Sunday, February 7, 2010

Khorezm - The Birthplace of Zoroastrianism

A modern depiction of Zoroaster

The Zoroastrian religion was founded nearly 2700 years ago by the Prophet  Zoroaster who it is believed was born in the territory of the ancient Empire of Khwarezm (covering Uzbekistans' Khorezm and the Republic of Karakalpastan and parts of northern Turkmenistan).

Zoroastrian beliefs teach that there is but one god, whom they call "Ahura Mazda". They believe he created all things and is responsible for all order, righteousness and Justice on earth.  He is in a constant battle with Angra Manyu the spirit of evil and that the earth is their battleground.

The Zoroastrian religion is considered by many scholars to be the forerunner of a number of contemporary religions. It developed the first such notions as the creation of the world, paradise and hell, the messiah's advent, doomsday and the last Judgement. All three major contemporary religions to a certain extent have borrowed concepts from Zoroastrianism which was already a mature religion by the time each started to develop.

The exact date or place of origin of Zoroastrianism, or the precise dates of life of the Prophet Zoroaster himself are unknown, however scholars presume he lived in the 8th–7th centuries BC. Little else is known about his life other than that he was married, had four children, began his holy work at the age of 30 and lived to see his 77th birthday and was killed by a pagan priest.

Zoroastrian Heritage of Uzbekistan

The year 2001 was declared by Uzbekistan to be the 2700th anniversary of the holy Zoroastrian book the Avesta. 

In the mid-20th century the well known Russian archeologist and orientalist Sergei Tolstov who had studied many ancient monuments in the lower Amu Darya dating from the mid 1st millennium B. C. came to the conclusion that Zoroastrianism had first originated in ancient Khorezm. His opinion is today shared by many other distinguished scholars.  Indeed of the over sixty ancient Zoroastrian monuments found in  the world two thirds of them are in Uzbekistan, with seventeen located in Khorezm and Karakalpakstan (Others are found in Iran, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan).

Avesta

Zoroasterians believe that their prophet Zarathushtra received the whole truth, or revelation, from God himself and that truth is found in their holy book the Avesta.  Legend states that the prophet went to the river during the spring festivities to fetch water at daybreak, once at the river (almost certainly the Amu Darya) he saw a creature, which was shining so brightly that the prophet could not see his own shadow on the ground.

 Depiction of the God Akhura Mazda

This was the first time that he felt the presence of the supreme god "Akhura Mazda". He is said to have heard god's words calling upon him to serve. "As long as it is in my power, I will be teaching people to seek after the truth."

Whilst "Akhura Mazda" is the only god and he created all that is good; in opposition to  him is the personification of evil treacherous and absolutely malicious "Angra Manyu".

Zarathushtra taught that these two ultimate parties of the universe one representing good and the other evil are inherently opposed to each other.  That there is a continious struggle between Good and Evil, Truth and Lies, Light and Darkness concepts that penetrate the whole of Zoroastrian doctrine.

"When, oh, Mazda, will come Peace with the Truth and Power, bringing us good life and pastures? Who will give us rest from the blood-thirsty followers of Lie? Let the robbers and murderers be paid back by a good ruler! Let it give peace to the settled families!"

This plea to fight against Evil was meant not only for cosmic forces, but also for every human; as he believed that "any human is a creation of God". To help each of his followers reach moral perfection, the prophet set out a strict moral code: to live in accordance with good thoughts, good words and good actions.

According to his philosophy, the history of the world consists of several parts. First Akhura Mazda made the "spiritual", and then the immaterial world, then he gave everything a shape, a body. This  "good" allowing all living beings to fully perceive the world through all their senses. He believed however that with the materialisation of the spirits there also came disorder.

