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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism



By Dr Oric Basirov



This paper was given at the first international symposium on " AnatolianAchaemenid Period"  Bandirma, Turkey 15-18 August 1997





The intention of this paper is, firstly, to emphasise The diversity and the eclectic nature of the Achaemenian funerary monuments in western Asia Minor, the majority of which are, by general agreement, identified with burial. Secondly, to examine briefly the apparent incompatibility of these sepulchral buildings with Zoroastrian funerary laws.   And finally to report a number of newly discovered monuments which seem to comply with the requirements of those laws.    



The Achaemenian sepulchral monuments in Asia Minor can be divided into two distinct categories: those of a type attested both here and in Iran, And those found mainly in the West. The first group includes tombs cut into vertical cliff faces (rock tombs) and freestanding mausolea (some of which are also known as platform tombs and Pyramid tombs). Many such monuments in modern Turkey have similar features to the Achaemenian tombs in Iran, and they generally date to a period after the Persian conquest of the West. These factors have naturally prompted the argument that some of the funerary monuments of Asia Minor are influenced by Achaemenian sepulchral art. Some scholars even maintain that many tombs in western Anatolia derive directly from the monuments found in the Achaemenian homeland. A particular example is the world-famous Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, which can be shown to be influenced by the tomb of Cyrus the Great1.   


The second group, i.e., those found mainly in the West, includes ornate tombstones (stelae), burial mounds (tumuli), and certain types of mausoleum, such as the Lycian sarcophagus tombs and pillar tombs. These monuments were current in Asia Minor during the Achaemenian era, but have not been found in the Iranian homeland. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that many of these were adopted from existing funerary traditions.


Persian funerary practices, it seems, were highly eclectic. Several alien customs, though not cremation, were adopted in the newly conquered territories. Mound burials with tomb chambers, for example, seem to have been taken from the Phrygians and Lydians2. The specific type of the grave stelae used in western satrapies may have also derived ultimately from those two cultures. Moreover, some elements of Ionian and Attic sepulchral iconography were liberally borrowed, and are present in some of the more elaborate reliefs of the Persian period.


Nonetheless, in spite of such eclecticism, Persian monuments are normally quite distinct from those of other cultures. Many exhibit strong Iranian influence in their architectural features and iconography. This is evident, for example, in their apparent preference for using the more Iranian burial cists, rather than following the Greek custom of placing coffins on a kline.


Many types of monument found in western satrapies, however, such as funerary stelae, sarcophagus tombs, and tumuli, in spite of their strong Persian elements, are not attested in the Iranian homeland. Nor do they seem to have greatly influenced the development of later funerary vessels and buildings. Even the freestanding mausoleums, which are regarded by many as the gift of the Achaemenians to the funerary tradition of the West, do not appear again in Iran after that era. The majority of the Persian-period sepulchral monuments in western Asia Minor, therefore, can only be said to depict the specific Achaemenian funerary art of the western satrapies, and as such, represent a cul-de-sac in the evolution of the Iranian funerary tradition.


This assumption, however, needs to be qualified. Some Iranian monuments in the West are decorated with Zoroastrian iconography, thus providing the only archaeological evidence that Zoroastrianism played a role in some of the funerary rituals carried out in western Asia Minor.




It is generally believed that Zoroastrianism introduced to western Iran a mandatory funerary ritual which involved the initial exposure of the body, and the secondary disposal of the bones. However, long after the advent of the eastern faith, a significant number of western Iranians apparently continued with their traditional practice of primary burial. This is evidenced, inter alia, by Achaemenian sepulchral monuments, both at home and in the western satrapies, which are identified as tombs rather than ossuaries. In fact such is the weight of the evidence, that without prior knowledge of the religious laws, the archaeological data alone might have led one to assume that burial was the only method of the disposal of the dead under the Achaemenian and the Parthian Empires. This apparent tolerance of primary burial in a supposedly Zoroastrian society invites further investigation of the funerary practices of the time.


The laws of the Vendidad only allow the exposure of the body and forbid burial except on a strictly temporary basis3. Moreover these laws were composed and transmitted orally in Avestan in eastern Iran long before western Iran became the new centre of the Zoroastrian religion. Avestan was a different language from any vernacular spoken in the West, and the western clergy, who also transmitted these laws orally in Avestan, do not seem to have had the linguistic ability to make material alterations to the holy texts; there was therefore, no question of adjusting the text to current practice. The funerary laws of the Vendidad, therefore, may have clashed from the outset with the traditional western practices of embalming and primary burial.


