Zoroaster and Zoroastrians in Iran
By: Massoume Price, December 2001
First taught amongst nomads on the Asian steppes around 3500 years ago, Zoroastrianism is one of the earliest revealed religions and is of enormous importance in the history of religions. It has links with the ancient Vedic beliefs of India and even possibly to a remote Indo-European past. It has influenced northern Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and was the state religion in Iran from 6th century BC to 7th century AD. Most information about prophet Zoroaster (Zarathushtra, Zardosht), son of Pourushaspa, of the Spitaman family comes from the Gathas, 17 hymns which were composed by the prophet and were preserved over the centuries by the Zoroastrian community. Gathas are inspired passionate utterances many addressed directly to God and their poetic form is the most ancient in Iranian literary works. The language is traced back to Indo-European times through Norse parallels. His teachings were handed down orally from generation to generation. They might have been written down since Parthian period but all that is left is from the Sassanian times, in Middle Persian, also called Pahlavi.
In the Gathas he calls himself a ‘zaotar’ a fully qualified priest and a ‘manthra’, one able to compose ‘manthra’ (Sanskrit mantra), inspired utterances of power. Training for the priesthood started around age 7 and maturity was reached at 15 and he was probably made a priest at this age. He also calls himself a ‘vaedemna’ or ‘one who knows’ and spent years in a wandering quest for truth. The language of Gathas is archaic and is related to the Indian Rigveda (about 1700 BC). The best educated guess for Zoroaster’s date, based on linguistic evidence is between 1700 - 1500 BC. In Gathas and in later Pahlavi works it is mentioned that he was thirty when revelation came to him. "He went down to a river to fetch water, there he encountered a radiant figure introducing himself as Vohu Manah ‘Good Purpose’. The light led him to ‘Ahura Mazda’ the Lord of Wisdom and five other radiant figures, before whom he did not see his own shadow upon the earth, and it was then that he received his revelation".
|Zoroastrian Fire Temple, Yazd, Iran
Zoroaster made changes in the existing believes and practices. The ancient Ahura Mazda, the guardian of ‘asha’ (the cosmic order) became an uncreated God who had existed eternally and was the creator of all else that is good, including all other beneficent divinities created by him. Zoroaster came to the understanding that wisdom, justice and goodness were utterly separate by nature from wickedness and cruelty. The forces of evil manifested as Angra Mainyu (the Hostile Spirit) equally uncreated but ignorant and malign became Ahura Mazda’s archenemy. The two primal beings made deliberate choices to be good or evil, men should do the same and preferably chose the better one. Such teachings were new; people were actually given a choice to choose between good and evil. This principle remained with all the other great religions of the area that was followed, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the archaic religions what mattered most was how to maintain the cosmic/natural order, now the concept of cosmic justice was also added on. There was an afterlife in which the good was rewarded and the bad would be punished according to their deeds.
Ahura Mazda created the world and knew that the Hostile spirit would attack it and the two would have to fight. He also knew that at the end he would be the victorious one and as a result of his victory the universe would be wholly good forever. This was his reason for creating the world in both its spiritual and material forms. The old cosmology and the creation of the world in seven stages found a different meaning. Ahura Mazda’s first act was evocation through his Holy Spirit, Spenta Mainyu, of six lesser divinities (Amesha Spenta), which formed a heptad with the wise God. Each represented or symbolized one of the seven creations. The six deities in turn evoked other beneficial divinities that are in fact the beneficent gods of the pagan Iranian pantheon. He also evokes other divinities such as Mithra, Apam Napat, Sraosha, Asha and Geush Urvan. The six act collectively with Ahura Mazda to defeat the forces of evil and are called ‘Yazatas’, (Eyzad in modern Persian) meaning ‘beings worthy of worship’ and they function as ‘Holy Immortals’.
