The doctrines of Zoroastrianism are little known to general public. But as you familiarize yourself with this religion, you find, to your surprise, that it has much in common with other religions, including the Bible. Zoroastrianism, too, indoctrinates with such notions as Creation of the world, Paradise and Hell, the Messiah's Advent, Doomsday and Last Judgement. Actually these notions were to a large extent borrowed by Christianity, Islam and Judaism from Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrianism had already been a mature religion by the time these great religions started to develop. Being one of the oldest world religions, it influenced the mankind more than any other creed. It is impossible to determine either the exact date and place of origin of Zoroastrianism, or the precise dates of life of prophet Zoroaster himself. The scholars presume he lived in the 8th - 7th centuries B.C. Thus, under the decision of UNESCO the world has recently celebrated the 2700th anniversary of the holy Zoroastrian book Avesta. It is known that Zoroaster was married, had four children, lived to see his 77th birthday and was killed by a pagan priest.
In the mid-20th century the well-known Russian archeologist and orientalist S.P.Tolstov studied the ancient monuments dating from the mid-1st millennium B.C. and came to a conclusion that Zoroastrianism had originated in the ancient Khorezm. At present this opinion is shared by many distinguished scholars. Indeed, today in the world there were found 63 Zoroastrian monuments, including those in Iran, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thirty-eight of them are in Uzbekistan, whereas 17 of these monuments are located in Khorezm.
Zoroasterianism is a religion of revelation. It means that the prophet got the truth, or revelation, from God himself. According to the legend Zoroaster got the revelation when he was 30 years old, that is at the age of mature wisdom. Once, at daybreak, during spring-coming festivities, he went to the river to fetch some water. At the bank he saw a creature, which was shining so brightly that the prophet could not see his own shadow on the ground.
This was how Zoroaster for the first time saw the supreme god Akhura Mazda. Several times in the later period he felt the god's presence or heard the god's words calling upon the prophet to serve. The prophet readily obeyed them, saying, 'As long as it is in my power, I will be teaching people to seek after the truth.' Zoroaster worshipped Akhura Mazda as ruler of order, righteousness and justice. The prophet declared him the only ever-existing god who had created all the good, including all other good gods. In opposition to Akhura Mazda stood the treacherous and absolutely malicious Angra-Manyu, another primary god. These two ultimate parties of the universe were conceived of by Zoroaster as inherently opposing each other. So dualism, the acknowledgement of two main elements in the universe - the good and the evil, became the main feature of Zoroastrianism. The idea of the fight between Good and Evil, Truth and Lie, Light and Darkness pierces the whole Zoroastrian doctrine. Zoroaster appealed, 'When, oh, Mazda, will come Peace with the Truth and Power, bringing us good life and pastures? Who will give us rest from the blood-thirsty followers of Lie? Let the robbers and murderers be paid back by a good ruler! Let it give peace to the settled families!'
This plea for fighting against Evil was meant not only for cosmic forces, but also for every human - because any human is a creation of God. To help each of his followers reach moral perfection, the prophet gave them a remarkable moral law: to live in accordance with good thoughts, good words and good actions.
According to Zoroaster, the history of the world consists of several parts. First Akhura Mazda made "spiritual", immaterial world. Then he gave everything a shape, a body. It was good for the living beings, because since then they could fully perceive the world through all the senses. But with the materialization of the spirits there came disorder. Evil Spirit materialized too and attacked the world. He made the sea water salty, created deserts, and even poisoned the holy fire with smoke. In short, he did harm to all the creatures of God. Besides, he was a cause of all the moral vices and weaknesses people suffer from.
Then the divine creatures united and set out to fight against the forces of evil… The time we are living in now is neither absolutely good nor absolutely bad. It is a mixture of good and evil. According to the new revelation to Zoroaster, the mankind and all the good gods are in time destined to defeat evil and to restore the world to its initial perfect state. Good will again be separated from evil, evil will be totally destroyed. And then Akhura Mazda, good gods, and good men and women will live in absolute order and peace.