This cultural discord is in evidence in the historical records dealing with the Iranian funerary customs until the beginning of Sasanian times. The contemporary Greek accounts of the Achaemenian era give the impression that Iranian funerary rituals were hardly compatible with the laws of the Vendidad4. The Persians, on the other hand, seem to have maintained most of their ancient funerary customs, which closely resembled those of the other western Iranian peoples such as the Scythians.


The classical writers of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, especially the five historians of Alexander, confirm contemporary accounts of Persian funerary practices in Achaemenian times. However, many have also described, in varying degrees of detail, certain aspects of Zoroastrian funerary rites practised during that period5. Some of these accounts, e.g., those given by Strabo, can be reconciled with the laws of the Vendidad. Such descriptions suggest that burial was not the only funerary custom observed in the Achaemenian period, and that exposure was also practised at least by some devout Zoroastrians.


Nonetheless, these sources confirm the earlier reports that in Achaemenian times, burial was commonly practised both by the civilians and the army6. They also verify the archaeological evidence, which suggests the observance of this custom by the imperial family7. The study of these royal tombs presents a number of conflicting problems. These monuments were built for the members of a supposedly Zoroastrian8 imperial family. They seem, however, to be tombs, as their burial cists are invariably too large to justify their use as ossuaries.


This has lead a number of modern scholars to call into question the faith of the emperors. In fact some consider the tombs to represent the violation of the religious laws by the kings, and a conclusive argument against their Zoroastrianism. Such views cannot be reconciled with the fact that many royal tombs in Naqsh-i Rustam, for example, display Zoroastrian reliefs, and bear inscriptions in which the emperors repeatedly declare their piety9. Moreover, burial seems to have been also practised by the unquestionably Zoroastrian Sasanian emperors.


Some modern scholars have sought to find justification for these tombs in the contexts of the laws of the Vendidad. It is argued that, as the dead were first covered in wax, then sealed off in metal coffins, and finally placed in elevated tombs or stone cists, the corpse would not pollute the sacred elements10. Other scholars have regarded the tombs as representing a special concession to the members of the royal family, as "the person of monarch was too exalted to defile the sacred elements"11. These views can be challenged on straightforward theological grounds. Not only is burial incompatible with the ritual of "beholding the sun"12, but isolating an embalmed corpse in a sealed coffin would indicate an intention to preserve the flesh in perpetuity.


Significantly, the apparent violation of the laws of the Vendidad does not seem to have been noticed by the many classical writers who have given accounts of the Iranian funerary rituals. Their descriptions of exposure and burial are often combined in the same work without the writer apparently perceiving any inconsistency in Iranian funerary practices. One explanation of this may be that the early classical writers did not comprehend the concept of a compulsory and uniform funerary ritual. Nor were they familiar with any such requirement being dictated by a religion, and upheld by a powerful clergy. It may not be a coincidence that it was not until the sixth century A.D., and during the domination of a particularly hostile Christian power in Constantinople, that the incompatibility of the ancient Iranian tombs and the rite of exposure was first remarked on13.


Early Zoroastrianism appears to have possessed a degree of tolerance in funerary matters which was evidently still present in the Achaemenian and Parthian times. This attitude not only separates the earlier period of that faith from its later stage, but is also difficult to grasp within the funerary laws of the three religions we are familiar with in the West14. However, it becomes more comprehensible if the comparison is made with some eastern faiths15 or with the classical West. Ancient Greeks and Indians, for example, practised both cremation and burial16.


An example of the Achaemenian tolerance in funerary matters is clearly shown by Arrian's17 and Strabo's18 accounts of the tomb of Cyrus the Great. It appears that the Zoroastrian clergy felt free to accept the traditional practice of royal burial, to allow the preservation of corrupt flesh by embalming, and to live near and guard a tomb, all of which were implicitly or expressly forbidden by the laws of the religion they served and upheld.


It seems that Achaemenian funerary rites were not based solely on the laws of the Vendidad. There were probably divergent customary perceptions as to the proper method of disposal of the dead. These may have been influenced by special circumstances, and personal preferences, as well as by the laws of the Vendidad.




