Friday, 20. April 2012  ir  
zoroaster in tajikestan


What Is Zoroastrianism?
Before I discuss the main subject of this paper, it may be useful to summarise what is
meant by the term Zoroastrian. It refers to followers of the teachings of Zoroaster
(Zartosht in Persian). According to tradition, one is a legitimate Zoroastrian only if
one’s parents were also known and attested Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism is thus an
identity ascribed by birth.!

There is no scholarly consensus about many of the details of Zoroaster’s life and
times. He is said to have lived perhaps as early as the middle of the second millennium
BC in Azarbaijan in north-west Iran, though now serious consideration is being given
to the possibility that he came from the Pamir region of Tajikistan. It is said that he
travelled to eastern Iran, where he preached his revelation and eventually persuaded
King Vishtasp to accept his teachings. It is said that he was murdered in Balkh, in what
is now northern Afghanistan. After the conversion of King Vishtasp, all of Iran is
thought to have become Zoroastrian, and it continued to be so up to the end of the
Sassanian empire (third to seventh centuries AD). During these centuries and
particularly during the periods of conquest (Achaemenian empire, sixth to fourth
centuries BC, and Sassanian empire, third to seventh centuries AD) the religion also
spread to regions outside modern Iran which shared an Iranian culture and could be
referred to as Greater Iran. The Arab conquest in the middle of the seventh century AD
put an end to the Zoroastrian period of Iranian history. Despite a large number of
revolts against the Arab conquerors, many of them documented, within 200 years well
over half the population had converted to Islam, some to gain tax exemptions, others
to acquire or maintain other privileges, some because of conviction and yet others by
In the tenth century a small band of Iranian Zoroastrians decided to leave Iran
because they were finding life oppressive. It is said that they took with them an urn
containing their sacred fire, the symbol of the religion. It is not clear whether they had
a specific destination in mind but after hazarding many dangers by land and sea they
finally settled in the Gujerat province of India. Many moved down to Bombay during
the time of the British occupation, where a significant proportion of them made their
names and fortunes. They became known as the Parsees and clung tenaciously to
vestiges of their Iranian culture. Yet they gradually lost the language, the dress and the
food of the Iranian Zoroastrians and at one point even a working knowledge of
religious rituals.
The Iranian Zoroastrian community meanwhile continued to suffer humiliation,
hardship and poverty, all of which led to a dramatic decline in their population. They
in turn had to look to the ,P arsee community for guidance as to correct religious.

The Zoroastrian Tradition in Tajikistan
The Iranian culture of Tajikistan was subjugated to Islamic culture first by the Arabs
but more recently by the Turks or Mongols. Tajiks today therefore see the latter as their
main enemy. This attitude is fuelled by the continuing tension between Uzbekistan (a
Turkic culture) and Tajikistan over ethnic claims to Bokhara and Samarqand. These
two towns, now in southern Uzbekistan, were arbitrarily placed within the administrative
authority of Uzbekistan by Stalin in the 1920s. This decision simply ignored the
fact that the population of these towns and of the whole southern area was 89 per cent
Tajik-speaking and of Tajik culture. Soon after the loosening of ties with Moscow and
the fall of the communists in 1991, a book was published by the respected Tajik
historian Rahim Massov in which the whole question of the creation of Uzbekistan
and Tajikistan was discussed openly for the first time. Since the 1920s the Usbeks have
pursued a systematic policy of imposing the Uzbek language and culture upon these
towns. It would appear that they have had some success: the population of these two
towns, each of them once a symbol of classical Persia, is now only 50 per cent Tajikspeaking.
Furthermore, there appear to be few possibilities for the Tajiks there to
perpetuate their identity now that each republic is fully autonomous, nationalistic and
fearful of ethnic uprisings. In August 1992 Tajikistan television broadcast a
programme which featured Tajiks in Samarqand explaining how they are forbidden
newspapers, books or schools in the Tajiki medium.
The Tajiks have become fully aware of their critical position and politics features
prominently during any conversation. There is widespread fear of fundamentalism.
Although the nationalist-democratic movement has many sympathisers and