Angra Manyu

And that the evil spirit "Angra Manyu" would also materialise and attack the world. The Avesta tells that the Angra Manyu made the sea water salty, created deserts, and even poisoned the holy fire with smoke. In short his aim was to do harm to all the creatures of God and was the cause of all the moral vices and weaknesses in people.  Zoroasterians believe that the time we are living in now is neither absolutely good nor absolutely bad. It is a mixture of good and evil. That we are destined to defeat evil and restore the world to its initial perfect state. Good will again be separated from evil, evil will be totally destroyed and then Akhura Mazda and all good men and women will live in absolute order and peace.

Zarathushtra taught that every soul leaving the body is to be judged by what it did during the lifetime. That the soul will be tried and weighed on the justice scales, the verdict depending on his or her moral achievements during their lifetime, not on the offerings made. The more good thoughts and actions the soul achieves, the easier it is for thier sole to go to Heaven. If the scales show more evil, the soul will go down to Hell, where sinners will live through 'ages of sufferings, gloom, bad food and sorrowful moans'.

But even in Heaven the souls will not enjoy complete bliss until the "Making of Wonder" comes. The resurrection will be followed by the Last Judgement when the righteous would be separated from the sinners. All the metals on earth will melt and form a flowing river. All the people will have to walk across this river. 'For the blessed it will be like fresh milk, whereas the bodies of the sinful will have to walk in the molten metal'. This last judgement will eliminate all the sinners. This river of the molten metal will then flow to hell and totally destroy Angra Manyu and all the evil in the world.

These apocalyptic visions were it seems later borrowed by other religions. One major difference with todays religions is that Zoroaster professed that his people would live in the familiar and beloved world which would be restored to its initial perfection and that they would enjoy paradise like eternal bliss on earth and not in some distant illusory such as the kingdom of heaven.

Zoroastrians also have the custom of praying five times a day which today is also practiced by other religions, Islam in particular. Daily prayers were compulsory for every follower of the Zoroastrianism not just to worship God but as a weapon to be used in the fight against evil.

Zoroastrians had rather peculiar religious rites. The neighbouring peoples called the Zoroastrians fire-worshippers. The cult of fire from the divine spark in the human soul to the holy fire in the temples was indeed of a great significance for the followers of Zarathushtra.

However, they did not burn their deceased, as the commonly believed. On the contrary, they left the dead on the flat tops of "towers of silence" or just left bare in deserted places so that birds and animals would fed on them. Then they put the remaining bones into special containers called assuaris.

In Zoroastrian temples the priests kept the holy fire by feeding it with the wood of fruit trees and priests have a duty to the fire to guard it. The faithful entered the temples in white linen masks covering the nose and mouth – so as to prevent the holy fire from being contamination by their 'dirty breath'. If it was believed necessary, a rite of fire purification was performed. During this ritual they walked three times round the fire and sang hymns from Avesta.

The social life of the Zoroastrians was full of religious holidays. The most important of them were seven holidays celebrated in honour of the seven gods. Taking part in these holidays was a religious duty of the faithful. Navruz ('New Day') was the principal holiday. It is believed that this holiday was established by Zoroaster himself. The holiday was celebrated on the first day of a new year – on the vernal equinox. It symbolized the beginning of new life, when evil is defeated and the world is miraculously transformed. That is why this holiday was especially joyful, with a lot of rites symbolizing renewal and bliss.

National Holiday  - Today Navruz is still the most important national holiday in Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia.


Navruz, the day of vernal equinox, has been celebrated for more than three thousand years. Legend says Navruz is connected with  King Jamshid, on whom on this day, according to legend first felt the rays of the sun and declared it a day for celebration.

Zoroastrianism for over 13 centuries, up to the 7th century A. D. was the dominant religion of almost every part of Central Asia and the Middle East. Having invaded the region in 334 B. C., Alexander the Great conquered and destroyed many Zoroastrian temples and shrines.

They suffered badly as many of their priests, who had vainly tried to defend their sanctuaries, were slaughtered. In those times, when religious texts were passed on orally and the priests acted as "speaking books", the loss of this live communication led to a loss of many of the ancient ideas.

It was only in the 6th century A. D. that a local alphabet emerged and the Avesta was written down (somewhat like the bible there is approx. a 150 year gap between the death of Jesus and the first "New testament texts"). The recording of the ancient sacred texts; known as the Great Avesta consists of twenty one sections ('nasks'). These nasks are further subdivided into three groups, each containing eight parts. The first group has gats ('hymns') and all the relevant texts. The second group contains scholastic essays. The third one has treatises, instructions for priests and the collection of laws and rules. Later his sermons and songs were also included into the Avesta. The holy book acting as a sort of  encyclopaedia of that epoch.

In the mid-7th century the Sassanid Empire was conquered by the Arabs, and expansion of Islam, predetermined the fate of Zoroastrianism. Islam triumphed. A large number of the population converted and their children grew in the new faith, taught Arabic prayers instead of the old Zoroastrian ones.

Khorezm - The Birthplace of Zoroastrianism

For a thousand years Zoroastrianism was widely spread in Khorezm, Sogdiana and Bactria. In the lower reaches of the Amu Darya River, three kilometres off the town of Khojeili, there was found a unique archaeological complex – Mizdakhan. The complex stands on three hills. In its eastern part there remained a lot of sepulchral chambers for assuaris. The complex is what remained of a town that used to be a trade and crafts centre of the Khorezm state. One of the branches of the Great Silk Road ran through this town. According to local legend it was the place where Zoroaster wrote the first lines of Avesta. Not far from Mizdakhan stands Chilpik a well-preserved ancient cult Zoroastrian construction.

Chılpık

The strong walls of the fortresses Ayaz-Kala, Toprak-Kala, Koy-Krilgan-Kala and many others (some 300 in all) built in this same era are still an integral part of Khorezmian landscapes. While examining these great monuments, the archaeologist's found the remains of fire temples, household articles, ceramic objects and sculptures – all relating to Zoroastrianism and Avesta characters. In the interior of Toprak-Kala, for example, there have been found fragments of wall paintings and sculptural décor giving life to this era.

Ayaz Kala

Some Zoroastrian customs and traditions can be traced in the present life of the local people; for instance, duels of fighting rams, typical Khorezm dance Lyazgi, which is believed to be the fire-worshippers' ritual dance.

In other parts of Uzbekistan are other important Zoroastrian ruins. In the Afrosiab hills, which hide the ruins of the ancient Sogdian capital Marakanda, there can still be found statuettes of the Zoroastrian goddess of fertility Anakhita.

According to the legend, one of the oldest Bukhara mosques Magoki-Attari was built in the 11th century on the foundations of a Zoroastrian shrine.

Kara-Tepa

The wall painting of one of the cave temples of the 1st century found in Kara-Tepa (Syr Darya Province, Uzbekistan) depicts Buddha-Mazda, a syncretic character that has the features of both the gods of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, of Akhura Mazda and Buddha. A big shrine surrounded by a circular corridor was recently excavated by Uzbek archaeologists at the site of Kampyr-Tepa, identified with the legendary Alexandria-on-Oks. Such a peculiar lay-out was typical of Zoroastrian temples, where processions of priests performed the main Zoroastrian ritual of walking around the sanctuary.

The last Zoroastrians

Zoroastrian Seal
The last mention of Zoroaster followers living in what is today's Uzbekistan dates back to the period just after Islam was first introduced. By the time of the Mongolian conquest, there probably were no more Zoroastrians settlements left.

Whilst there are no true Zoroastrians left in Central Asia a number of their rituals still linger in some mountainous regions of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Also it is interesting that the Central Asian Jews, or Bukhara Jews preserved many of customs and rites closely connected with Zoroastrianism.

Today's modern Zoroasterians live in neighbouring India (110,000) and Iran (22,000) and there is also large expatriate communities as a result of a century of migration to be found in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, East Africa, the United States and the United Kingdom.