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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Zoroaster's Time & Place


By Dr. Oric Basirov

Paper I - 20 October 1998


In the absence of a valid historical and archaeological evidence we must consider Zoroaster a prehistorical man of an unknown antiquity. Nor is it possible to pinpoint where exactly he came from and the land where he first preached his truly extra ordinary faith. Nonetheless the first step in studying this "earliest of the great prophets" is to ascertain his origins, both geographically and chronologically. The available evidence, however, is either grossly misleading, or clearly inadequate. We have two distinct bodies of evidence, which can be classified as "the old" and "the new". The former is based on the classical, Byzantine, and non-Gathic Zoroastrian literature, and the latter on the recent archaeological excavations and the Gathas.


Until the recent years, any knowledge of Zoroaster in the West came solely from the classical and Christian writers of the antiquity (See 1, Fox & Pemberton, "Greek and Latin Sources For Zoroastrianism", "The Journal of the K.R. Cama Oriental Institute", 14, 1929, 2; A. de Jong, "Traditions of the Magi, Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature", Utrecht, 1996). The Zoroastrian community and the Iranian scholars, on the other hand, relied mainly on the Young Avestan, Pahlavi and Islamic literature (1: Boyce, M, "Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism", Manchester University Press, 1984; 2: Boyce & grenet, "A History of Zoroastrianism, Volume Three", Brill, 1991, pp.71ff; 3: RJH. Gottheil, " References to Zoroaster in Syriac and Arabic literature", "Classical studies in honour of H. Drisler, N.Y. London, 1894, pp.24-51. 4), C.E. Bosworth, "Encyclopaedia Iranica, III" p.225); the last, although written mainly in Arabic, was composed almost exclusively by Muslim Persians.

We now know that the old body of evidence is based more on legend than fact. Nonetheless, their significance cannot be underrated because the majority of the modern Zoroastrians still believe in the legendary origins of their great prophet.

1) Western Sources
Early western knowledge of the great Iranian prophet is marred by a genuine lack of information about his origins. It appears that even the Medes and the Achaemenians did not have a clear idea about this, probably because they were so removed from the time and the provenance of Zoroaster.

The earliest known Greek source on Zoroaster is Xanthus of Lydia who wrote, before Herodotus, in the early 5th century BC. The surviving short passage states that the prophet "a long time ago" laid down the rules against defiling fire (Müller, C., "Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum" I, Paris, 1885, Frag. 19, p.42). The school of Plato towards the end of the Achaemenian period, however, gives Zoroaster the fantastic date of "5000 years before the Trojan War, i.e., circa 6200 BC (Jaeger, W., "Aristotle, Fundamentals of the History of his Development", Oxford, 1948, pp.132-6). A more modest date was suggested during the Hellenistic period; this was "258 years before Alexander", i.e., 258 years before 312 BC, the beginning of the first absolute dating system established by the Seleucid dynasty in Persia. This date of 570 BC appears to have been based on a late 4th century BC statement by Heraclides of Pontus that Pythagoras had studied with Zoroaster in Babylon (Kingsley, P., "The Greek Origin of the sixth-Century dating of Zoroaster", "Bulletin of SOAS" LIII, 1990, pp.245-65). This historically worthless date was unfortunately adopted by the Sasanians, and there are still many scholars in the West who accept it, partly because it conveniently places Judaism before Zoroaster.

Also in the Hellenistic times, Zoroaster was considered as a native of Babylon (Bidez, J., et Cumont, F., "Les mages hellénisés" Paris, 1973, vol.I, p.36). This was because the Greeks regarded the Iranian prophet as a great teacher of astronomy and magic which they associated both with the native priests of Babylon and with the large number of the magi who lived there. Later, in Roman times, (but still influenced by the Hellenistic thoughts) the priests of the great shrine of Atargatis at Mabug (Hieropolis), in northern Syria, identified one of their temple statues as that of Zoroaster, and recognised him as a native of their city (op. cit., vol.I, p.39, vo.lII, pp.94-5).

2) Iranian Sources
As with western sources, the Iranian knowledge of the prophet is also limited by a genuine lack of information. It can be safely assumed that the Medes and the Achaemenians placed him somewhere in eastern Iran, and in remote antiquity. Moreover, it is known that the Medean City of Raga (modern Ray, near Tehran) was regarded by these two Iranian dynasties as a holy place. This is because Raga seems to have been the first western stronghold of the new faith when it started to spread from the East.

Zoroaster, according to the Avesta, belonged to a people called "Airyas" who lived in a land called "Airyana vaejah". The fact that the Achaemenians, Indians, and probably even some Europeans also called themselves "Aryans" indicates that this word may have been an old native designation for the racial group now called Indo-European, Indo-Germanic, European, Caucasian, or simply, White.

The "Airyana Vaejah" (Middle Persian "Eranvez", Modern Persian "Iranvezh") is placed In the Avesta in eastern Iran, somewhere between Sogdia and Khwarezmia. After the Macedonian conquest of the Achaemenian Empire, several other places, both in eastern and western Iran, also associated themselves with the prophet. Noteworthy amongst these are Seistan, Bactria (modern Balkh), khorasan, and especially Raga (modern Ray), where the highest mountain range in Iran was conveniently named after the Avestan "Hara Berezaiti (modern Alburz). However, the most audacious claim came from a little corner of the Greater Media known since the Hellenistic times as Lesser Media, Media Atropatene, and later Atropatakan, and still later, Azarbaijan. This hitherto little known part of the empire claimed the entire Holy Land for herself.

It is believed that after the Macedonian destruction of the holy city of Raga, and rebuilding it as Europos, the holy fire of Adur Gushnasp was taken to Ganzak near Lake Urumia, in modern Azerbaijan. This was then the only part of the former Achaemenian Empire still ruled by a Zoroastrian dynasty which was founded by the Persian satrap, Atropates, who gave his name to the province (Chaumont, M.L., "Encyclopaedia Iranica" III, pp.17-18; Boyce, M., "History of Zoroastrianism" III, p.69). The presence of the holy fire, and the fact that the tradition always placed "Airyana Vaejah" somewhere in the North, made Azerbaijan a likely candidate for the legendary Iranian Holy Land. This was later recorded during the Sasanian times in the "khwaday Namag", "Book of Kings", their great work of religious and political propaganda. This later acted as the main source for many Islamic writers including Ferdowsi. Many Zoroastrians still steadfastly cling to the Azarbaijan legend of the origin of the prophet. This and the Greek legend mentioned earlier remained unchallenged until the beginning of the present century.

Any reliable information about the time and the provenance of the prophet is based principally on his own words which make up parts of the Avesta, and on some data produced by Russian archaeologists. The available evidence, however, would only define an approximate time and space within which Zoroaster is likely to have lived and preached. His holy words, the Gathas, as well as the rest of the Avesta belong to one of the Old Eastern Iranian languages. These languages are thousands of years in antiquity and much older than the oldest known Western Iranian language, the Old Persian, that is to say the language of the Achaemenians. Moreover, these two branches of the Iranian languages are so different in character, as to be mutually incomprehensible [English/German]. Old Eastern Iranian languages were spoken by proto-Iranian peoples who lived in a vast area from the Ural Mountains and modern Afghanistan to the heart of Siberia and western China (western Cimmerians, Sarmatians, Scythians (Saka), Massagetae, and Alans]. We have, therefore, thousands of years as well as thousands of miles within which to search for the time and the homeland of the great Iranian prophet.

It is difficult to date the Gathic Avestan; on the other hand it closely resembles the Rigveda, which is fairly generally accepted to have begun to take shape about 1800 BC

The Gathic texts, moreover, describe a pastoral society which seems to correspond with the evidence produced by Soviet archaeologists from the northeastern parts of Central Asia. Some personal names, such as Hvogva, Vishtaspa, and Zarathushtra denote settled agrarian people owning domesticated cows, horses and camels. We know these animals were long domesticated in Central Asia. The Avesta also talks about chariots and chariot races. The earliest known such vehicle is attested in the steppes around 1600 BC It is also known that chariots encouraged nomadism in that part of the world leading to a reduction in the number of cows and to a corresponding increase in the number of horses.

It is reasonable to assume that the great Indo-Iranian migration to the south was encouraged by the increasing use of chariots, and that prior to this event, the Zoroastrian "Airyana Vaejah" was a settled agricultural community as described in the Avesta. The area of the Central Asia which closely resembles this Iranian Holy Land is located in northeastern part of modern Kazakhstan, a land full of rivers, lakes and pastures. Here, Soviet archaeologists have unearthed a material culture known as Andronovo, which is not that different from the description of the "Airyana Vaijah". It seems that the "Airyas" of the Gathas lived a peaceful agricultural life in this land, where Zoroaster was born and first preached (It is difficult to form a new faith while in move; a great deal of stability is required to form a new religion. The formation of Zoroastrianism must therefore have taken place during a period of at least 100 years of peace). It is also conceivable that during his lifetime the chariot-riding "pasture-destroyers" and "cattle- raiders" first appeared and dramatically changed the face of the steppes; these two terms are often used in the Avesta. These events probably led to the southward migration of some Iranians, who later became the ancestors of the historical Medes and Achaemenians.

Two indisputable facts separate the historic western Iranians from their pre-historic eastern ancestors. First they spoke a different language, and secondly they did not bring the eastern faith with them. In fact, as well as speaking a different language, they also worshipped the old pre-Zoroastrian gods. These two facts must separate them from the Zoroastrian East by a considerable time and space gap. The earliest mention of the Medes in Assyrian annals is 800 BC It can be safely assumed that the gap prior to this date should be measured in centuries if not in a whole millennium.

This simple deduction is unfortunately still rejected by a powerful minority of modern scholars. However, the learned world has now unanimously endorsed the eastern origin of the great Iranian prophet.




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