A Diamond in the Desert
The Iranian desert city of Yazd has many things which mark it out as special. It's said to be the second oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and since the organisation saying that is UNESCO, I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the claim. It's a high altitude desert with amazingly creative ways of stretching the little water it has far beyond what most could manage. But for me the thing which makes the city really fascinating is its status as the heartland of the ancient Zoroastrian religion. If you thought Iran was an exclusively Muslim land, then think again. They're more religiously tolerant than most people realise though not if you're of the Bahai faith - they don't like the Bahais at all.
Thus spake Zarathustra
Zoroastrians believe that fire is pure and sacred and must be preserved and protected along with water. The place where Zorastrians go to worship is called the Fire Temple or Atashkadeh which means literally the 'House of Fire'. There are nearly 20 fire temples in Yazd but the one on Atashkadeh Alley, off Kashani Street is most popular with tour groups. I've read that this isn't entirely typical of an Atashkadeh because it's less of an active temple and more of a tourist attraction but it's a good place to get an introduction to the religion and its iconography.
Zoroastrianism was the religion of the great Persian emperors including Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great and was the main religion in Iran/Persia until the rise of Islam. It is one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions and has a god called Ahura Mazda who created the world and everything in it and a prophet called Zoroaster or Zarathustra (probably more widely known for the theme music to 2001: A Space Odyssey which is Richard Strauss's 'Thus Spake Zarathustra). The Zoroastrian religion has been around for about 3500-4000 years but despite its longevity and great history, today there are believed to be only a quarter of a million worshipers world wide and most of these are either in Iran or India (where they are known as Parsis).
Death and Fire
We had just had a fascinating visit to the Towers of Silence on the outskirts of the city where the bodies of the dead are laid out to be eaten by the birds before the bones are buried in concrete lined tombs. When both fire and earth are sacred, you've got to improvise a bit. Leaving the Towers behind we headed to the Fire Temple to round off an intense morning of Zoroastrian influence. We parked up at the end of the street and walked into the grounds of the Fire Temple where our guide took us through some of the tenets of the religion and explained to us the history of the temple. We were told that the building dated only back to 1934 but the flame inside had been kept constantly lit since 470 AD. In front of the temple there's a pretty courtyard with a large pool. Both fire and water are used for ritual because of their purity. Standing in front of the temple by the pool we learned about the symbolism of the image of Ahura Mazda as represented above the entrance to the temple.