Zoroaster / Zarathustra speaks - founder of Zoroastrianism / Parsism - religionZoroastrianism (sometimes called less correctly 'fire worshipping'), one of the world's oldest religions, first began in Azerbaijan. In the ancient language of the land, 'Azer' means 'fire', and no other name seems quite as appropriate for Azerbaijan, since it once was the land of Zoroastrianism, where fire has an important role, even today, fire is still part of the country's symbols.

This religion was  founded in  by the prophet   Zoroaster (Zarathustra). The doctrines preached by Zoroaster are preserved in his metrical Gathas (psalms), which form part of the sacred scripture known as the Avesta. Zoroastrianism is also called Zarathustrism, Mazdaism, and Parsism. Parsism is the term used today, among the believers in India, the largest Zoroastrian society of today.

The basic tenets of the Gathas consist of a worship of Ahura Mazda (the "Lord Wisdom") and an ethical dualism opposing Truth (Asha) and Lie, which permeate the entire universe. All that  is good emanates from Ahura Mazda. All evil is caused Angra  Mainyu (the "Fiendish Spirit") and his assistants. Upon death  each person's soul will be judged at the Bridge of Discrimination;  the follower of Truth will cross and be led to paradise, and the adherents of Lie will fall into hell. All evil will eventually be eliminated on earth in an onslaught of fire and molten metal.

Altyn-Depe / Altin Depe: Zoroastrian Ziggurat dedicated to the god of the moon (photo (c) by Alejandro Slobodianik / Travel-Images.com)Zoroaster apparently combined two religious systems. The first is the monotheistic worship of Wisdom and his emanations including Asha, outlined in the Gathas. The second system  describes a cult that worships Lord Ahura, the custodian of Asha. This system is described in a portion of the Avesta called the Liturgy of the Seven Chapters, which was composed after Zoroaster's death. The Gathas and the Seven Chapters form part of the larger liturgy called the Yasna. Other parts of the Yasna are the Yashts, which are hymns to individual deities, and the Vendidad, or Videvdat, a codification of ritual and law.

Iran - Persepolis: Tripylon or Council Hall - Xerxes' Hall of Audience - Faravahar, representation of Ahuramazda, the supreme god of the Persians - Zoroastranism - photo by M.TorresThe first Persian king to recognize the religion proposed  by Zoroaster was  Kay Vishtash, and Zoroaster's ideas spread under Darius I. Artaxerxes II (reigned 409-358 BC) also venerated Zoroastrian deities; in his reign the first temples were probably built. Under the rule of the Greek Seleucids (312-64 BC) and Parthian Arsacids (250? BC-AD 224), cults of  foreign gods flourished along with Zoroastrianism. The new Persian dynasty of the Sassanids (AD 224-641) established Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Persia and it also spread to central asia.

However Persia was gradually converted to Islam after its conquest by the Arabs in the 7th  century. Nevertheless, and against all odds Zoroastrianism survived  in the mountainous regions of Yazd and Kerman. Today Zoroastrianism counts about 150,000 in India, 50,000 in Iran, and perhaps 50,000 in the rest of the world.

Iran - Yazd: tower of silence or Dakhmeh, once used to dispose of dead bodies - to avoid contaminating the earth the in Zoroastrian funerary tradition bodies wer left to be eaten by the birds - photo by W.AllgowerThere are 5 daily prayers, and ablutions are performed in before all of these. The believer becomes religiously active from the age of 7. When a believer dies, his or her body is brought up on the Tower of Silence, where the corpse shall be eaten by vultures, so that neither fire nor earth becomes contaminated. Presently in Iran there are graveyards for the deceased believers, but these are only the result of influence from the dominating Islamic society.

Surakhany: Ateshgah fire temple - inside (photo by F.MacLachlan / Travel-Images.com)In Azerbaijan you can visit a Zoroastrian temple near Baku in Surakhany.  This temple is built near the natural vents of flaming gas and has a permanent fire. With the introduction of Islam to the area the local Zoroastrian temples were destroyed. The exiting temple dates from the 18th and 19th centuris and is probably built over the ruins of an older structure. Surakhany remained a popular destination for Indian pilgrims until the revolution. Some of the pilgrims' cells now house a wax museum, intended to introduce the rudiments of Zoroastrianism to the uninitiated. There is another Zoroastrian temple in a remote location near the village of Xinaliq, west of Quba.

Zoroastrianism strongly influenced Shia islam, fostering the Sufi brotherhoods and is still present is some modern day aspects, such as the Novruz celebrations, which are a major holiday in Azerbaijan and several other formerly Zoroastrian countries, and derive directly from the Zoroastrian new year feast (held on March 21).
see also: Surakhany, Novruz, religion, Islam, places, maps, summary
A to Z of Azerbaijan / A dan Z ye Azerbaycan