supporters in reasonable numbers, it does not have the financial or political backing
available to the communists or the Islamic parties. There was a rumour circulating in
1992 that the Iranians had been paid to recruit and arm 40,000 men to take over and
impose Iranian-style fundamentalism. To many people, mainly intellectuals and urban
women, this prospect seems unbearable, although to some it seems inevitable.4 For
many of those who fear Islamic fundamentalism, the communists are not the ogres
traditionally represented in our western media. Indeed, by the end of their first year of
independence from the Soviet Union many Tajiks were realising that what
independence actually meant was an end to the subsidies that had been provided by the
centralised communist regime for schools, hospitals, roads and food supplies.
Without the guaranteed support from Moscow that in effect made Tajikistan a viable
republic the future is looking frighteningly insecure. The whole infrastructure had
been manned by ethnic Russians who are now leaving the republic in their thousands.
Meanwhile there are not enough Tajiks with the technical and administrative training
to run the republic efficiently: under the communist regime they were kept out of key
positions. Many Tajiks naively believed that if the communists were to return to power
in Tajikistan then somehow all the centrally funded subsidies would be reapplied and
the days of plenty would return. On the other hand, the communists have not endeared
themselves to many potential supporters because of their disregard for democratic
processes and their readiness to resort to arms and bloodshed in order to force
themselves upon the people. Thjiks thus see that political reality is a choice between
two evils.
In 1991 a number of Tajiks visiting California and Canada gave lectures on the
revival of Zoroastrianism in their republic. The phenomenon they described was
familiar, recalling the cases of other groups who have reclaimed Zoroastrianism:
Azarbaijani intellectuals, Yazidi Kurds and Iranian Muslims who are now members of
the California-based ‘Zarathustrian Assembly’. In these groups we have examples of
people who have decided to subsume a specific religious identity to a superordinate
Iranian cultural irredentism. For such people their national identity is expressed not in
Islam but in the context of the Iranian cultural heritage. They see all that they are most
proud of as deriving from a moral and spiritual order inspired by the religion of preArabic
and pre-Islamic Iran. These disparate groups have intriguingly surfaced at
more or less the same time, though through quite different political circumstances: the
Yazidi Kurds found their voice during the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War; the Iranian
Muslims of California created the Zarathustrian Assembly after three million Iranians
had fled the Islamic Revolution; and groups of Azarbaijanis and Tajiks declared
themselves after the break-up of the Soviet Union. It is important to stress that these
neo-Zoroastrian groups still represent a minority within their areas. In none of them,
moreover, is there a living and continuous tradition that is indisputably Zoroastrian in
the conventional sense. However, it would be arrogant to say that they are not therefore
‘Zoroastrians’, since this is how they define themselves.s
In Thjikistan a considerable proportion of the population, both young and old,
remains deeply aware of the heritage of a pre-Islamic past, of which they are intensely
proud, with which they identify and about which they are well informed. The importance
they attach to their Iranian legacy should not be underestimated – although, as
Andre Bertrand points out, the sense of ‘Iranian’ identity has not led to any form of
pan-Iranian movement.6 To a great extent this heightened awareness has been an
ironical legacy of Soviet colonial policy in Central Asia. While the Soviet authorities
suppressed much of the cultural tradition of the European USSR, I would go as far as
to assert that in Tajikistan they probably did more good than harm. One has only to

look across the border to Afghanistan or Iran to see how things might have turned out
but for the Soviet annexation and integration of this Iranian-speaking and culturally
Iranian Central Asian republic. The Soviet authorities established clinics, schools and
roads; provided food,7 electricity and telephones to the region, including the remote
mountainous area of Badakhshan which will be discussed later; and educated the
population to a level which means that the republic enjoys a 99 per cent level of literacy,
a level unmatched in Iran, Afghanistan, India or Pakistan. The population has had
access to reading materials which, although censored and of limited scope, have
provided contact with a much wider world view than they might otherwise have had,
bearing in mind their remote and enclosed position. Their contact through the Soviet
system with other cultures and traditions within the Union has also developed a
broadmindedness and tolerance that their Iranian and Afghan cousins seemingly lack.
Most importantly, since the Soviet system attached great importance to ‘culture’, and
since the state heavily subsidised and sponsored dance, music, theatre, journalism,
poetry and sciences including archaeology, the Tajiks were given a convenient
framework in which to collect and preserve their traditions.
Even before the collapse of Soviet authority in 1991, various opposition groups had
organised themselves and were using media outlets to express their aspirations. The
champions of ‘democracy’ shared an attachment to their ancient past and an antipathy
to Islamicisation.8 Over an eight-day period in the summer of 1991 over a dozen
articles appeared in various newspapers, women’s magazines and literary journals
dealing with the subject of Zoroastrianism, its principles and morality, and the preIslamic
historical framework. 9 A prominent author of many of these articles was a
poet from Badakhshan, SalimShah e HalimShah. He had also been invited to give
lessons on Zoroastrianism and its scriptures (the Avesta) to university students, a
number of whom then enthusiastically declared themselves Zoroastrians. The autumn
festival of Mehrgon was declared an official state holiday alongside Persian New Year,
Nowruz, and there was some talk of reintroducing the fire festival, Sadeh. A leaflet
explaining the history of the celebration of Mehrgon was distributed, and apparently
scattered by helicopter to inform the public in remote areas about the new festival. In
the autumn of 1992 an international congress on the Avesta was convened in the
capital, but was poorly attended because of civil unrest.
In 1991 a number of people, including some from the Shoghnan and Wakhan
regions of Badakhshan, set up a non-political organisation of ZoroastrianophileslO
and looked to the poet SalimShah as their inspiration. They had apparently had
discussions about an appropriate name for the organisation, and had decided that it
would be prudent for the time being to call themselves the ‘Society of Admirers of
Ancient Iranian Culture’. Since SalimShah and many of the founder members were
employed at the state-run House of Writers, some of them engaged on the newly
launched Persian-script newspaper, they set up a temporary base for the Society there.
They subsequently tried to find funds to enable them to set up an independent centre,
and looked to the world Zoroastrian community to help them.
The Wakhi and Shoghni members of the Society hold that many of their local
traditions are derived from Zoroastrianism, and are sure indicators of a not-toodistant
Zoroastrian past. The religion of the Badakhshanis was traditionally Ismaili,
and some argue that this sect has a direct connection with Zoroastrianism since the
founder Ismail was a descendant of the union of the prophet’s great grand-nephew
with the Zoroastrian princess Shahrbanu, daughter of the last Zoroastrian king of
Iran. This king, Yazdegerd, is known to have fled the Arabs and headed for China, and
it is suggested that he may have sought refuge in the region of the Pamirs. A photo

