Yazd, a small city in central Iran, is an important centre for the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrians were in Iran at least 2500 years ago – long before Islam arrived. The religion pre-dates Judaism and Christianity too, and is said by some to have been a sort of pre-cursor to them; like Jews, Christians and Muslims, Zoroastrians believe in just one God.
The religion (in my very basic understanding of it) is built around the concept of balance in the universe; if something bad happens to you, then it is because something good is happening to someone deserving, somewhere else in the world. Zoroastrian churches are called ‘fire temples’, because each temple has an eternal flame burning inside; it’s a symbol of purity, although it’s important to note that Zoroastrians don’t worship the flame itself. These days many Zoroastrians have left Iran and now live in Pakistan, India, Britain and Australia.
On the outskirts of Yazd are the striking Zoroastrian “Towers of Silence”. This is where Zoroastrians go when they die. As part of their “natural balance” of things, Zoroastrians refuse to be buried as it contaminates the earth. They won’t be cremated either, as this contaminates the air. Instead, the corpses are left on the sky-scraping roofs of these towers to be cleaned off by eagles. It is believed that this is the best way to contribute to the balance.
These days, and in developed countries, most Zoroastrians are buried in concrete-lined graves to prevent ‘contamination’. The “Towers of Silence” are still there however; they are two squat, circular, mud-brick buildings which emerge from of two hilltops. Though not especially attractive, they are eerily intriguing in their lonely isolation.
Yazd is also home to the best preserved ‘old city’ in Iran. The mud brick village, with its winding alleyways and domes poking out of the deserted nothingness is still inhabited, and is supposed to be one of the oldest towns on the planet.
In the centre of the old city are the two towering minarets of the Jameh (Friday, or Central) Mosque. On some days locals congregate here for a traditional matchmaking ceremony; girls with padlocks on their veils stand at the top of the temple and throw the key into the courtyard below, where there are scores of young men. The men catch the keys, the women return to ground level, and if the men match the key to the right lock it is believed that the couple will marry. I’m told, in reality, most couples end up on an inconsequential date in a local cafe instead!