The doctrine of holy immortals is central to understanding Zoroastrianism. The six manifest the qualities and attributes of Ahura Mazda and can bestow these qualities upon righteous humans. Vohu Manah (Bahman) represents ‘Good Purpose’, Asha Vahishta (Ordibehesht) means ‘Best Righteousness’ and Spenta Armaiti (Espand) personifies ‘Holy Devotion’. Khshathra Vairya (Shahrevar) is ‘Desirable Dominion’ and represents the power each person needs to exert righteousness in life. The final pair are Haurvatat and Ameretat, heath and long life (Khordad and Amordad). The six are the names of six of the months in modern Persian calendar. Not only they represent different aspects of the Wise God but each one is also responsible for protecting one of the creations. Shahrevar is lord of the sky, and Espand protects mother earth. Khordad protects water and health and plants belong to Amordad. Bahman guarded all animals and was a powerful symbol of creative goodness while Ordibehesht became guardian of fire. Finally man himself, with his intelligence and power of choice, belongs to Ahura Mazda.
Afterlife existed and all mortal souls would be resurrected and then judged. They would be punished or rewarded depending on actions during their lifetime. Departed souls crossed a bridge (Chinvat Bridge in Avesta, Sarat Bridge in Quran) and were questioned by divinities to see if they were worthy of entering Paradise, a sunlit place where all imaginable delights were possible. The sinful and the guilty would fall off the bridge and end in the subterranean kingdom of Hell. The concepts of Hell, a place of torment presided over by Angra Mainyu (Ahriman, Shaytan in Koran); Heaven, resurrection and individual judgement are Zoroaster’s own. These doctrines deeply influenced the later religious developments in the area, i.e. Judo-Christian and Islamic traditions.
Attaining paradise was possible for all. Women as well as men, priests warriors servants and masters could all go to heaven. Chinvat Bridge becomes a place for moral judgment. People are judged not only on the basis of their offerings, prayers and sacrifices, but also on their ethical achievements. Mithra presides over the tribunal; accompanied by Sraosha (Soroush) and Rashnu (Eyzad of Justice), who holds the scales of justice. In the Indian Veda the spirits are brought in by two dogs (messengers of Yama / Jam, Jamshid in Persian). In Avesta the two dogs await the spirits at the Chinvat Bridge. Dogs are still venerated by Zoroastrians and if possible are present at their funerals.
The myth of creation already existing was developed further. The Pahlavi text of the Sassanian period, ‘Bundahishn’, ‘Foundation of Creation’ contains most of the Zoroastrian myths. First everything was created in an state called in Pahlavi ‘menog’(Menoee in modern Persian), meaning ‘spiritual immaterial’. This world was perfect and was not as yet invaded by the forces of evil. Once attacked by Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) Ahura Mazda created the material world or ‘getig’ (geetee in modern Persian). It was here in the material world that the battle with the forces of evil was fought. The divine beings rallied their forces and fought back and sacrifices were made. Ameretat took the first plant and pounded it and made the sacred extract haoma and scattered the essence over the earth with help from rain and the cloud. The bull and the first man were sacrificed too and from them originated all animals and the first couple.
|Zoroastrian Fire Chamber, Yazd, Iran
Creation was the first of three times into which the drama of cosmic history is divided. The second is called the time of mixture (gumezian), during which the world is a blend of good and evil. Angra Mainyu keeps attacking with his associates ‘Daevas’ (Deev in modern Persian) and all the other forces of darkness. Humans have a share too and are asked to help the good forces in their fight against the army of evil. The third time is called ‘Separation’ (wizarishn), when good and bad are separated forever and the world is restored back to its original perfect state. Zoroaster offered humans a purpose in life (defeating the forces of evil) and a reasoned explanation for their sorrow and hardship in life. All these was brought on them by the Hostile Spirit and helping the forces of goodness and accepting the will of an all-powerful creator would eradicate the evil and as a result human suffering. Their Universe had a beginning and an end, at the end of the year 12000 the forces of evil would be for once and all defeated by forces of goodness.
Prayer times were increased to five times and two new divisions were added. A new division, Rapithwa started at noon, the ideal moment at which time stood still at creation and continued into the first part of the afternoon. The other one started at midnight and continued till sunrise and Mithra protected the first ray of light at sunrise. Asha Vahishta, lord of fire and of noontime heat protected Rapithwa, the spirit of the noon. In wintertime Rapithwa retreated beneath the earth to protect the roots of plants and springs of water. The daily prayers to Mithra started at sunrise and remained very much part of the Iranian daily prayer rituals ever since. The Iranian literature of the Islamic period is full of references to early morning prayers ‘da aye verd e sobhgahi’, original prayers to Mithra.