The Achaemenian sepulchral monuments in western Asia Minor do not provide adequate evidence for the suggestion that the funerary rituals decreed by the laws of the Vendidad were in fact observed. This may explain why even the discovery of the famous Limyra bilingual inscription19 in the last century, and the first attestation of the Zoroastrian word, astâdân, on an Achaemenian funerary monument, did not lead to the re-assessment of any other tombs found in western Asia Minor as ossuaries20.


However, a number of recently discovered monuments in that part of the Persian Empire bear certain features which seem at least compatible with a Zoroastrian funerary tradition. Some of these can be interpreted as ossuaries, exposure platforms, and fire bowls21.


Huff published22 in 1994 details of a cluster of monuments from the acropolis of Limyra. These show small23 square basins, many of which appear to have had lids, which look remarkably like the bone receptacles of Pars. They also show round depressions, carved near smooth rock platforms, which could be identified with Stronach's fire bowls.


Such Zoroastrian-type funerary structures are also attested in three other sites: Gelenbe, in western Lydia; Teke Eseri, near Amyzon, in northern Caria, and Incir Adasi near Phocaia.   




The two clusters of rocky outcrops near Gelenbe24, were photographed by Prof. Bakir-Akbašolu about five years ago. They show unmistakable signs of having been used for a funerary ritual similar to that advocated by the laws of the Vendidad. These two sites possess staircases, platforms, round depressions, square basins, oblong troughs, and niches which look like ossuaries.


A rock tomb is particularly interesting. It has a sunken cist, which like those of Qizqapan in Iraq, tapers inwards. This, however, is not achieved by sloping of the walls, but by a series of concentric steps. Moreover, it is equipped with a sunken rim which could have accommodated a slab to enable it to be closed flush with the floor of the tomb chamber. The closed cist is not large enough to hold a fully stretched adult corpse. Hence, as in Qizqapan, it may have been intended for the secondary burial of the disarticulated bones.


The tomb chamber has an alcove at the southern end, which is decorated with three well-carved niches and two fire bowls. The alcove is blackened with soot and smoke, and the fire bowls still contain black ash. These marks do not seem to have been made relatively recently. The tomb's narrow entrance would not allow the smoke of a large fire to scape. It is reasonable to assume that the soot represents an ancient ritualistic fire.




Many sepulchral structures on a remote Achaemenian-period watchtower near Amyzon look remarkably like the ancient funerary monuments of Pârs. This extensive and well-preserved building is still hardly known to the learned world25. The ruins of Amyzon, nearby, with its well-known temple of Artemis/Anaitis, has strong Iranian associations26. The site accommodates several exposure platforms, stone troughs, and cists, which once closed do not appear to be large enough for a fully articulated adult corps.




In a recent visit to this island near Phocaia, Mr. Gürcan Polat photographed a number of funerary monuments, which again look very much like the stone troughs and exposure platforms found in the Achaemenian homeland of Pars. Several of these are apparently mutilated by secondary use.




Naturally, these few monuments cannot provide adequate proof for the observance of the funerary rituals enjoined by the laws of the Vendidad. Nonetheless, in view of the evidence for the presence of large numbers of Iranians, including clergy, in Asia Minor, it would seem probable that the rite of exposure was observed there by some Zoroastrians. However, it seems likely that, cut off from home, and living under the jurisdiction of a politically, and later also religiously hostile power, the Zoroastrian minority was ultimately absorbed into the rest of the population.






1) Nylander (1970), p.93.

2) Both the Asiatic and western Scythians practised mound burial [Ghirshman (1939), pp.26-8, & Pls.VII, VIII; Jettmar (1967), pp. 64-5, & Figs.3-8]. Ghirshman's (ibid) similar assertion about the Medes does not seem tenable. Achaemenian tumuli in Asia Minor, however, are clearly based on the Phrygian and Lydian examples.

3) Vd. V.10-14 & VIII.4-10, with severe penalties for the violation of the laws III.36-9.

4) Herodotus' description of the rite of exposure (I.140) is very brief; it seems that only the magi and possibly a few secular Iranians practised this ritual.

