Tower of Silence and Zoroastrianism in Iran

Tower of Silence is an important part of the burial rituals for the Zoroastrians

Stillhetens tårn sett nede fra sletten.
.Tower of Silence seen from the plain.

There are mixed opinions in our travel group whether the funeral rites of Zoroastrianism were grotesque and barbaric or a clean and sensible way to treat dead bodies. We are heading up to the Tower of Silence just outside the city of Yazd in Iran and our excellent guide Saba is telling us their fascinating story with empathy while we climb up the mountain.

– Yazd was and still remains a center of Zoroastrianism in Iran and people came here with their dead relatives. The body was washed and prepared in one of the small houses down on the plain before it was carried up the mountain and placed in the Tower of Silence for 4 days and 4 nights. Here the body was picked clean by birds of prey. The bodies were placed in a circle with children in the center, then women in the second circle and men in the outermost circle. It was only selected individuals who had the responsibility to carry up corpses and could go inside the tower and eventually push the bones down into the deep well in the middle of the tower. Relatives had to say goodbye to the dead down on the plain.

We stop for a break and Saba tells us to turn around and look at the view. – Down there on the plain, inside the walls, you see today’s graveyard for the Zoroastrians. The ancient burial rituals in the Tower of Silence were banned in the 70s in Iran, she tells us.

Utsikt over Yazd fra stillhetens tårn. Tower of Silence.
Utsikt over Yazd fra stillhetens tårn. Tower of Silence. 

In the desert city of Yazd, it becomes hot rather quickly when the sun shines, even if it is only February. We are dressed for winter and we are sweating and a little breathless on our way up to the mountaintop. A stop to get our breath back is welcome and views of the city of Yazd which lies on a plain with a mountain range extending to the horizon, is impressive. Across the plain, we see the city’s many famous wind towers rage against the horizon. The city is the oldest city where people have lived continuously, says our guide Saba. Zoroastrians constitute between 5-10% of the population in Yazd. Also in the city of Kerman further south, there are many who still consider themselves Zoroastrians. During our two weeks in Iran, we met this religion many times and we heard about traditions that are mixed into Islam. One example is the big Fire fiesta that most Iranians still celebrate.

Nede på sletten er det mange små hus hvor familien kunne bo og stelle kroppen før den ble brakt til stillhetens tårn. Tower of Silence.
Small houses where relatives could stay and take care of the body before the burial. Tower of Silence.

There are five Towers of Silence left in the province of Yazd. It is two towers of silence here and they extend on each mountaintop. Well up on one we have great views across to the other peak and another Tower of Silence. The towers were always built off the beaten track so that the bodies could lie in peace and gradually disappear. Risk of infections from the unclean spirits, the smell and flocks of vultures, one would rather not have the towers too close to the settlement. But today the city of Yazd has grown larger and is almost completely next to the two peaks, each with its Tower of Silence.

Death rituals within Zoroastrianism are based on the relationship to the four elements, fire, earth, water and air and the relationship between good and evil forces. They believe that death is evil`s final victory over the good, represented by humans. Until the body is separated from the bones, it is unclean and possessed by evil. The four elements represent the divine and must not come into contact with the impure. Therefore, one cannot burn a corpse, throw it in the water or bury it in the ground. Air is impossible to avoid and I have not found any good explanation on how one looks at the body and its contact with air.

We met this old man a representative for the Zoroastrians in Yazd.
We met this old man a representative for the Zoroastrians in Yazd.

The concept of Tower of Silence is not a translation of the Persian word Dakhma, as Zoroastrians use, but a designation used by translator Robert Murphy in 1832 on similar towers in India. Many Zoroastrians fled to India in the 800s and around Mumbai these death rituals are still alive. The problem in India is that the population of vultures is strongly declining and unhygienic situations occur when it takes a long time to separate the body from the bones.

Zoroastrianism is a Persian religion founded by Zartosht which in Greek became Zoroaster and which we know under the name Zarathustra, about 600 b. C. Zoroastrianism is based on even older religious performances far back in ancient Persia. Our guide told us that this is considered the first monotheistic religion, in other words the first religion that only related to one God, namely Ohrmazd. Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion where man chooses between good and evil, between truth and falsehood and it is how you live and your deeds that determine whether you will go to Paradise or hell. Not so unlike Christianity, I think.

Stillhetens tårn. Tower of Silence, Yazd.
 Tower of Silence, Yazd.

– Ohrmazd is the only God, but there are many spirits and demons, says our guide Saba. The battle between good and evil takes place through two twin spirits. After reading some online, it appears that there is a disagreement about Zoroastrianism being a monotheistic or polytheistic religion, but there is no doubt that Ohrmazd is the greatest God albeit not the only one. Ohrmazd is connected to the fire element and from outside it can almost look as if fire is the mean of worship for the Zoroastrians in their temples of fire.

We visited the fire temple in Yazd. Here the fire has been burning continuously since the year 470, it is alleged. The four elements are the pillars in Zoroastrianism and especially fire and water represents purity, yet there are many who claim that the fire cult is relatively new and that the temples of fire did not occur in the religion`s first terms. The Fire Temple in Yazd is fairly new, built in 1934 with support from the Indian parsers. Parser is the Indian term for Zoroastrians. The fire itself was preserved and moved from the old fire temple in Yazd.

Above the entrance is a beautiful Faravahar, the most famous symbol of Zoroastrianism. The symbol is also found in Persepolis and it is estimated that Zoroastrianism was the leading religions of the time. The old man stands for wisdom and experience. The wings represent the element air and are pointing upwards toward God. A raised hand is pointing towards the future and the correct moral way to go in life. The old man is holding a ring that symbolizes the promises of the future. Some argue that this is the origin for the tradition of the wedding ring. The tail is divided into three parts: evil thoughts, evil deeds and evil words, all things we must put behind us in order to move forward in life. We received this explanation of the symbol Faravahar from our guide Saba.

Read more about Zoroastrians in Yazd here.

Skjermbilde 2015-04-09 kl. 13.12.25
Faravahar symbol. Fire temple Yazd.


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