Conversion to Zoroastrianism

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Wolfgang Felix: The Dailamites during the pre-Islamic Era

The article by Wolfgang Felix The Dailamites during the pre-Islamic Era” was originally posted in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1995 and updated on November 22, 2011.

Kindly note that the pictures/illustrations inserted below do not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica article.

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In antiquity the Deylamites [or Dailamites] (Gk. Dolomîtai and variants) were mountain tribes, usually identified by 10th-century Arab geographers with the inhabitants of Deylam, the highlands of Gīlān. A considerably broader distribution extending as far as southern Armenia and the Caucasus can be deduced, however (Minorsky, p. 193).

Gilan Forests North IranA view of Gilan’s forests in northern Iran, home of the ancient Dailamites (Source: Public Domain).

The earliest mention of the Deylamites occurs in Polybius’ universal history, of the late 2nd century B.C.E. (5.44.9), in which, in the description of Media, Greek *Delymaîoi is to be read in place of geographically impossible Elymaîoi (i.e., Susiana), as the tribes named immediate after them (Anariákai, Kadoúsioi, Matíanoi) were all in the north. It is also possible that the “Elymaioi” mentioned by Plutarch (Pompey 36.2; 1st century B.C.E.) with the Medes were actually Deylamites. In the later 2nd century C.E. Ptolemy (6.2) listed *Delymaís as a place in northern Choromithrene, which was located southeast of Ray and west of the Tapuroi (i.e., Ṭabarestān). There, too, the toponym was corrupted to Elymaís (Markwart, Ērānšahr, p. 126 n. 1).

In the Pahlavi Kār-nāmag (tr., p. 47) it is recorded that in the final years of the crumbling Parthian empire Artabanus V (or IV) mobilized all the troops from Ray, Damāvand, Deylamān, and Patešḵᵛārgar, evidence that the region south of the Alborz was inhabited by Deylamites. More precisely in the Nāma-ye Tansar (tr., p. 30) it is stated that Deylamān, Gīlān, and Rūyān (later part of Ṭabarestān) all belonged to the kingdom of Gošnasp of Ṭabarestān and Parešvār, the latter apparently the Alborz region. Gošnasp made his submission to Ardašīr I (224-70) only after thorough consideration and kept his realm by the guarantee of Ardašīr himself. The dynasty was still ruling there in the time of Pērōz I (459-84; cf. Masʿūdī, Tanbīh, p. 99-100). Kavād I (488-531) appointed his eldest son, Qābūs (Kāōs), king of Ṭabarestān (Nāma-ye Tansar, tr., p. 70; Ebn Esfandīār, tr. Browne, pp. 92-94). Toward the end of his reign (while the Roman emperor Justin I [d. 527] was still alive), Kavād dispatched Būya (Gk. Bóēs), “bearing the title wahriz” (Gk. ouarízēs), against King Gurgēn of Iberia (Procopius, De Bello Persico 1.12.10). That Būya had come from Deylam can be deduced from a tradition according to which the wahriz (i.e., Ḵorrazāḏ b. Narsē b. Jāmāsp) who conquered Yemen during the reign of Ḵosrow I (531-79), in about 570, had formerly been governor of Deylam (Masʿūdī, Tanbīh, p. 260; Ḥamza, p. 138). The troops of the wahriz also included Deylamites (Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 167).

Marlik_cup_iranGolden cup depicting winged beasts (winged bulls at bottom and winged griffins at top) dated to the 1st half of the 1st millennium BCE (Source: Public Domain). This was discovered at Marlik, Gilan province, northern Iran.

Procopius (De Bello Gothico 4.14.5-7, 4.14.9) reported, from a western point of view, on the Dolomîtai at the siege of Archeopolis in the disputed territory of Lazica during the reign of Ḵosrow I (about 552): They were independent allies of the Persians, living in inaccessible mountains in the heart of Persia (i.e., Media) and fighting as infantrymen, each armed with sword, shield, and three javelins and accustomed to warfare on mountainous terrain. Some time later, according to Agathias (3.17.6-9, 3.17.18-22), the Dilimnîtai, “the largest tribe of those dwelling on this side of the river Tigris in the region of Persis” (i.e., in central Persia, or Media), undertook a fruitless attack against the Hunnic Sabirs, who were in the service of the Romans, and vainly charged the fortress of Phasis in Colchis.

Sass-Infantry-Dailamites-2500yr-2Recreation of Sassanian infantry units during the 2,500 year celebrations of 1971- note the Drafsh Kaviani displayed at the front. Roman descriptions of Sassanian infantry were negative at first, but this changed with the arrival of Dailamite infantry from northern Iran. Picture source: Kaveh Farrokh, p.230, سایه‌های صحرا-Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей,2007.

Agathias characterized the Deylamites  as very warlike and independent allies of the Persians, skillful warriors in close combat or at a distance, using sword, pike, and sling. In a fragment from Theophanes (preserved in Photius, Bibliotheca 64) it is related that in the battles between Persians and Romans during the reign of Justin II (565-78), which broke out in 572, the Deylamites (Gk. tò Dilmainòn éthnos) joined forces with the Persians and the Sabirs. When power passed from Ohrmazd IV (579-90), to whom the Deylamites had submitted, to Ḵosrow II in 590 a certain Zoarab, leader of the Deylamites, rose up against the latter and joined the party of Bahrām VI Čōbīn (590-91; Theophylact Simocatta, 4.4.17, 4.3.1). When Bahrām Čōbīn’s rising failed the Deylamites joined the rebellion of Besṭām (see BESṬAMÚ O BENDOY), a maternal uncle of Ḵosrow II (probably 592-95; cf. Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 486). After the fall of Besṭām the šahr-wahriz (i.e., governor of Deylam) fought against the remnants of his army, consisting of Deylamites and Armenians, in alliance with Smbat Bagratuni, marzbān (margrave) of Gorgān (Sebeos, tr., pp. 43-46). Incidentally it was reported (Balāḏorī, Fotūhá, p. 282) that Ḵosrow II had a personal guard of 4,000 Deylamites. When the Arabs conquered Persia the Deylamites remained virtually unsubdued, ruled by their own dynasty until the 9th century (cf. Minorsky, p. 190; Markwart, Ērānšahr, p. 127; see ii, below).

3c-Roodkhan castle-CNNThe Rodkhan Castle in Gilan (Source: CNN). The construction of this castle is generally attributed to the 11-12th centuries by the followers of  the Ismaili sect, however the origins of this structure may be traced back to the pre-Islamic era.

Christianity entered Deylam fairly early; in 554 there was a diocese of Āmol and Gīlān (Chabot, pp. 109, 366). The religion obviously survived for a long time in these inaccessible regions: The Nestorian patriarch Timothy I (780-823) elevated both Gīlān and Deylam to the status of metropolis (Thomas of Marga, I, pp. 252-53; II, pp. 467-68), though evidence from a letter of the patriarch suggests this separate status was limited to the years 795-98 (cf. Braun). These arrangements were, in fact, not stable; in about 893 Elias, metropolitan of Damascus, mentioned only Media (=Ray) as a metropolis, and the lists compiled by Ebn aḷ-Ṭayyeb (d. 1043) and ʿAbdīšōʿ, metropolitan of Nisibis (d. 1318), are silent about them (Sachau, pp. 21 ff.). The metropolis of Deylam does, however, reappear in the lists given by the early 14th-century historians of the Nestorian patriarchs, ʿAmr b. Maṭṭā and slightly earlier Salibhā b. Yūḥannā (Maris Amri et Slibae, pp. 126, 132). It seems that remnants of Christianity must have survived up to that time.

Bibliography

(For cited works not found in this bibliography and abbreviations found here, see “Short References.”) O. Braun, “Ein Brief des Katholikos Timotheos I über biblische Studien des 9. Jahrhunderts,” Oriens Christianus 1, 1901, p. 299-313.

J.-B. Chabot, Synodicon Orientale ou Recueil de synodes nestoriens . . ., Paris, 1902.

Kār-nāmag ī Ardašīr, tr. T. Nöldeke as “Geschichte des Artachšīr i Pāpakān,” Bezzenbergers Beiträge 4, 1878, pp. 22-***.

Maris Amri et Slibae De Patriarchis Nestorianorum Commentaria, ed. E. Gismondi, Rome, 1896.

V. Minorsky, “Daylam,” in EI2 II, pp. 189-94.

Nāma-ye Tansar, tr. M. Boyce as The Letter of Tansar, Rome, 1968.

E. Sachau, “Zur Ausbreitung des Christentums in Asien,” APAW, Phil.-hist. Kl. 1, 1919, pp. 1-80.

Sebêos, Patmutʿiwn i Herakln, tr. F. Macler as Histoire d’Héraclius par l’évêque Sebèos, Paris, 1904.

Thomas of Marga, Historia Monastica, ed. and tr. E. H. W. Budge as The Book of Governors, 2 vols., London, 1893.

Photos of Old Zanjan

The photos graphs below provide rare glimpses into the city of Zanjan, which is the provincial capital of Zanjan province in northwest Iran. Exact dating of these photos however is challenging as the sources accessed provide no specific dates.

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The first official major of Zanjan, Haj Ali Akbar Tofighi (1872-1945) (Source: Public Domain).

Zanjan-1A rare photo of the square at Zanjan during the late Qajar era taken by the Italian photographers Louis Montalbone (1827-1877) and Luigi Pesce (1827-1864) (Source: www.vintage.es).

Zanjan-2-mirbahaaldinAn old (undated) photo of the bridge of Mir-baheddin built during the Qajar era (Source: hamshahrionline.ir).

3-Zanjan-bankThe Zanjan branch of the Iran National Bank, possibly early 1940s (Source: ostandari-zn.ir).

4-Zanjan-Sabzeh MeydanSabzeh Maydan square of Zanjan (Source: ostandari-zn.ir).

6-Zanjan-Mosque in old BazaarThe mosque in the old Bazaar of Zanjan, possibly 1930s or 1940s (Source: ostandari-zn.ir & iichs.org).

Iranian Tribal Women in Shooting and Horseback Riding Competitions

The photographs below are from a national Olympiad in Iran between different tribal elements with respect to horseback riding, sharpshooting, and other various athletic skills. Most of these can be found here:

(۱۳۹۳/۱/۲۳) دومین المپیاد فرهنگی ورزشی ملی عشایر ایران به میزبانی شهرستان فریدونشهر اصفهان برگزار شد [The Second Cultural National Nomads/Tribes Sports Olympiad hosted by the Fereydanshahr county of Isfahan was Held (April 12, 2014)]

These types of activities have been in Iran since ancient times, with Classical authors and later European travellers reporting on exercises in riding, firing arrows from horseback, etc. What is of interest in the photos below are Iran’s tribal women partaking in shooting and horseback riding competitions. Western media and news outlets have avoided mentioning such events. The reasons for this are open to speculation.

1-ContestantsRepresentatives of a number of Iranian tribes holding signs designating their respective regions – from left to right: first sign-Northern Khorasan, second sign unintelligible, third sign-Kurdistan, fourth sign-Kahkiloye & Boyerahmad, fifth sign-Golestan(?), sixth sign-Luristan, seventh sign-Sistan and Baluchistan; remaining signs unintelligible. Note that the photo is partial, in that it does not show all of the tribes participating in the event (Source: Akairan.com).

What is certain is that given the heavy impact of media (news, etc.), TV and movie industries, the overwhelming majority of Western and international audiences have never seen the below images of Iranian tribal women.

2-Lur girl on horsebackLur girl swings round to her side to fire at target (Source: Akairan.com). 

It is a fact that one of the domains that have received the least amount of attention by Western scholarship is the role women warriors of ancient Persia.

Women for example were seen in positions of military leadership in the armies of the Achaemenids (550-330 BCE). A prime example of this is Artemesia of Halicarnassius (now in modern western Turkey) one of Xerxes’ most capable admirals during the failed invasions of Greece in 480 BCE. The daring naval exploits of Artemesia reputedly led Xerxes to state that:

“…my men have become women and my women have become men”.

Artemesia was also one of Xerxes’ chief military advisors.

3-Kurdish-checking gun barrelKurdish girl checks her rifle barrel before engaging in sharpshooting competitions (Source: Akairan.com). 

The role of ancient Iranian female warriors continued after Alexander’s conquests and the overthrow of his Seleucid successors in Iran by the Parthians (250 BC – 224 CE).

A Reuters newscast from Tehran in December 4, 2004 reported on the findings of an archaeologist who had been engaged in excavations near Tabriz, in Iran’s northwest province of Azarbaijan. A series of DNA tests revealed that the 2,000 year old bones of an entombed warrior and accompanying sword belonged to a woman.  As noted by Alireza Hojabri-Nobari to the Iran-based Hambastegi Newspaper:

Despite earlier comments that the warrior was a man because of the metal sword, DNA tests showed the skeleton inside the tomb belonged to a female warrior…

According to Nobari, there were 109 such warrior tombs, and plans were in place to conduct DNA tests on the skeletons of the other ancient warriors of those sites as well.

4-Lur girl takes aimYoung Lur girl takes aim with her rifle (Source: Akairan.com). 

Roman historical sources have reported on the exploits of the women warriors of the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE). Zonaras (XII, 23, 595, 7-596, 9) states in reference to the forces of Shapur I that:

“…in the Persian army…there are said to have been found women also, dressed and armed like men…”

5-Turkmen girlsTurkmen girls in their traditional attire at the Fereydanshahr competition (Source: Akairan.com). 

The exploits of Persia’s female warriors are recalled in the post-Islamic Shahnama epic of Ferdowsi. One sample quote states of the female warrior Gordafarid that:

“…as she was turning in her saddle, drew a sharp blade from her waist, struck at his lance, and parted it in two.”

6-Lur female sharpshooter-ویسگونLur woman in a local competition in Luristan province in Western Iran, partaking in a shooting contest on horseback (Source: Wisgoon.com).

There are reports that the wife of Karim Khan Zand of Luristan and the wives of his Lur troops often fought beside them in battle against the Afghans in Nader Shah’s time. The Afghans made a point of heaping scorn upon the Zand units who defeated them by characterizing their men as:

“…hiding behind their women’s skirts

7-Kurdish lady on horsebackKurdish lady partaking in a riding competition in Iran’s Kurdish regions (Marivan or Kermanshah?) (Source: Kurdane.com).

While Western media, entertainment (especially Hollywood and the entertainment industry) continue to block and ignore such images and information, the legacy of ancient Iran’s warrior women continue to endure.

Gun-totting-Iranian-women-Malayer

Lur women from Malayer (near Hamedan in the northwest) engaged in target practice in the Eznab area of Malayer city limits in the late 1950s.  The association between weapons and women is nothing new in Iran; Roman references for example note of Iranian women armed as regular troops in the armies of the Sassanians (224-651 CE).

Evangelos Venetis: Greeks in Modern Iran

Dr. Evangelos Venetis is the author of a seminal book entitled “Greeks in Modern Iran: Discovering the Past of a Prosperous Community (1837-2010)” in published in Athens, Greece in 2014 (this project was also supported by the collaboration of Elli Antoniades; publication supported by the Kefalidis family):

Venetis-Greeks in Iran

Greeks in Modern Iran: Discovering the Past of a Prosperous Community (1837-2010) (translated from Greek to English by Michael Mericas [(Νικόλαος Μερίκας)]), Athens, Greece: Poreia, 2014, ISBN:978-960-7043-89-4. To order this text, contact Dr. Evangelos directly: 28, Petropoulaki st., 10445, Athens, Greece, Email: e.venetis@yahoo.com.

The above text was first published in Greek in 2011:

Evangelos Venetis, Greeks in Modern Iran (Athens: Poreia Publications, 2011), Graeco- Iranica Series 1, 290 pp. 2 maps, 57 illustrations, index, ISBN: 978-960-7498-85- 1

The book is an historical monograph in the field of modern Greek-Iranian studies published by the Society for Hellenic-Iranian Studies (SHIS) in the Graeco-Iranica Monograph Series. It aims at informing the scientific and wide readership about the past, present and future of the Greek Diaspora in Iran in the last two centuries.

Greco-Iranians-Kermanshah

The Moschalis family in Kermanshah, 1910 (Source: Society for Hellenic-Iranian Studies collection; published by Evangelos Venetis).

The first part of the book narrates the history of the Greeks who entered Qajar Iran in the early 19th century and established their community in northern Iran.

3-Greco-Iranians-Rasht

The Misailidis family in Rasht (Northern Iran, 1913-1915) (Source: Misailidis family collection; published by Evangelos Venetis).

Long-Time-Between-Drinks

On a humorous note: A long time between drinks! A 1902 cartoon entitled “491 BC-1902 CE” in Puck magazine (v. 52, no. 1348, 1902, December 31) depicting “Persia” (at left) toasting “Greece” (at right) from a punch bowl labeled “Renewal of Diplomatic Relations” (Source: US Library of Congress). Contrary to Eurocentric or Nordicist popular narratives in news media, entertainment and scholarship, the relationship between the Greco-Roman and Iranian realms has been multifaceted and constructive since ancient times. The two civilizations have often engaged in strong exchanges in the arts, learning, architecture, theology, culture and commerce for millennia.

4-Greco-Iranians-Rezaieh

Photo taken in 1935 of the Papadopoulos and Paraskevopoulos families in Rezaieh in northwest Iran’s West Azarbaijan province (Source: Elli Antoniades; published by Evangelos Venetis). Note that these Iranian-Greeks have adopted the favorite Iranian Samovar pastime of drinking tea (tea kettle atop metallic vase with tap for pouring hot water) along with the small glass teacups and accompanying saucers. The Samovar (Russian: self-boiler) is also highly popular in the Caucasus, Turkey, Ukraine and of course Russia (where the “Samovar” originates).