5) Cicero, Disputationes tusculanae,I.45.108; Strabo, Geography, XV.i.62 and XV.iii.14&16&18&20; Dioscorides, Sepulchral Epigram, No. 162, W.R.Paton The Greek Anthology II, Book VII, Loeb (1917); Justin, XLI.3.5.

6) Herodotus, ibid; VII.24; IX.84.

7) Diodorus, XVII.71.7-8.

8) For a relatively recent work arguing that the Achaemenians were Zoroastrian see Boyce (1988).

9) e.g., the two long inscriptions carved on the tomb of Darius the Great; the most frequently revered deity in these, and in virtually all other important Achaemenian inscriptions, is the Avestan god, Ahura Mazda; Kent (1953), DN(a&b), pp.109,137-40.

10) Vanden Berghe (1968), p.29; Boyce, HZII (1982), pp.56-7.

11) Schmidt, Persepolis III (1971), p.84.

12) Vd. VII.45-6.

13) Agathias, II.23.9&10.

14) In Judaism, Eastern Christianity, and Islam there is no alternative to burial; cremation has only been allowed in the West relatively recently; in Britain, for example, it was not until 1884 that a court first held that cremation was a legal procedure (R. v. Price [1884] XII Q.B.D. 247); the practice was subsequently regulated by The Cremation Act 1902 & later legislation. Pope John XXIII allowed cremation in the 1960s.

15) In Buddhism, burial and exposure are practised as well as the traditional cremation {interment: Japan & China; exposure: modern Tibet; Mongolia up to the 1950s [Bawden (1977), p.30]; and 19th century Siam [Casartelli (1890), p.152, n.2]}.

16) Bendann (1930), p.55.

17) Alexandri Anabasis, VI.29.

18) Geography, XV.iii.7-8.

19) Fellows (1841), pp.209, 468, & Pl.36(1); Darmesteter (1888), pp.508-10; Hanson (1968), pp.5-8; Shahbazi (1975), pp.111-24, 134; Boyce (1982), pp.210-11; Donner & Röllig (1973), No.262.

20) Several tombs in Greater Media, however, have been reassessed as such following the discovery of this inscription. These are: Qizqapan, Edmonds (1934), pp.183-89; von Gall (1988), pp.557-80; Boyce & Grenet (1991), pp.101-5. Kur u Kiç, Edmonds, op. cit., pp.190-1; von Gall, op. cit., pp.580-2; Boyce & grenet, op. cit., p.105. Fakhrika, Huff (1971); Boyce & Grenet, op. cit., pp.82-4.

21) For "fire bowls" see Stronach (1966), pp.224-6; idem (1978), Pl.185(f); Cahill (1988), p.494 & n.32.

22) Huff (1994), pp.205-9, & Taf.61(1 & 2).

23) Not more than 50 cm sq, and 22 cm deep.

24) They are on either side of the main road from Gelenbe to Akhisar (Thyateira). The one on the left of the main road is called Astepe, and the one on the right, Karamanli. These sites were examined in August 1995 (by Prof. Bakir-AkbaÕolu and myself), and in May 1997 (by Mr. Gürcan Polat & myself).

25) See Marchese (1992), pp.47-51. The site was first visited by the present author in 1992, and later examined, together with Mr. Gürcan Polat, in 1996 and 1997.

26) The site of Amyzon has been known for 200 years; however, many visiting scholars, especially Robert who, excavated it in 1948 and 1949, evidently failed to notice the funerary structures nearby. See Robert (1953), pp. 410-411; Boyce & Grenet (1991), pp.207-8.





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Arrian, Alexandri Anabasis, (trans. P.A.Brunt) Loeb, (1976).

Bawden, C.R., A note on the Mongolian Burial Ritual, "Studia Orientalia", 74, Helsinki (1977), pp.25-35.

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                    Loeb, (1963).

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                       Inschriften II, Wiesbaden (1973).

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               192, & Pls.XXIII-XXVII, & Figs.1-7.

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              Asia Minor, "Bulletin of the American School of

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          XXI (1971), pp.161-171, & Taf.50-53, & Abb.1-7.

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         (1994), pp.295-9 & Taf.61.

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             (1992) pp.47-51.

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              19 (1988) pp.557-582, & Taf.22-31, & Abb.1-8.s.

              1-16, & Pls.I-XII.    



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