The worst disaster of the mankind is death. Zoroaster teaches that every soul leaving the body is to be judged by what it did during the lifetime. The trial is to be effected on the justice scales and the verdict will depend on moral achievements of the soul during the lifetime, not on the offerings made. The more good thoughts and actions the soul achieves, the easier it is for this sole to get to Heaven. If the scales show more evil, the soul will get to Hell, where the sinner will live through 'ages of sufferings, gloom, bad food and sorrowful moans'.
But even in Heaven the souls will not enjoy complete bliss until Making of Wonder comes. The Resurrection will be followed by the Last Judgement, when the righteous would be separated from the sinners. All the metals on earth will melt and form a flowing river. All the people will have to walk across this river. 'For the blessed it will be like fresh milk, whereas the bodies of the sinful will have to walk in the molten metal'. The Last Judgement will eliminate all the sinners. The river of the molten metal will flow to hell and totally destroy Angra Manyu and all the evil in the world.
These apocalyptic visions were later borrowed by other religions. But unlike other religions Zoroaster professed that people would live in the familiar and beloved world which would restore its initial perfection, that they would enjoy paradise-like eternal bliss on the earth and not in a distant illusory kingdom of heaven. Zoroastrian custom of praying 5 times a day is also practiced by other religions, Islam in particular. Fivefold daily praying was compulsory for every follower of the Zoroastrianism. It was one of the ways of god- worshipping and a weapon to be used in the fight against evil.
Zoroastrians had rather peculiar religious rites. The neighboring tribes called the Zoroastrians fire-worshippers. The cult of fire - from divine spark in the human soul to the holy fire in the temples - was indeed of a great significance for the followers of Zoroaster. However, they did not burn their deceased, as the common opinion wrongly has it. On the contrary, they left the dead on the flat tops of the "towers of silence" or just at bare deserted places so that birds and animals fed on them. Then they put the remaining bones into special containers called assuaris.
In Zoroastrian temples the priests kept the holy fire by feeding it with the wood of fruit trees. A priest had to always stay by the fire to guard it. The faithful entered the temples in white linen masks covering the nose and mouth - so as to prevent the holy fire from contamination by their 'dirty breath'. If it was believed necessary, a rite of fire purification was performed. During the ritual ceremonies they walked three times round the fire and sang hymns from Avesta.
It is noteworthy that this Zoroastrian rite, though to some extent modified, is still practiced by some Uzbeks. When, right after the wedding ceremony, the bride is brought to her young husband's house, the just-married walk 3 times around the fire, as though purifying themselves. And only after this ritual, the groom takes the bride in his arms and carries her into their chambers.
The social life of the Zoroastrians was full of religious holidays. The most important of them were seven holidays celebrated in honor of seven gods. Taking part in these holidays was a religious duty of the faithful. Navruz (the Persian for 'New Day') was the principal holiday. It is believed that this holiday was established by Zoroaster himself. The holiday was celebrated on the first day of a new year - on vernal equinox. It symbolized the beginning of new life, when evil is defeated and the world is miraculously transformed. That is why this holiday was especially cheerful, with a lot of rites symbolizing renewal and bliss. Today Navruz is still one of the most favourite national holidays in Uzbekistan.
Zoroaster himself was not an outside observer; on the contrary, he was an ardent preacher and an inspired poet. His sermons and songs were later included into the holy Zoroastrian book Avesta. The earliest part of the book consisted of 21 chapters. It was a sort of an encyclopedia of that time.
Born in the ancient Khorezm, Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the three great Iranian empires, which existed for over 13 centuries, up to the 7th century A.D. Zoroastrianism was a dominant religion almost everywhere in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Having invaded the country in 334 B.C., Alexander the Great conquered and destroyed many towns, temples and Zoroastrian shrines. Zoroastrianism suffered irreplaceable loss, as many priests, who vainly tried to defend their sanctuaries, were slaughtered. In those times, when religious texts were passed on orally and the priests acted as "speaking books", a loss of this live communication led to a loss of many ancient texts. It was only in the 6th century A.D. that there was invented an alphabet for Avesta. With the aid of this alphabet the verbal texts were conveyed with great precision, and the problem of recording of the ancient sacred texts was solved. It appeared that Great Avesta consists of 21 nasks ('sections'). The nasks are subdivided into 3 groups, each containing 8 parts. The first group has gats ('hymns') and all the relevant texts. The second group contains scholastic essays. The third one has treatises, instructions for priests and collection of laws and rules.
