Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Time & Place
Dr. Oric Basirov
I - 20
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.
THE OLD BODY OF EVIDENCE
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
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.,
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.
THE NEW BODY OF EVIDENCE
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
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.
(1-6) MARY BOYCE
1,2,3) A HISTORY OF ZOROASTRIANISM I, II, III.
4) TEXTUAL SOURCES FOR THE STUDY OF ZOROASTRIANISM
5) ZOROASTRIANS, THEIR BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
6) ZOROASTRIANISM, ITS ANTIQUITY AND CONSTANT VIGOUR
7) DUCHESNE-GILLEMIN, J., RELIGION OF ANCIENT IRAN
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies