A seamless portrait of a neglected culture

A Zoroastrian Tapestry
February 20, 2004

When the Arabs conquered Iran in the mid-7th century AD, Zoroastrianism was the most firmly established, widespread and influential religion in the Near, Middle and Far East, which it had dominated for more than a thousand years. The religion was inaugurated in the late 2nd millennium BC by the only ancient Indo-European (rather than Semitic) prophet, Zarathustra.

Gradually, it spread with groups of colonists as far as Anatolia, Egypt and India and was the religion of succeeding Iranian empires. Its adherents were renowned for their tolerant attitude towards the religions of their foreign subjects, including the Jews. This is borne out, for example, by the 538 BC edict of Cyrus the Great to release the Jews from Babylonian exile and allow them to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem, an act for which he was hailed as a Messiah in the Hebrew bible (Isaiah 45:1).

The Arab conquest of Iran and, as a consequence, the imposition there of Islam marks a watershed in Iranian history. Yet it was not until Turks and Mongols overran Iran in successive waves from the 11th century that Zoroastrianism was almost eclipsed, its followers reduced to a fraction and forced gradually to withdraw to the desert towns of Yazd and Kerman. There they are found to the present day as a minority.

However, in probably the 10th century, a group of Zoroastrians emigrated from Khorasan to Gujarat, India, and this proved vital for the strong survival of the faith and its tradition. There they became known as Parsis, because they came from "Pars" (Persia). Later, under British rule, many Parsis moved south to Bombay and were involved in trade, commerce and industry, as aptly shown by John Hinnells and Rusheed Wadia in A Zoroastrian Tapestry .

The Jejeebhoys, for instance, acquired wealth from the opium trade with China. In the Bombay dockyards, the Wadias excelled in shipbuilding. The pioneers of Indian industry were also Parsis, in particular the Tata and Godrej families. Today, about 150,000 Zoroastrians are estimated to live in Iran and India, and a widespread diaspora mainly in English-speaking countries including Britain - where the first three Asian MPs were Parsis - Canada, the US and Australia.

Like the Abrahamic religions, Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith, worshipping God as "Lord Wisdom" ( Ahura Mazda ). The most distinctive feature of the doctrine is its dualistic solution to the problem of evil: the latter does not come from God, but has a separate origin and is antagonistic to him and his work. All evil comes from that external source, which clings to God's good physical creation in a parasitic manner and tries to corrupt and destroy it.

An intrinsic part of Zoroastrian teaching is its eschatology, and it is in this area that it is likely to have influenced Judaism and later Christianity and Islam. Like Jews and Christians, Zoroastrians believe that a perfect world will be reinstated at the end of time, being brought about by a saviour, seen as a posthumous son of Zarathustra and born of a virgin.

He is expected to defeat and remove evil, resurrect the dead and preside over a universal judgement that will inaugurate a new age of eternal bliss.

Indeed, it is probable that the Magi of whom Matthew speaks as coming to worship Jesus as the redeemer of the world, were Zoroastrian priests from Persia. The purpose of human life is to fight evil by, in Zarathustra's own words, "good thoughts, good words, good deeds". This is the maxim of Zoroastrian ethics.

After death, each person's soul will face an individual judgement in which one's good thoughts, words and deeds will be weighed against evil ones. The souls will then proceed across the Bridge of Judgment (Cinvat Bridge) either to the House of Welcome (Paradise) or to the abyss of the House of Deceit (Hell) and, in their respective places, await the resurrection of their bodies and the perfection of the physical world at the end of time.

These teachings constitute the basis of Zoroastrian cultural values and religious practices that have persisted to the present day. Many Zoroastrians love knowledge and education, and are renowned for their commitment to the pursuit of truth. Material wealth is a good thing as long as it is gained by honest means and used for beneficial ends. Women have equal status with men, a phenomenon unique among ancient religions. The only exception is priesthood, from which they are barred, although in this volume Frantz Grenet shows evidence that this has not always been the case.

Since antiquity, Zoroastrians have also been known for their unusual way of disposing of the dead. They do not bury, burn or submerge them in water but expose them in cylindrical structures known as "towers of silence" to be devoured by vultures. The aim of this practice and of a set of other meticulous purity laws is to avoid polluting the elements - earth, fire and water. In the Zoroastrian doctrine concerning the environment, these are perceived as God's creations while pollution is a product of evil.

A Zoroastrian Tapestry covers 3,000 years of Zoroastrian art, religion and culture, from its beginnings to 1947, the year of Indian independence. The articles cover not only history, teachings and observances, but also cooking, costumes, painting and theatre. The distinguished authorities who contribute include leading scholars - such as Mary Boyce, John Hinnells and Shaul Shaked - and religious authorities, such as the Parsi high priests Hormazdyar Mirza, Kaikhusroo M. JamaspAsa and Firoze M. Kotwal.

The text is lavishly illustrated with magnificent photographs, for instance the splendid Parsi portraits in Pheroza Godrej's contribution or the pictures of fabulous Parsi textiles and embroidery in Kalpana Desai's article. It is virtually impossible to describe the artistic refinement and sheer beauty of this book. Such a huge and splendid volume on Zoroastrianism has never been published before, and will be difficult to surpass. It is wonderful value for money. Not surprisingly, the first imprint has nearly sold out.

Almut Hintze is lecturer in Zoroastrianism, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion and Culture

Editor - Pheroza J. Godrej and Firoza Punthakey Mistree
Publisher - Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, India
Pages - 762
Price - £175.00
ISBN - 1 890206 22 9 www.mapinpub.com

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