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Eternal flame, towers of silence in Yazd

The flame that burns forever in the Zoroastrian fire-temple of Yazd, Iran, was lit some 1 550 years ago, in the Sasanian empire, or so they say. The flame is of the highest order, Atash Behram, or “Fire of victory”. It is composed of fire from 16 different sources including fire from a lightning strike, fire from a funeral pyre and fire from a furnace. The ceremony to achieve it requires 32 mobeds, the Zoroastrian priests.

You pass an anonymous gate and cross a lush garden with an odd, circular pond to get to the temple. Over the entrance sits a grand faravahar, a common Zoroastrian symbol that may be a deity or a guardian spirit. It was also used as a general Iranian symbol in the time of the shah and now among Iranian exiles missing those days.

The eternal flame flickers from a solemn bronze jar at the centre of a small room with amber-coloured windows. Adherents brings sandalwood as offerings. The flame is a manifestation of Ahura Mazda, the “wise lord” and supreme being of Zoroastrianism.

Zoroastrianism precedes Islam, Christianity and Judaism in these parts. It centres on teachings about good and evil in the world, where Ahura Mazda is the ultimate good principle. You must follow the Threefold Path of Asha: Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds. It sounds well in theory. It was the state religion of ancient Iranian empires.

Windcatcher towers in Yazd

Yazd was different from other Iranian cities I encountered on my Marco Polo trip. More conservative, with veiled women and men in turbans, and with a distinct architectural profile boasting a wealth of spectacular windcatcher towers, for ventilation.

Zoroastrianism was severely persecuted here after the Arab victory over the Sassanids in the 7th century. Few managed to cling on, though the mountain region around Yazd became one of the last strongholds.

Since fire, earth and water belong to the sacred and pure, these elements, to the Zoroastrians, were not to be soiled by decaying dead bodies. Their solution was the “towers of silence”, placed on elevated grounds and open on top to the birds of the sky.

A taxi from central Yazd brings me out to see two great towers on some desert rocks. They are truly silent, abandoned, with no trace of corpses or Zoroastrian rituals. These days their dead are interred in sealed cannisters, safe to bury. I descend on a stony path, ride the taxi back, get some bananas and find a bus to take me to Mashhad, the second largest and most holy city of Iran, site of the martyrdom of Imam Reza.

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