who were adopted into the faith by their employers. The strict ban on conversion only dates from the nineteenth century AD.

Notable converts to Zoroastrianism include Swedish artist and author Alexander Bard. and became one of the founders of the Swedish Zoroastrian congregation, currently the largest in Europe.

The textual and historical evidence provide a strong and convincing argument for conversion to Zoroastrianism. The traditionalists, faced with Zarathushtra’s clear references to converting all people, including non-Indo-Iranians, can only respond with the counter-argument that it is the TEACHINGS and IDEASof the Prophet that are intended for the whole world, while the RELIGION and its rituals belong only to the Indo-Iranian people. In other words, everyone can be inspired by Zarathushtra’s holy words, but only pure-bred Indo-Iranians can practice the actual religion of Zarathushtra. Another variant of this argument is that Zarathushtra’s references to a “universal” conversion only refer to a MORAL conversion from wrong-doing to right action, rather than a RELIGIOUS conversion from one faith to another. The more extreme traditionalists discount any conclusions or evidence provided by Western scholarship, regarding all Western interpretations of the Avesta scriptures as misguided, irreligious, and devoid of spiritual insight. Thus the Gathas, when considered as a separate text, are regarded by these traditionalists as a scholarly reconstruction, imposed by Western colonialists. For these extreme traditionalists, the entire Avesta, not just the Gathas, are the words of the Prophet, given by God, and its interpretation must be done in a spiritual and sometimes mystical fashion.

7-sedreh-pushi-ceremony-in-dubai

Sedreh Pushi of three Iranian converts in Dubai (Source: CAIS).

The “liberal” Zoroastrians are inspired by the text of the Gathas, which they regard as the only surviving words of the Prophet, and the primary text of the faith. They view Zarathushtra as a great innovator, rather than a reformer of a previous tradition. In the Gathas there is no mention of elaborate mythology, sacred time-schedules, coming Messiahs, Indo-Iranian exclusivity, priestly laws, or strict religious and ritual practices. The tone of the Gathas is philosophical, abstract, and ethical. The rituals, myths, and practices that the traditionalists are so intent on keeping, say the liberals, were DISCONTINUED by Zarathushtra, who never wanted them. It was only later that these religious and social elements were re-introduced into the religion. Therefore, say the reformers, there should be no objection to converting to Zoroastrianism, because the exclusive religious privileges of the Indo-Iranian people were never intended by Zarathushtra.