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Fire Temple (Yazd, Iran)

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Fire Temple in Yazd, Iran - Centre of worship of the minority Iranian Zoroastrian faith.

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      26.08.2011 18:59
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      The best chance you'll get to visit a fire temple in Iran

      ~A Diamond in the Desert~

      The Iranian desert city of Yazd has many things which mark it out as special. It's said to be the second oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and since the organisation saying that is UNESCO, I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the claim. It's a high altitude desert with amazingly creative ways of stretching the little water it has far beyond what most could manage. But for me the thing which makes the city really fascinating is its status as the heartland of the ancient Zoroastrian religion. If you thought Iran was an exclusively Muslim land, then think again. They're more religiously tolerant than most people realise though not if you're of the Bahai faith - they don't like the Bahais at all.

      ~Thus spake Zarathustra~

      Zoroastrians believe that fire is pure and sacred and must be preserved and protected along with water. The place where Zorastrians go to worship is called the Fire Temple or Atashkadeh which means literally the 'House of Fire'. There are nearly 20 fire temples in Yazd but the one on Atashkadeh Alley, off Kashani Street is most popular with tour groups. I've read that this isn't entirely typical of an Atashkadeh because it's less of an active temple and more of a tourist attraction but it's a good place to get an introduction to the religion and its iconography.

      Zoroastrianism was the religion of the great Persian emperors including Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great and was the main religion in Iran/Persia until the rise of Islam. It is one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions and has a god called Ahura Mazda who created the world and everything in it and a prophet called Zoroaster or Zarathustra (probably more widely known for the theme music to 2001: A Space Odyssey which is Richard Strauss's 'Thus Spake Zarathustra). The Zoroastrian religion has been around for about 3500-4000 years but despite its longevity and great history, today there are believed to be only a quarter of a million worshipers world wide and most of these are either in Iran or India (where they are known as Parsis).

      ~Death and Fire~

      We had just had a fascinating visit to the Towers of Silence on the outskirts of the city where the bodies of the dead are laid out to be eaten by the birds before the bones are buried in concrete lined tombs. When both fire and earth are sacred, you've got to improvise a bit. Leaving the Towers behind we headed to the Fire Temple to round off an intense morning of Zoroastrian influence. We parked up at the end of the street and walked into the grounds of the Fire Temple where our guide took us through some of the tenets of the religion and explained to us the history of the temple.

      We were told that the building dated only back to 1934 but the flame inside had been kept constantly lit since 470 AD. In front of the temple there's a pretty courtyard with a large pool. Both fire and water are used for ritual because of their purity. Standing in front of the temple by the pool we learned about the symbolism of the image of Ahura Mazda as represented above the entrance to the temple. This image is known as the Farohar or Farovahar. He is an elderly (and so wise and experienced) man with a long beard and one of his hands is raised towards god. His face is that of a human which indicates his connection to humankind. He stands inside a circle which represents the universe and holds another ring in his hand which may represent loyalty to the religion. The large circle has two 'legs' which represent good and evil - the good 'leg' is on the side to which the figure is facing representing the choice to follow good and leave evil behind. He has wings with three layers of feathers which represent the three principles that all Zoroastrians should follow : good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Only by following all three principles can a worshipper 'fly' and advance. Beneath the circle of the universe are another three layers of feathers which represent the opposite of the wing feathers - so bad thoughts, bad words and bad actions. (It might help to have a look at my photo in order to understand this better).

      We stood quietly listening to the explanation and looking up at the figure standing out against the bluest of November skies before going up the steps and into the temple. Inside we found a few dozen people crowded around a glass partition behind which we could see a large metal urn with fire inside. An elderly man was minding the flames and feeding the fire whilst we stood watching.

      ~Worth a visit?~

      Even though tourists are welcomed and actively encouraged to visit the Fire Temple as part of a process of educating the public and spreading the knowledge of this tiny but ancient religion, I did feel a bit uncomfortable as if we were just a bunch of stupid foreigners gawping at this strange religion in a somewhat intrusive way. This was tempered somewhat by knowing that the local Zorastrians had set the place up to encourage tourism, but it did feel a little artificial. I'd enjoyed our trip to the Towers of Silence and really felt able to relate to the role of the towers in the religion but the Fire Temple didn't really feel quite real. It was an attractive building with a neat pleasant courtyard and a great place to learn about the symbolism but somehow it didn't 'touch' me in the way that other religious buildings and shrines tend to do. If you find yourself in Yazd, you should definitely go, but in a city of spectacular buildings of stunning ingenuity, it might not be the main thing you remember at the end of your trip.

      Entrance - as far as I could tell - was free but money may have changed hands between our guide and the temple keepers. However since you'll not get to go there without a guide, any payment will be unnoticed.

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