The seven creations and their protectors including Ahura Mazda were celebrated during the seven feasts of obligation, known as ‘gahambars’ with No Ruz being the most important. They were originally pastoral and farming festivals and started by early morning prayers and continued into joyful assemblies with food, wine, music and dance. Eventually they became a lot more elaborate with plays and actors re-enacting the ancient myths. More festivals were celebrated in honor of other deities and 12 Eyzads became venerated by naming each month of the year after them and 12 festivals emerged celebrating each one of these deities.
Zoroastrianism existed in Iran by the time Medes and Persians were established. They both treated it and received it as a long-established faith, with its doctrines and observances already defined and a canon of works in the Avestan tongue. There is no evidence that the literature was written down at this time and it was orally transferred from one generation to the next. The claim by the later Iranians that Alexander the Great destroyed the massive texts has not been substantiated. Persian Kings refer to Ahura Mazda many times in their proclamations and inscriptions but Zoroaster is not mentioned. However, Greek sources mention that Cyrus’s daughter was called Atoosa, Iranian ‘Hutaosa’ same name as King Vishtaspa’s Queen, Zoroaster’s royal patron in Avesta.
Fires and altars existed at all the major sites and there are many portraits depicting kings and other dignitaries facing altars and fires. An important change was assimilation of an alien goddess, presumably Assyro-Babylonian Ishtar, the Lady of the planet Venus and of love and war. Greeks refereed to her as ‘Aphrodite Anaitis’, Persian Anahita (Nahid). She became a major cult and along with Mithra, Ahura Mazda and Verethraghna, yazata of victory the four became the most venerated deities in the country. Anahita’s worship introduced a major change. The mother-goddesses in the ancient east were venerated with statues and Artaxerxes II was the first Persian king to introduce an image cult of Anahita. By the end of the Achaemenid period dynastic/ temple fires and image sanctuary both had a recognized place in Zoroastrian worship. It was also from this time and with the growth of Zoroastrianism as a great imperial faith that an increasing number of priests with different hierarchies appeared and grew stronger as time went by.
Another development, which can be assigned to the Achaemenian period, concerned the belief in the world Saviour, the Saoshyant. This happened in three stages, each ending with coming of a saviour to be born of the prophet’s seed by a virgin mother. The last one was the most important one and the doctrine allowed the scholars to fuse Zoroaster’s message of hope with the ancient Iranian traditions of Humanity’s descent from the golden age of Yima (Jam/Jamshid) to the pitiful state of the present. The Zurvanite Heresy was also a new development that happened in late Achaemenian period and though did not succeed at the time it made an impact in Sassanian period. Zurvanites believed that Zurvan (time) did not merely provide the framework for cosmic events but was actually in control of them. In Sassanian period the concept was unsuccessfully used to introduce monotheism into the faith by making Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu twin brothers born from Zurvan.
Zoroastrianism spread throughout the empire with Persian households, administration and military being present in every corner of the empire. It suffered greatly by Alexander’s invasion of Persia in 331 BC. During and after the conquest many priests, teachers and lawyers who orally transmitted the ancient teachings were killed and numerous temples were ransacked and some burnt down. Seleucids, Alexander’s hires in Iran followed Greek religious traditions with Kings declaring themselves divine and alienated Zoroastrian priests. Greeks founded cities across Iran and Bactria (Afghanistan) with their own soldiers and settlers, however freedom of religion existed and Iranians continued venerating their own deities.
Greek Gods were introduced and their Statues displayed at public places disguised as Iranian yazata. Zeus and Apollo represented Ahura Mazda and Mithra, while Herakles Kallinikos became Verethraghna and Nike and Demeter replaced Ashi and Spenta Armaiti. In 141 BC, the Parni chieftain, Mithridates I, the Arsacid ruler (Ashkanian) entered Seleucia-on-the Tigris as a conqueror. He was probably born and brought up in Parthava, speaking the Parthian language. By the time of Mithridates II (123-187 BC), the Arsacids established their rule over Seleucids and the great Parthian dynasty of Iran was formed. Parthian kings followed the Greek example and declared themselves of divine descent. The act contradicted Zoroastrian principles but did not receive opposition, which suggests that the priests were cooperating with the new rulers. The clergy did not like the Greeks and by working with the new rulers and accepting their terms they guaranteed their presence at the Royal court. Even the later Sassanian Kings also declared that they were ‘of the race of gods’.
Much of the information about Zoroastrianism during Parthian period comes from non-Iranian territories such as Armenia and other former Soviet Republics. Armenia was Zoroastrian for centuries, gradually they adopted Christianity and received protection from Rome and eventually became fully Christian. Armenians worshiped ‘Aramaz’ (Parthian for Ahura Mazda) as ‘Creator of sky and earth’, and ‘Father of all gods’. ‘Spendaramet’ was honored as protector of the earth, and the veneration of Haurvatat and Ameretat existed. There were temples to Mihr (Mithra) and Anahit, the noble Lady, Mother of all knowledge. Historians Strabo and Pausanias and the Roman spy Isidore of Charax (66-77 AD) describe fire temples and mention image cults. There is a fine Bronze head of a goddess (indistinguishable from the Greek Aphrodite) inscribed to be an image of Anahit one of the few images that has survived the Christian and Islamic destruction of icons and artifacts in shape of humans and other living forms.
The three main sacred fires, Adur Burzen-Mihr, Adur Farnbag and Adur Gushnasp were already venerated at this time. It was in Parthian time that southeastern Iran known as Drangiana, acquired the name of ‘Sakastan’ (Seistan) due to the settlement of Sakas people (Iranian origin) in the area. They became Zoroastrian and adopted the local culture. In time stories of their great warrior-hero Rustam came to mingle with legends of Kayanians (Avestan Kavis), the ancestors of the Avestan king Vishtaspa. The heroes reached the modern era due to Firdausi’s magnificent translation of Avestan mythology and other ancient Iranian stories in his great epic Shahnameh. Other major developments of the Parthian period included the establishment of an artificial date for Zoroaster (see calendar section) and appropriation by the magi of the whole Avestan tradition for their own homeland of Northern Media (modern Azerbaijan or the ancient Iranian province of Atropatene). In short, persons, places and events of northeastern Iran were given new associations with the northwest. Zoroaster and Kavis were placed in these lands that was identified with the legendary home of the Iranian peoples i.e. Airyanem Vaejah (Iran Veej). There are also reports pointing out to king Valakhsh (Vologeses) the Arsacid ruler sending orders to all provinces and instructing people to save all Avestan literature whether written or in authoritative oral transmission. The result might have been the book Vendidad or ‘Laws against Demons’ a major Sassanian text that has survived.
Sassanians were hereditary guardians of a great temple to Anahita at the city of Istakhr in Pars. At the beginning of 3rd century AD, one of their members Papak, seized power from the local prince and his son Ardashir overthrew the last Parthian king Ardaban V (224 AD). He was a brilliant administrator and strategist and used religious propaganda as a mean to expand his power. With help from his equally brilliant herbad (head priest) Tansar, the two undertook the task of persuading their people that their version of Zoroastrianism was the true and the better one. Calendar reforms were introduced and in place of the former fraternity of regional communities, a single Zoroastrian church was established under the direct authoritarian control of Persia. Next a single canon of Avestan texts approved and authorized by Tansar himself was created. How this was done is described in Dinkard and it is made clear that "the interpretation of all the teachings of the Mazda-worshiping religion is our responsibility". The religious tolerance a characteristic of the ruling Iranian dynasties from Cyrus to Ardaban was further abandoned by the appearance of another great priest Kirder during the reign of Shabuhr (Shapour died 272 AD).
Sassanians were hostile to cult-statues and icons and removed such items from their temples and replaced them with altars and sacred fires. This campaign was resisted by the local population and was not entirely successful. Rock carvings at Naqsh-i Rustam shows Ahura Mazda mounted with crown on his head, and rods in hand, holding the diadem of sovereignty. Anahita (Ardvisur Anahid by this time) and Mithra are also depicted in a number of carvings and continued to exist as image cults. More calendar reforms were introduced and Persian was made the sole official language in the country. As a result all religious literature including the secondary literature such as Zand was written down in Middle Persian or Pahlavi. A major innovation was the creation of a new Avestan alphabet by adding more letters into the Pahlavi alphabet of the mid-Sassanian period. The new system had 46 instead of fewer than 20 letters and permitted the rendering of every vowel and consonant and as a result it was possible to write down the ancient oral tradition with all its sacred sounds adequately.
The priests were able to record all surviving Avestan texts and by the time of Anoshirvan twenty-one divisions were published and the great Sassanian Avesta was fully composed. The twenty-one ‘nasks’ or divisions corresponded with the 21 words of the Ahunvar prayer; and the nasks were then sub-divided into three groups of seven. The first group contained the Gathas and all the texts associated with them, the second, works of scholastic learning, and the third, treatises of instruction for priests (such as Vendidad), law books and others such as yashts (prayers). Copies of the massive work were sent to leading priests in the provinces in Pars, Media, Parthia and Seistan and were placed at the libraries of the great temples in these areas. What is left today from Avestan literature belongs to this massive collection composed in Sassanian period.
Yazdegird III the last Sassanian king met his death in Merv in 652 AD. The Arab invasion of Iran was utterly different from that of Alexander. The attack on Persian and Byzantine territories by the newly converted Muslims was carried out in the spirit of Surah 9.29 of the Quran. "Fight those who believe not in Allah and the last day and do not forbid what Allah and his messenger have forbidden-such men as practice not the religion of truth, being people of the book-until they pay tribute out of hand and have been humbled". ‘People of the book’ or ‘dhimmis’ (Zamis) in Quran are named as Jews, Christians and Sabians, who had adherents among the Arabs. To them Muslims presented three choices, death, conversion or the payment of tribute (jizya). To other infidels including Buddhists and followers of other religions two options were offered death or conversion to Islam. Zoroastrians theoretically belonged to the second group, however because of their sheer numbers Muslims were forced to regard them as dhimmis.
So once the conquest was over, with its slaughter, enslavement, looting and destruction, local terms were agreed on and the Muslim rulers collected tributes. In one account people of Ray and vicinity had to pay 500,000 dirhams but managed to keep what was left of their temples. The Sassanian tax system was taken over and ‘jizya’ was made an special poll tax on non-Muslims and since the Surah 9.29 had mentioned ‘humbling the non believers’ special provisions were made to make sure that the non Muslims were humbled at the time of paying taxes. "The dhimmi has to stand while paying tax and the officer (emir) who receives it sits. The dhimmi has to be made to feel that he is an inferior person when he pays. He offers the poll tax on his open palm. The emir takes it so that his hand in on top and the dhimmi’s below. Then the emir gives him a blow on the neck, and one who stands before the emir drives him roughly away. The public is admitted to see this show".
The number of laws and restriction governing the life of non-Muslims got worst after the first four orthodox caliphs. Originally most Iranians remained Zoroastrian despite the fact that by remaining true to their faith they had no place in the new power structure. However his would not last for long and forced conversions would sooner or later end the legacy of Zoroastrianism in Iran. "The Arab commander, Qutaiba, thrice forced citizens of Bukhara to convert to Islam, but they repeatedly apostatized and became infidels. The fourth time he seized the city and established Islam there after much difficulty he made their religion very difficult for them in every way. Qutaiba ordered people of Bukhara to give one half of their homes to the Arabs. He built mosques and eradicated traces of unbelief. He built a grand mosque and ordered the people to perform the Friday prayers there. That place had been a temple". Thousands of Iranians were enslaved by Arabs one way to get out of slavery was to become Muslims since Muslims could not be enslaved and as a result many converted. All these pressures, humiliation at the time of paying jizya, deliberate destruction of temples and forced conversions resulted in massive conversions. There are accounts of Muslim rulers forcing mass circumcision on the newly converted males to make sure they had truly become Muslims. The Arab governor of Sogdia was faced with 7000 males reconverting back to Zoroastrianism once circumcision was forced on them. Tabari records that Arab tax collectors in the eight-century would mistreat Zoroastrians, tearing off the sacred girdle and hanging it round their necks in derision.
The worst blow to the old faith and Iranian nationalism in general was struck under the Umayyads when the use of Middle Persian, written in Pahlavi script was abandoned by the administration and Arabic was used instead. The change imposed around 700 AD, emphasized the permanence of the Arab presence in Iran and enforced a widespread knowledge of Arabic and further separated the Muslim Iranians from their Zoroastrian past. Massive efforts were made by many Iranians to save the ancient heritage by translating Pahlavi books into Arabic and eventually new Persian. Most literature that is saved from pre-Islamic Persia was preserved this way, the most famous was the great Sassanian chronicle, the ‘Khwaday Namag’ that was translated into elegant Arabic. Firdausi’s brilliant translation of the text into modern Persian ‘Shahnameh’ has preserved the ancient Zoroastrian myths and accounts of the Persian history and has made this book one of the most important works in Persian language and a cultural icon.
A further blow came when Iranian Muslims succeeded in shaping a tradition, which made Islam, appear as a partly Iranian religion by appropriating the Iranian Shiite movement. A legend was made that Husayn, son of Ali the fourth caliph had married a captive Sassanian Princess called Shahrbanu, the ‘Lady of the Land’. This wholly fictitious character was held to have born Husayn a son and as a result Iranians supported Shiite movement and descendents of Ali claiming the caliphate to be their right. The movement lead to the victory of Abbasid dynasty (claiming descent from the prophet) against Umayyads in 750 AD. The Abbasids revived the magnificence of the Sassanian court and their authoritarianism in religious matters. They employed many Iranians at the beginning but gradually executed and eliminated most including Abu Moslem Khorasani who was responsible for restoring caliphate to Abbasid.
The Abassids proved deadly foes for Zoroastrianism, and it was during their epoch that Islam took root and flourished in Iran. Islam on the other hand during this process grew steadily more Zoroastrianized, with adaptations of funerary rites and purity laws, and a cult of 12 saints (Imams) springing up in place of the veneration of 12 Eyzads. The saviour (Saoshyant) was replaced by the ‘Time Lord’ (Imam Zaman) who is believed by the Shiites to be hidden and who will, like Saoshyant appear at the end of the time, restore the faith, and fill the earth with justice by defeating the Satanic forces.
By 9th century there were still fire temples around and the surviving Avestan texts were put together but already one division out of the 21 was wholly lost. Masudi the historian visiting the city of Istakhr in 9th century describes the devastation and how the once magnificent city with its temple complex and massive library was laid waste and deserted. 40,000 Persians including most of the noble and learned families of the time had died during the Arab conquest trying to defend and save the city. In 10th century local Iranian dynasties all vigorously Muslim were emerging as largely independent vessels of the Caliphs. Among them were the Samanid of Khorasan (874-999) who claimed descent from Vahram Choben nevertheless abandoned Zoroastrianism as a favor to the ruling caliph. It is at this time that a group of Zoroastrians from Khorasan left Iran for India and formed the Parsi community of Zoroastrians in Gujarat.
The new community in India was mostly able to practice their religion freely without fear from the local Indian governments and has prospered and evolved parallel to the original community in Iran. They were able to provide moral, educational and financial support to the Zoroastrians in Iran during the 19th and early 20th century.
Early in 11th century the Seljuk Turks swept into Iran from Central Asia. Once established they embraced Islam with fervor and with their distant relatives Ghaznavid started another reign of terror with massacres, burning of the books and forced conversions. Thereafter came the even more dreadful Mongol invasions (13th century), which ended both Seljuk and the Caliphate in Baghdad and laid entire provinces into waste and destroyed thousands of priceless books throughout the area from all faiths. Zoroastrians lost most of their books including every copy of the Sassanian Avesta. Fars was one of the few provinces that was saved from the Mongol invasion by submitting to their rule. The Zoroastrian community of Fars confined to a few cities in the north, namely Yazd and Kerman survived with their literature. Their texts combined with those saved by the Parsis of India forms most of the literature that is left from the ancient religion and Sassanian Pahlavi manuscripts. During the next two centuries efforts were made to copy and preserve the few remaining texts some in private collections kept by the learned Zoroastrian families.
From the 16th to 18th century Zoroastrians like Jews and Christians suffered greatly at the hands of Safavid rulers. Zealous Shiites Safavid had oppressive policies with respect to religious minorities and have one of the worst records with respect to human rights in Iran. Shah Abbas the Great brought many Zoroastrians called ‘Gaur’ or ‘Gabr’ since the Muslim conquest (meaning infidels) into Isfahan to use as labor. The European traveler Pietro della Valle visiting the site reported that the Gaurs were settled in a suburb containing some 3000 houses, all low single storied, without any adornment, suited to the poverty of those who inhabit them.
Chardin another traveler visiting the Safavid court points out that these ancient Persians "have gentle and simple ways, and live peaceably under the guidance of their elders, from among whom they elect their magistrate". Tavernier in 17th century made remarks about the hardship Zoroastrian women suffered because of purity laws concerning menstruation. They were isolated during this period and could not touch fire or water since they were regarded as impure. The isolation would end by bathing and a minor feast. It is also mentioned by the travelers that the Zoroastrian women were not veiled and unlike Muslim women did not shy away from strange men and did not follow the segregation of sexes as Muslims did.
Honest, peaceable, hardworking, living as much as possible to themselves, the Zoroastrians still could not escape tyranny. Shah Abbas had heard about a magnificent book of the Gaurs written by Abraham and preserved by them in one of their libraries. He orders the leaders to bring the book to him and since no book by Abraham could have been produced he ordered the Zoroastrian leaders to be executed.
The Afghans overthrew the Safavids and in the process totally destroyed the Zoroastrian quarter, the Gabr-Mahalle, that was located outside the city walls in Kerman. Very few survived and the neighborhood was never rebuilt again and ruins of the settlement existed till mid 20th century. Like other religious minorities they had a few years of peace under the Zand dynasty but were harassed and violated under the Qajars.
A turning point for Zoroastrians came with the European scholars becoming interested in the Zoroastrian literature in 18th century. At the time the Parsi community of India had thrived while the Iranians were struggling to survive. Orientalists from a number of European countries associated with major universities and institutes studied, collected and translated texts in India and eventually Iran. In mid 18th century the French scholar, Anquetil du Perron produced the first relatively accurate translation of Avesta from the Indian collection into a modern European language. The translations included the surviving Avestan texts, with ritual instructions and many valuable personal observations on the customs and rituals of the Parsis, as well as a translation of the Pahlavi Bundahishn. Though currently totally out of date, the translations opened the way for more than a century of scholarly research on the ancient religion and the forgotten adherents of the fate in Iran and India. The translations amazed and shocked the Europeans and Zoroastrianism at last found its rightful place in the evolution of the revealed religions in the area.
The constitutional revolution of the 1906 created a new concept of citizenship based on nationality rather than religious affiliation. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians became citizens of the country though they were still barred from many high ranking positions that were only open to Shiite Muslims. Bahaies were never recognized as legitimate citizens. By 1900 the community was still concentrated in Yazd and vicinity with Sharif Abad as the center of priesthood. By 1970’s majority of Zoroastrians had moved to Tehran. The Pahlavi reign was the best period with respect to religious and cultural freedoms and Zoroastrians with other religious minorities prospered and for the first time the Iranian Zoroastrian community did as good as or better than the Parsi community in India. In fact Parsi members were encouraged to come back and settle down in Iran. The first World Zoroastrian Congress was held in Tehran in 1960. The two major communities in Iran and India sought reform and modernization and some aspects of the ancient doctrines were revised and modernized. Pahlavis promoted ancient pre-Islamic Persia and new archaeological evidence with numerous studies, translations and first class work by qualified researchers produced groundbreaking literature in understanding Zoroastrianism. The Iranian researcher, Ibrahim Pur Davoud, popularized Zoroastrianism amongst all Iranians by his translations of Avestan texts into modern Persian. Professor Mary Boyce from London University is one of the most important researches who have made great contributions to Zoroastrian studies.
The Islamic revolution once again has reduced the religious minorities to second class citizens and the events of the last two decades have resulted in massive immigration of all religious minorities including Zoroastrians. Currently USA, Canada and UK along with the Parsi community in India have become the main centers where Zoroastrians live and have established fire temples where the ancient flames are kept burning.
The major problems facing the surviving communities are low birth rate, marrying out of the community and secularization. In 1976 there were around 129,000 Zoroastrians worldwide with 25000 living in Iran. The total population has remained more or less the same with a substantial decrease in the number of inhabitants in Iran. The problems are constantly debated and the world congress of Zoroastrians through meetings, publications and education has been deliberating the challenges that are facing the Zoroastrian communities in different countries.