In the second part, the analysis focuses on the history of the Greek community of Tehran in the Pahlavi era and the period of the Islamic Republic, highlighting also the interaction between Greeks from all over the world and Iranians inside Iran in various fields such as economy, politics and culture.

5-Greco-Iranians-1943

The campaign regiment of Iranian-Greeks prior to their departure to Egypt, 1943 (Source: Greek Community of Tehran collection; published by Evangelos Venetis). Like much of Europe, Greece had fallen to brutal Nazi occupation in 1941 during the Second World War. These Iranian-Greeks were joining British and allied forces in North Africa to fight the Nazis. 

5a-Greco-Iranians-Vasilios Antoniades

Vasilios Antoniades (1910-1943) who was the only casualty of the Iranian-Greek regiment from Iran in Egypt (Source: Greek Community of Tehran collection; published by Evangelos Venetis).

Given that the contemporary research and study of Hellenic-Iranian studies worldwide stop in the seventh century AD., contemporary Hellenic-Iranian relations remain a terra incognita.

6-Greco-Iranians-Greek School on Tehran

The first official Greek school in Tehran in 1945 (Source: Greek Community of Tehran collection; published by Evangelos Venetis).

7-Greco-Iranians-Greek women tailor shop in saadi st Tehran

The first Greek women’s taylor shop in Tehran’s Saadi street. This was established by Eleni Salonikidis (Source: Violetta Grammatikopoulos collection; published by Evangelos Venetis).

As a result Dr. Venetis’ monograph is a general introduction to a long period, covering a wide range of topics and aiming to act as the framework for the development of the study and research of contemporary Hellenic-Iranian studies worldwide.

Fereydoun Farrokh and Greek Foregin Minsiter in Athens 1962

Fereydoun Farrokh (at left), the Iranian chargé d’affaires in Greece meeting with Evangelos Averoff (at right) the Greek Foreign Minister) in 1962 (Source: Archives of Kavehfarrokh.com; published by Evangelos Venetis). The Minister is entrusting a cheque on behalf of the Greek government to Farrokh to send to Iran to provide financial assistance for Iranian earthquake victims at the time.

9-Greco-Iranians-Embassy 1976 Tehran

The Greek Foreign Minster Demetrios Bitsios (sitting second from left) in the Greek community of Tehran with the president of the community Elli Antoniades, the Greek Ambassador Panayotis Economou (third from the left) and members of the diplomatic retinue of the Minster, 1976 (Source: Elli Antoniades; published by Evangelos Venetis).

Dr. Evangelos Venetis studied history at the University of Ioannina, where he received also his master’s degree in medieval history entitled: The Zoroastrian priesthood and their influence in diplomatic relations Byzantium and Persia. (Second International Award of Iranology, Tehran, 12.16.2002).

10-Greco-Iranians-Tehran 1999

Konstantinos Stefanopoulos (at left), the president of the Hellenic Republic being received by Ionnis Grammatikopoulos (at right), president of the Greek-Iranian community in Tehran in 1999 (Source: Ionnis Grammatikopoulos collection; published by Evangelos Venetis).

In 2006 Dr. Evangelos Venetis successfully completed his doctoral dissertation in the field of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh. During the period 2006-2010 he was a Senior Research Associate at the Department of Arabic, Persian and Turkish, in the School of Middle Eastern Studies, the University of Leiden, the Netherlands.

11-Greco-Iranians-Bishop in Tehran 2001

His Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos officiating in the Greek Orthodox Church of Annunciation in Tehran in 2001 (Source: Ionnis Grammatikopoulos collection; published by Evangelos Venetis).

In addition to his “Greeks in Modern Iran” Dr. Evangelos Venetis has also authored five other academic books thus far:

  • The Iskandarnama (Book of Alexander): An analysis of an anonymous Persian prose romance (Saarbrücken, 2013)
  • The Shahnama Tradition, Storytelling in Contemporary Iran (Saarbrücken, 2012)
  • The Persian Book of Kings. Storytelling in Modern Iran (Lambert Publications, Saarbrügen, 2011);
  • Grammar of modern Persian for Greek Speakers (Tehran, 2007)
  • Bibliographica Sasanica (Costa Mesa, California, 2009)

12-Greco-Iranians-Greek Church in Tehran 2009

The Greek Church of Annunciation of Tehran in 2001 (Source: The Society for Hellenic-Iranian Studies collection; published by Evangelos Venetis).

An accomplished world-class academic, Dr. Evangelos Venetis has also authored a large number of articles on medieval and modern Islamic world in Greek and international journals. He is the founder and director of the Society for Hellenic-Iranian Studies.