Zoroastrians in Iran

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Zoroastrians in Iran are the oldest religious community of the nation, with a long history continuing up to the present day.

Prior to the Islamization of Iran, Zoroastrianism was the primary religion of Iran. Since the rise of the Shiite Safavid Empire in the 16th century AD, Zoroastrians in Iran have faced much religious discrimination, including forced conversions and harassment.

According to Iran's 2012 census results, there were 28,271 Zoroastrians in Iran.12


There are no written records from Zarathushtra's time. The earliest surviving written references to Zarathushtra are those of Greek writers from 1000 BC. Prophet Zoroaster and his first followers have been the proto-Indo-Iranians that lived between the Bronze Age and Iron Age (est. 1200-600BC).3 The term "Prophet" is of western origin as Zarathushtra is designated "Khordad" or that unique mortal who achieved spiritual perfection (he radiated an aura-"Khor") within his lifetime. The term "Za-rath-ush-tra" also translates to a Divine (Zari/Hari) Chariot (Rath) that brought heavenly Light-Knowledge (Ushtra)

The time of the Iranian peoples' migration to Iran can be mainly estimated through Assyrian records.4 Also, Herodotus (I, 101) had recalled one of the Mede tribes to be called "Magoi", better known as "Magis", a tribe known to have included many priests, who served both Medes and Persians. By the time of the Median empire (est. 612 BC), Zoroastrianism is known to have been well established in both Pars region (later capital of Persia) as well as in the Eastern regions.5

Achaemenid dynasty

Persians led by Cyrus the Great soon established the second Iranian dynasty, and the first Persian empire by defeating the Medes dynasty in 549 BC.5 As Persians expanded their empire, Zoroastrianism was introduced to Greek historians such as Hermodorus, Hermippus, Xanthos, Eudoxus and Aristotle; each giving a different date regarding the life of Zoroaster but naturally believed him to be a Persian prophet and called him "Master of the magi"6

Although there are no inscriptions left from the time of Cyrus about his religion, the fire-altars found at Pasargadae, as well as the fact that he called his daughter Atossa, name of the queen of Vishtaspa (Zoroaster's royal patron), suggests that he indeed may have been a Zoroastrian.6

However, it is clear that by the time of Darius the Great (549 BC– 485/486 BC), the empire was clearly in favour of Zoroastrianism. Darius declares in one of his inscriptions that:

"A great God is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king, one king over many, one lord over many"6


Persepolis all nations stair case. The people are depicted carrying Norouz gifts for the king

Persepolis (or Parsa) was one of the four capitals of the Achaemenid empire, built by Darius the Great and his son Xerxes; it was a glorious city known to the world as the "richest city under the sun". It was also the trading capital of the Near East.

One of the main functions of Persepolis was to serve as the host of the ancient Zoroastrian festival, Norouz. Therefore, every year representatives from each country under the rule of Persia would bring gifts to Persepolis to show their loyalty to the king and the empire.

Arsacid dynasty

Sassanid dynasty

The Sassanid dynasty (224-651 AD) was the first Persian empire which declared Zoroastrianism as the state religion and promoted the religion more than ever. It is believed that Avesta (a compilation of Zoroastrian sacred texts) was first gathered and put together at this time.

Prophet Mani


The prophet Mani was an Iranian of noble Parthian roots who established Manichaeism which contained many elements of Zoroastrianism as well as Gnosticism, however it saw the experience of life on earth by humans as miserable, which was a contrast to the Zoroastrian view which was to celebrate life through happiness.

Mani was received kindly by king Shapur I and spent many years at his court where he was protected during all of Shabuhr's reign. However Mani wrote in a semitic language (Syriac Aramaic), and all his work had to be translated into Middle Persian by his followers, who rendered the name of Mani's supreme god as Zurvan and called him the father of Ohrmazd7 (Ahuramazda, God of Wisdom, main deity of Zoroastrianism).


Although the origins of Zurvanite Zoroastrianism are unclear, it was during the Sassanid period that it gained widespread acceptance, and many of the Sassanid emperors were at least to some extent Zurvanites. Zurvanism enjoyed royal sanction during the Sassanid era but no traces of it remain beyond the 10th century.

Unlike Mazdean Zoroastrianism, Zurvanism considered Ahura Mazda not the transcendental Creator, but one of two equal-but-opposite divinities under the supremacy of Zurvan. The central Zurvanite belief made Ahura Mazda (Middle Persian: Ohrmuzd) and Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) twin brothers that had co-existed for all time.

Non-Zoroastrian accounts of typically Zurvanite beliefs were the first traces of Zoroastrianism to reach the west, which misled European scholars to conclude that Zoroastrianism was a dualist faith.

The Zoroastrian cult of Zurvan should not be confused with the Manichaeism's use of the name Zurvan in Middle Persian texts to represent the Manichean deity of light. Mani had himself introduced this practice (for perhaps political reasons) in his Shapurgan, which he dedicated to his patron Shapur II. For much of the rest of the Sassanid era, the Manichaens were a persecuted minority, and Mani was sentenced to death by Bahram I.

Calendar reforms

Sacred fires

Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd

The three great sacred fires of Persia at the time of the Sassanids were the Adur Farnbag, Adur Gushnasp and the Adur Burzen-Mihr which burnt in Pars, Media and Parthia respectively. Of these three the Adur Burzen-Mihr was the most sacred fire as it was linked to the prophet Zarathustra himself and king Vishtaspa.8

Mazdakite movement


Arab conquest and under the Caliphate

Mongol empire

The Mongol invasion of Iran resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and ruined many cities. The early Mongol invaders were, however, pagans or buddhists so most of their attention was directed towards Muslims, whom they hated. However, within half a century of the conquest, the leader of the Il-Khanate, Ghazan Khan, became a Muslim, which did not help the status of Zoroastrians in Iran. However, by the time that the Mongols were expelled, Pars province had escaped major damages and the Zoroastrians moved to the North of Pars mainly in the regions of Yazd and Kerman,6 where even today the main Zoroastrian communities are found.

Safavid dynasty

Shiite Safavid dynasty destroyed what was once a vibrant community of Zoroastrians, adherents of the pre-Islam religion of Iran. As per the official policy, Safavids wanted everyone to convert to the Shia sect of Islam and killed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis, Zoroastrians and other minorities when they refused to follow these orders.citation needed

Majority of Zoroastrians also left for India though about 20% remained; most of whom had to migrate in the late 19th century as Qajar dynasty imposed greater restrictions on them.

Qajar dynasty

A Zoroastrian family in Qajar Iran. Circa 1910.

During the Qajar Dynasty, religious persecution of the Zoroastrians was rampant. Due to the increasing contacts with influential Parsi philanthropists such as Maneckji Limji Hataria, many Zoroastrians left Iran for India. There, they formed the second major Indian Zoroastrian community known as the Iranis.

Modern history

Pahlavi dynasty

Starting from the early twentieth century, Tehran, the nation's capital, experienced rapid migrations from all Iranian minorities. The Zoroastrian population increased from about 50 merchants in 1881 to 500 by 1912.9

During the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty, Zoroastrians changed from being one of the most persecuted minorities in Iran to a symbol of Iranian nationalism.10 This notion carried on all the way through the 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran when Ayatollah Sadughi proclaimed that "We Muslims are like the branches of a tree, if our roots are cut off, we shall shrivel up and die", also the last prime minister before the revolution Shapour Bakhtiar held an anti-Khomeini meeting in Los Angeles on the day of the Zoroastrian Mehregan festival (1980), in tribute to "true nationalism"10 (See Iranian nationalism).


The establishment of an Islamic Republic following the Iranian revolution of 1979 posed many setbacks for Iran's religious minorities. Since that time many Zoroastrians, aided by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society program, have emigrated to the US, as well as to Canada, Australia, and the UK. Together with the issues of out-marriage and low birth rates, this is leading to a steady decline in Iran's Zoroastrian population11 which, according to Iran's 2012 census results, currently stands at 25,271, though this represents an increase of 27.5% on the 2006 population12

Like the Armenian, Assyrian and Persian Jewish communities, Zoroastrians are officially recognized and on the grounds of the 1906 Constitution allocated one seat in the Iranian Parliament, currently held by Esfandiar Ekhtiari Kassnavieh.13

Important Zoroastrians in the 20th century:

See also


  1. ^ http://www.amar.org.ir/
  2. ^ AFP: Iran young, urbanised and educated: census
  3. ^ Mary Boyce "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices" pp. 1
  4. ^ Mary Boyce "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices" Under the Achaemenians pp. 48
  5. ^ a b Mary Boyce "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices" pp. 49
  6. ^ a b c d Mary Boyce, "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices": Under the Achamenians
  7. ^ Mary Boyce, "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices": Under the early Sassanians
  8. ^ Mary Boyce, "Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices": Under the mid Sassanid period
  9. ^ Hukht (1973)
  10. ^ a b Janet Kestenberg Amighi "Zoroastrians of Iran, Conversion, Assimilation, or Persistence" pp. 143
  11. ^ Richard Foltz, “Zoroastrians in Iran: What Future in the Homeland?” Middle East Journal 65/1 (2011): 73-84.
  12. ^ http://iran.unfpa.org/Documents/Census2011/2011%20Census%20Selected%20Results%20-%20Eng.pdf
  13. ^ Press TV - Results for the minority MPs

Further reading

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