The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
(CAIS) -- Dressed in white to symbolize purity, a
priest recited from the Zoroastrian holy book at a shrine as members of this
ancient pre-Islamic religion marked what they see as one of the most bitter
events in Iran's history: the 7th century Arab conquest of Persia.
The Arab invasion changed history for
Persia, the ancient name for non-Arab Iran: Islam was imposed as the new
religion, replacing Zoroastrianism, whose followers were dispersed.
Thousands of Zoroastrians — from
Iran's small remaining community and from India, the United States and other
countries — gathered at this mountain shrine this week for five days of
ceremonies that ended Monday, commemorating the event.
Priest Goshtasb Belivani addressed the
gathering, standing at the tall bronze doors of the shrine, built into a
cliff-side cave where a heroine of the faith, Nikbanou, is said to have fled
from the Arab assault.
"We have all gathered at this
sacred place to pray Ahura Mazda," he said, using the Zoroastrians' name
for God. "We are also here to remember Nikbanou and what happened to our
ancestors by the Arab invaders."
Belivani spoke to the crowd in modern Farsi, before reciting the verses from the
Avesta, the faith's holy book, in an ancient version of the language.
According to legend, Nikbanou, the
youngest daughter of the last king of the Persian empire, took shelter in the
mountain and prayed to Ahura Mazda for help from the attackers. Miraculously,
the mountain opened up and gave her protection.
Near the shrine, a slowly dripping
spring emerges from the mountain, giving the site its name — "Chak Chak"
means "drip drip" in Persian. The legend says the spring is the
mountain shedding tears in remembrance of Nikbanou. An immense tree stands
nearby, said to have grown from Nikbanou's cane.
The legends regretting the invasion that
brought Islam to this country highlight the unusual status of Zoroastrians in
today's Iran — ruled by an Islamic government headed by clerics.
Since coming to power in the 1979
revolution, the Islamic Republic has tolerated the sect, giving it official
status and guaranteeing a Zoroastrian seat in parliament. It also allows its
members to practice their rites. For example, while the law forbids mixed
dancing, Zoroastrian men and women are permitted to dance together and play
music as part of their worship in special places like temples or covered
Still, the Zoroastrian community's
numbers have dwindled to around 50,000, down from 300,000 in the 1970s, with
many emigrating to the U.S.
Human rights reports say Zoroastrians
— like members of Iran's small Jewish and Christian minorities — suffer some
discrimination, kept out of some jobs. But many Zoroastrians left simply because
of the general restrictions on all Iranian society imposed by the Islamic
Still, Zoroastrian traditions remain
embedded in Iran, where the population of 70 million — overwhelmingly Shiite
Muslim — take deep pride in their pre-Islamic civilization.
Every year, Iranians of all religions
mark Chahar-Shanbe Suri, or the Wednesday feast, part of celebrations for the
Persian New Year, in March. During the rites, Iranians light bonfires in the
streets and jump over them and dance, hoping to put failures behind them — and
the rite has persisted despite attempts by the ruling clerics to discourage it
"Zoroastrians are not a big
population in Iran but our rituals remain widely respected not only in Iran but
other parts of the world," said chief Zoroastrian priest Ardeshir
At Chak Chak — also known by the name
Pir-e Sabz, 550 kilometers southeast of the capital Tehran — the pilgrims
crowded into pavilions set up at the base of the mountain, below the shrine in
Families sitting on rugs had picnics,
while children danced and their parents attended prayers in the shrine.
"For many Zoroastrians, summer
begins with a pilgrimage to Pir-e-Sabz," said Pedram Soroushpour.
"This event is a symbol of Zoroastrians remaining loyal to their manners
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