copied nineteenth-century manuscript copy of the History oj Shoghnan by Heydar
Shah contains several contemporary references to fire worshippers and infidels, terms
usually reserved exclusively for Zoroastrians by Muslim writers in Persian. Informants
also say that they have a hazy collective memory, based on oral history, of their
forefathers having had a different religion. It is of course possible that much of this
may merely be wishful thinking. There are, however, the independent writings of
European travellers throughout the nineteenth century in which references are made to
the inhabitants of the Pamirs, and in the most widely known of these, Through the
Unknown Pamirs, written in the late nineteenth century, the author singles out the
Wakhis as people whose customs manifest what he believes to be aspects of
Zoroastrianism. 11
The ancient towns of Bokhara, Samarqand and Panjikent, located in the Zarafshan
river valley, are home to people with a sophisticated pre-Islamic culture. This culture
was one in which Zoroastrianism of a more or less conventional type was the major
spiritual and moral influence. The archaeological evidence for this is abundant in this
area and the local people are aware and proud of their traditions, many of which, they
point out, have clearly been maintained from pre-Islamic times. Some Panjikent
wedding rituals may serve as examples. The bride and groom walk around a flaming
brazier before entering the groom’s home for the evening wedding reception,
throughout which honorific speeches are made, all prefaced by the formula ‘may the
bright rays of the sun, the stars and candles shine upon you, and with a crown upon
your head, may you see the light’. Villages and other sites bear names such as Moghtapeh
(Magus Hill), Kofer-tapeh (Infidel Hill), Qaleh ye Mogh (Magus Fortress) and
Darya e Moghiyan (Magus River), mogh being the standard word for a Zoroastrian
priest. These toponyms would suggest settlements holding on to their own faith
against an increasingly Islamicised background.
During the past few years Tajiks have been able to learn a good deal about life in
Iran, thanks inter alia to the nightly nine o’clock television news broadcast directly
from Iran during 1992. On my recent visit women in particular took up this theme,
expressing their dislike for the way Iranian women dress. Their dislike of the chador
has been further reinforced by official delegations from Iran, including women in their
typical black shrouds. Tajiks are increasingly aware that their social and cultural
traditions, such as weddings where men and women drink, dance and mingle freely,
would be curtailed if they adopted Islam as practised in Iran today.12 Nevertheless,
Tajiks are sentimental about Iran and therefore show great enthusiasm and delight
upon meeting Iranians. Their loyalty to Iranian culture was manifest in the choice of
a new flag for Tajikistan. After two rounds of competition in 1992, the final choice
rested with a flag of the traditional Iranian bands of green, white and red, but also
bearing the ancient symbol of Iran, the lion and the rising sun with a crown above it.
Many people can recite by heart verses from Rudaki, renowned as the first of the great
Persian poets, whose birthplace is in Tajikistan. Ferdowsi and Hafez, the most famous
of classical Persian poets, are also very well known and are recited at any opportunity.
A statue of Ferdowsi was unveiled in Tajikistan in September 1992. He is depicted
holding fire in one of his hands, a symbol greeted with enthusiasm by those Thjiks who
admire the pre-Islamic period. 13 Thjiks greatly respect poets for their skills and
wisdom, and generally the ordinary people appreciate music, dancing and other
aspects of culture. This attitude contrasts with the more elitist and esoteric attitude
towards ‘culture’ in the West; while ‘culture’ in Iran today is manipulated for
propagandist ends.
On a recent visit I chanced to share a taxi with a young man named Farhad, from the

village of Rudaki, birthplace of the eponymous classical poet. He recited passages
from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi and the Divan of Hafez, the two best known poetic
works of classical Persian, in which the pre-Islamic era is covertly praised at the
expense of the Arabs. He then went on to quote verses from the most famous and
popular of modern Tajik poets, Layegh Sherali, a native of Panjikent, who is
apparently deeply immersed in his own private quest for his historical roots, and whose
verses acknowledge the wisdom of Zoroastrianism. 14 Farhad said that he always
carried a copy of Hafez with him wherever he went, so sacred did he consider him to
be. What was particularly interesting was that he insisted that like his mentor, the poet
Sherali, he was a Sogdian or Sughdi. It was quite clear that by giving himself a label
associated with the pre-Islamic culture of the area, he was obliquely distancing himself
from an exclusively Muslim identity. Indeed, he overtly stated that if ever Thjikistan
were to be governed by a fundamentalist Islamic government, he would leave and never
return. Although his degree of conviction on this matter was initially surprising, it
turned out to be a quite widely held sentiment, echoed in the intention of the
Zarafshan basin – Velayat e Shemoli, the northern region including Khojand,
formerly Leninabad – to declare its independence if an Islamic government should
come to power, an intention already expressed in a telegram sent to the parliament in
Ooshanbe. Since then, in the early stages of the civil war which erupted at the end of
1992, this region did split away and formed its own government in Khojand with
leanings towards Uzbekistan, and provided the key members of the new neocommunist
regime subsequently installed in Ooshanbe.
Panjikent, also in the northern region, is today a modern town, but its international
importance lies in its cultural past dating back to before the Arab conquest of Iran and
Central Asia. Its last ruler, Oivastyich, chose to become a tribute-paying king under
the Arab caliphs rather than accept their faith and rule, but eventually he was crucified
by the local emir, apparently against the wishes of the caliph. Some fragments of
manuscript in his own hand still survive to tell his tale. That pre-Islamic culture was
sophisticated and tolerant in this area is amply demonstrated by rich and varied
examples of wall paintings, statues and silver bowls as well as evidence suggesting the
presence of Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism alongside local cults and fire
temples which are thought to have been of Zoroastrian origin. 15 These have been
discovered by Russian archaeologists over a number of decades, the most recent team
being led by Professor Marshak, who has been excavating there with his colleagues
each summer for the past 40 years. (He gave the Cohen lecture at the Ashmolean in
Oxford in 1991). He holds the view that the former religion of the area was a free form
of old Zoroastrianism, and some of his ideas have been echoed by Or Kreyenbroek
from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in a recent lecture on the
relevance of Pahlavi literature to today’s Zoroastrian community. The increasingly
accepted view is that Zoroastrianism has been a dynamic religion, undergoing change
and adaptation according to the social conditions of area and time. This was
particularly so as far as private domestic ritual was concerned: because of its very
nature, this ritual could not be controlled by any central authority. Later, of course,
after the onslaught of the Arabs, the central authority of Zoroastrianism was so
weakened that it could have no effective control, and village variants incorporating
devotions at folk shrines developed (for example, at Pir e Sabz and other shrines in
Yazd). By way of an analogy, Professor Marshak mentioned the presence of Ganesh
statues in some Parsee homes in India, and one could list many other customs
assimilated by Parsees through contact with Hindus in India which have never been
observed by Iranian Zoroastrians. Thus in Central Asia, where the practice of

Zoroastrianism was removed from the centre of the faith by a considerable distance, it
would not be surprising to see some equally striking divergences in private domestic
ritual and belief as we see between some Parsees and Iranian Zoroastrians. Given the
geographical location of Panjikent and the other towns mentioned, all positioned on
the main silk route, it was obvious that travellers from the Far East and the western
world would carry their culture with them when travelling or settling there. This
resulted in the syncretic local variant of Zoroastrianism, depicted so richly with statues
and wall paintings of god-like figures, reminiscent of Buddhist and Hindu iconography,
which has not been found in other Zoroastrian areas. One Tajik archaeologist
believes that many of the wall paintings are depictions of the Zoroastrian angels, the
amesha spenta, and of those who give their names to the months and to each day of
the month. He is hoping to produce a calendar of these particular wall paintings. This
art form is a typical feature of Sogdian Zoroastrianism and may give a clue to what the
historian Tabari is referring when he speaks of ‘the idols of the fire-worshippers’, since
elsewhere early Zoroastrians are not known to have had any visual icons. It should be
pointed out that the word ‘Zoroastrian’ is not found in any of the historical references
to this region, just as it is absent from the inscriptions at Persepolis. Nevertheless, just
as most scholars accept that the Achaemenids were Zoroastrians, so it is reasonable to
accept that references to ‘fire-worshippers’ implies Zoroastrians by means of a
deliberate misnomer.16 Indeed, the frequent use of the word mogh, to mean
Zoroastrian priest or magus, supports this view. 17

Ahura Mazda

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