Feature: Zoroastrianism


Fire Temple located in Baku, Azerbaijan. Built ca. 17th century CE.


Zoroastrianism was the most influential religion in shaping Ancient Iran's culture. Grounded in the Avesta, the corpus of teachings attributed to the prophet Zoroaster, it was the first documented religion to posit an eternal battle between good and evil. In Zoroastrian tradition, Ahura Mazda, also known as Ohrmazd, is the supreme deity, ultimate creator, and source of goodness. His eternal nemesis is Angra Mainyu, the purveyor of death and impurity, also known as Ahriman. Humanity is implicated in this cosmic battle, and the actions of individual people tip the scales in one direction or another. When the Achaemenids came to power in the 6th century BC, they invoked Zoroastrian theology and imagery as part of their mandate, suggesting the religion's growing popularity on the Iranian plateau. 

The magi, an ancient Iranian priestly class that predated the rise of the Achaemenids, became the primary officiants of Zoroastrian ritual. Achaemenid seals show scenes of magi holding the barsom, the sacred bundle of twigs mentioned in the Avesta, and offering prayers at fire altars. The fall of the Achaemenids, however, disupted royal patronage of Zoroastrianism. Alexander of Macedon's armies brought with them Greek traditions of polytheism that both competed and sometimes merged with Zoroastrianism. In the Seleucid period, it was not uncommon to see such figures as Zeus, Heracles, or Artemis equated or blended with Zoroastrian gods. 


Ahura Mazda (right) hands the ring of rulership to King Ardashir I (r. 224-240 CE), Naqsh-e-Rustam

Zoroastrianism regained some popularity under the Parthians, who revived Iranian traditions that had been neglected under the Seleucids. The Greek writer Isidore of Charax (d. 1st century CE) reports that the founder of the Arsacid dynasty, Arsaces I, was coronated at the city of Nisa, where an eternal flame was kept. It was the rise of the Sasanian Empire in the 3rd century CE, however, that saw Zoroastrianism reach its peak of political influence. The Sasanian government, while tolerant of other religions, openly favored Zoroastrianism and incorporated its imagery into its imperial iconography. The magi also assumed more prominent administrative roles - a development attested not only in Middle Persian seals and law, but also in Christian, Jewish, and Manichaean polemics.

The Islamic conquest of the Sasanian Empire in 651 undercut the political standing of Zoroastrianism and led to its eclipse as the leading religion of the Iranian world. Under early Islamic rule, Zoroastrianism gradually retreated to geographically marginal areas, including the highlands of northern Iran and the region of Yazd in Central Iran. In the 'Abbasid period, a large group of migrants relocated to northwest India, and their descendants, the modern Parsi community, have played an instrumental role in preserving Zoroastrian ritual, culture, and scholarship.

Zoroastrian Structures

Hover over the annotations on the images below to learn more about these unique Zoroastrian structures. 

Fire temple, chahar taqi architectural style. Nisar, Iran.

Pedestal fire temple on reverse of Bahram I (r. 271 - 274 CE) coin

Dakhma ("Tower of Silence") near Yazd, Iran