How to perform a Zoroastrian prayer

In the land of the fire temples

The Zoroastrians in Iran

From Susanne von Schenck

A follower of the Zoroastrian religion lights a flame in an Iranian temple. (picture alliance / dpa / Kheirkhah)

From the 2nd to the 7th century AD, the Zoroastrian religion flourished. When Islam spread in Persia, many followers of Zoroaster had to leave the country. But even in modern Iran, some believers still maintain the old customs.

Chak Chak, the place of pilgrimage of the Zoroastrians, is lonely in an inhospitable mountain area in the central highlands of Iran. The place has such an onomatopoeic name because water constantly drips into a cave from a rock spring: chak, chak. The followers of Zarathustra's teachings meet regularly in Chak Chak, with a particularly large number coming to the big meeting at the beginning of summer. Then four to five thousand people from all over the world populate the small town, celebrate, pray, drink and eat.

However, only a few visitors came on this day. It is hot and the ascent of the innumerable steps to the sanctuary is arduous. Up in the shade of a pomegranate tree, Fari Bors sits with a cup of tea. He is about sixty years old and dressed in white robes. Only on his cap is the symbol of the Zoroastrians emblazoned in green: Faravahar, a human being with widely spread wings. Fari Bors takes care of the sanctuary.

"Chak Chak and the other Zoroastrian shrines in the vicinity of Yazd mainly date from pre-Islamic times and the time of the Sassanids. According to legend, the Sassanid king Yazdegerd III found refuge in Yazd and gave the city its name. This Yazdegerd had one of the wars lost to the Arabs. He later moved to northeastern Iran. There he was murdered and his supporters dispersed. "

The Sassanid period from the 2nd to the 7th century AD was the heyday of the Zoroastrians. When Islam spread in Persia, many followers of Zoroaster left the country because of Muslim reprisals. Most of them fled to India.

The large bronze gate, the entrance to the sanctuary, is open and reveals a simple, not very large room: a few seats, a basin for incense sticks and the sacred fire that is always burning. There are three flames that symbolize "good thinking, good speech and good action", principles of Zarathustra's teaching.

Scientists are still wondering whether the founder of the religion is a historical figure or a myth. Firm facts are not available, and so it is dated to the time around 1000 to 1200 BC. The Avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrians, was not written down until around 600 AD, towards the end of the Sassanid period. But the earliest texts in this book, the gathas - hymns, prayers, and incantations - are said to have sung Zarathustra himself.

"Come with good thinking, give the long-lasting gift through being true, give powerful support to Zarathustra with lofty words, O wise man, and to all of us, O Lord, so that we can overcome the enemy's hostility ..."

Zoroastrianism is present everywhere in Yazd Province. In Sharifabad, a small town in the northwest, 90 percent of the population are still followers of the teachings of Zoroaster. However, their number is falling - as everywhere in the world, according to Berlin-based Iranist Götz König.

"Zoroastrianism seems to be very attractive, especially in Iran, but the Islamic side does not allow conversion, and the Zoroastrian side often does not want it. This leads - in India we can see this very clearly in the 20th century - to a process of continuous shrinkage. "

There is no church hierarchy among the Iranian Zoroastrians. The communities organize their religious life themselves. For example in the city of Yazd. Sohrab Firuzfar has been chairman of the Zoroastrian congregation there for twenty years, which has around 5000 members. Your central sanctuary, the fire temple, is a modern building donated by wealthy fellow believers from Mumbay, India. Trained priests, called mobuts, are responsible for ensuring that the temple flame is always on, explains Sohrab Firuzfar. Because in the eternal fire and light the Zoroastrians see the symbol of the highest god Ahura Mazda.

“Many call this building a fire temple, but the expression is wrong. We are not fire worshipers, as is often said. Among the elements of creation fire, water, air and earth, which are sacred to us, we particularly respect fire. But we pray God, and that's why it should be called a prayer temple. The fireplace here is one of the oldest in Iran. We respect it as God's creation. And we pray to him here. "

A little outside of Yazd, on the southwestern outskirts, are the Towers of Silence. A narrow path leads up to the clay-colored buildings. Inside, the corpses, wrapped in cloths, were left to the vultures to eat. This custom lasted until 1970, when the last Shah forbade the Zoroastrian burial ritual - for hygienic reasons. Since then, the Zoroastrians have been burying their dead in a cemetery at the foot of the silent towers, in concrete boxes. This is how they protect the earth from contamination by corpses. Because the reverence for the elements is still unbroken today.