In the mid-7th century the Sassanid Empire was conquered by the Arabs, and expansion of new religion, Islam, predetermined the fate of Zoroastrianism. The authority and privileges went to the triumphant followers of Islam. A large number of the newly-converted joined the new religion. Their children grew in the new faith, as from childhood they were taught the Arabic prayers instead of the Zoroastrian ones.
For thousand years Zoroastrianism was widely spread in Khorezm, Sogdiana and Bactria. In the lower reaches of the Amu Darya River, three kilometers off the town of Khojeili, there was found a unique archeological complex - Mizdakhan. The complex stands on three hills. In its eastern part there remained a lot of sepulchral chambers for assuaris. The complex is what remained of a town that used to be a trade and crafts center of the Khorezm state. One of the branches of the Great Silk Road ran through this town. Not far from Mizdakhan stands Chilpik - a well-preserved ancient cult Zoroastrian construction. According to the legend it was the place where Zoroaster wrote the first lines of Avesta. The strong walls of the fortresses Ayaz-Kala, Toprak-Kala, Kuy-Krilgan-Kala, Burgun-Kala, Dev-Kala are still the integral part of Khorezmian landscapes. While examining these great monuments, the archeologists found the remains of fire temples, household articles, ceramic objects and sculptures - all relating to Zoroastrianism and Avesta characters. In the interior of Toprak-Kala, for example, there were found fragments of wall paintings and sculptural decor. Some Zoroastrian customs and traditions can be traced in the present life of the local people; for instance, duels of fighting rams, typical Khorezm dance Lyazgi, which is believed to be the fire-worshippers' ritual dance.
On Afrosiab hills, which hide the ruins of the ancient Sogdian capital Marakanda, there can still be found statuettes of the Zoroastrian goddess of fertility - Anakhita. According to the legend, one of the oldest Bukhara mosques Magoki-Attari was built in the 11th century on the foundations of Zoroasterain shrine. The last mention of Zoroaster followers in Samarkand and Bukhara dates back to the period when Islam was spread in the area. After the Mongolian conquest, there probably left no more Zoroastrians here. The Central Asian Jews, or Bukhara Jews, so far have been studied very little, though this very ethnic group has preserved many customs and rites closely connected with Zoroastrianism.
The wall painting of one of the cave temples of the 1st century found in Kara-Tepa (Syr Darya Province, Uzbekistan) depicts Buddha-Mazda, a syncretic character that has the features of both the gods of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, of Akhura Mazda and Buddha. A big shrine surrounded by a circular corridor was recently excavated by Uzbek archeologists at the site of Kampyr-Tepa, identified with the legendary Alexandria-on-Oks. Such a peculiar lay-out was typical of Zoroastrian temples, where processions of priests performed the main Zoroastrian ritual of walking around the sanctuary.
The Sogdians played an important role in propagation of Zoroastrianism throughout Central Asia. The population of the Sogdian colonies, which were founded along the eastern part of the Great Silk Road in the first centuries A.D., practiced Zoroastrianism. This religion was also spread among those who lived in the Bactrian settlements in Eastern Turkestan, where a lot of assuaris have been found. According to ancient Chinese texts the first fire temple in Changang was built in 612. In Northern Hengang, near Jang-Defu, there still stands a sixth-century Zoroastrian commemorative pillar built by a local architect in the image and likeness of a Sogdian one. The pillar depicts priests, wearing masks and standing around the altar in a fire temple.
They say that fire-worshippers still live in some mountain villages in the south of Uzbekistan, which are difficult of access and can be reached only by horse. These Zoroastrians are notable for their confidence in themselves; while overcoming difficulties they count on the qualities that Zoroastrianism has for centuries cultivated in them - on courage, hope for the best, and readiness to do good.