The Theosophical Society in America

Dark and Light in Yazd Central Iran

Originally printed in the January - February 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Singleton, Barbara Cunliffe. "Dark and Light in Yazd Central Iran." Quest  91.1 (JANUARY - FEBRUARY 2003):10-15.

By Barbara Cunliffe Singleton

JAFFAR, THE GUIDE, waves his arm at the wind tower, scowls his black eyes at the groundskeeper, andinsists, "We'll go up in the tower!" Below his scowl, his nose arches until it angles steeply and stops with good form. His mouth firms above his cleft chin.

The groundskeeper says, "I told you the tower's impossible." Dry brush strokes of hair cross over his sunburned bald spot. He grips the handle of a garden rake. "The engineer says we can't go up anymore."

Around Jaffar's face the sun glistens his thick black hair, and his voice builds, "Don't be lazy! Go tothe guardbox and get the key!"

The groundsman barely raises his eyebrows and placates, "I swear on the Koran. It's forbidden to go upstairs." He shuffles off into the park.

All this is said in Farsi, but Jaffar obliges and translates for me. He teaches sculpture in a university in Tehran, but since sculpture is forbidden in the Islamic republic, he has to call it "volume-making."

Jaffar, still angry, starts toward the building. "Look! Even without a key we can go as far as the roof." We climb the steps and stand on the flat surface. His anger gone, his voice becomes soothing, intriguing. "This is ancient Iran's natural form of air conditioning. See, the wind blows through those four slats in the tower. They drive the air down to that pool in the room below us. With three sides of the room closed, the wind cools over the pool and blows through the rest of the house." His hands swoosh with feeling, to show air moving through the house. "The city of Yazd is known for these old towers, which collect the prevailing wind—when and if it prevails." Even when I took a walk this morning in the newer residential section, I saw wind towers, sixty feet high, attached to several houses.

We take the steps down from the roof and walk through the garden. The morning air is freighted withthe green smells of plants and earth. A man in a uniform bicycles by, his face like a heavy drop, fullat the bottom, and peers at me with eyes set close together. He turns to ask in Farsi, "Where are youfrom?" By now I know a few Farsi phrases and answer, "Amrika."

"U.S., very good," he responds with a smile and bikes on.

"Is he a soldier?" I ask Jaffar.

"No, a member of the Disciplinary Force. It used to be called the 'Komite.' "

"You can't mean it," I say. "Attitudes are changing, when he of all people says, 'U.S., very good.'"

We step through the park gate to the street. "He and the rest of the local force are quartered over there." Jaffar points to plain adobe buildings with trees growing around them. In front, more guys in green uniforms play soccer on the street. We wait until the ball is kicked out of bounds and then hurry across the improvised field.

"Isn't soccer too western a sport to be allowed in Iran?"

Jaffar's voice draws me in. "It's an exception. We beat the U.S. in the World Cup match. Remember? Muhammad approved of archery, hunting, swimming, horseback-riding, and chess, provided the people don't gamble."

"What about the women? What sports for them?"

Jaffar laughs. "Baby-sitting is the most popular sport for women, though Rafsanjani's daughter helped organize the first Islamic Games for Women in 1993. Tell you what, let's drive out to the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, before it's a furnace out here. Yazd is surrounded by desert."

We find the car and drive south on Kashani Street, speeding beside Peykan cars. In fact, we'rein a Peykan car. It's made in Iran under the Hillman label. It feels comfortable and light.

After two kilometers, we turn off onto a dirt road and climb into the stony hills, dry with noweed or blade of green. At the top rise the Towers of Silence, shaped like two round adobe reservoirs. Zoroastrians, like their cousins, the Parsees in Bombay, after three days of rituals in the home, would file up into these hills to offer the body to a Tower official, who would prepare it for the vultures.

We get out of the Peykan, slam the doors, and stand near the high-walled Tower. Before us lies a vast view of the flat city of Yazd under sheer blue sky. Bare mountains in the desert beyond the city slice the horizon into haphazard dark shapes. No birds circle in the sky.

"Where are the birds?" I ask Jaffar.

"The birds? Long gone. It's not like the Tower of Silence in Bombay, where Parsees still give the bodies to the birds. Reza Shah [reigned 1925 -1941] stopped all that. He called the custom "barbaric.' When he came to Yazd, where he was having a railroad built, he told the Zoroastrians, 'You either bury the dead as Muslims do, or go join the Parsees in Bombay.' Some left. Those who stayed built a cemetery. You can see it just over there."

Three boys in smudgy clothes wander up and watch Jaffar's mouth, curious about the strange sounds of his English.

Below us, a graveyard of several acres filled with shade trees has been walled off. Jaffar continues, "Zoroastrians think burying a body pollutes the earth. A body represented a defeat of their God of Light, Ahura Mazda, and a victory of the God of Darkness, Ahriman. Therefore, Zoroastrians here bury the bodies in concrete-lined tombs, so they don't pollute the earth."

Jaffar flings his hand toward earthen buildings roofed with cup-shaped domes. "Over there arethe rooms for ceremonies, where relatives used to stay until the rituals in this Tower were complete. According to a folk legend, if a bird took the right eye first, the person went to heaven—if the left, he went to hell."

Jaffar takes out his city map and several children gather around. I think of E. G. Browne's experience outside of Yazd in 1888, when he, too, was looking at a map. Some of the children he talked with that year had never seen maps. Browne showed them the lines for mountain peaks and their names, the dots for villages, and a larger square with lines to represent the streets of Yazd. One child told him, "It's too bad you didn't bring a microscope. We could see what's going on in the streets of Yazd."

As we drive back into the city, I have the feeling that I like Yazd, its dry air, its low buildings built of the color of the earth, its leisured pace. We pass many parks filled with trees and flowers. Houses with tanks of water on the roof face the sunny south, their bricks arranged in protruding designs to form shadow patterns.

Before lunch the waiter brings to the table a plastic covering backed by a fuzz of cotton. Its folds hold the intense smell of scrubbed vinyl until, with a snap, the man flings the plastic over the table. On top he spreads a cloth of heavy cotton, block-printed with leaf and flower designs in tones of wine, peach, and honeydew melon. Jaffar and I talk over coffee, over pilaf, over kebabs, overdone. We take second helpings. The salad's scent is fresh, like the essence of a greengrocery.

We leave the table and go to the Ateshkade, the fire temple in Yazd. Jaffar springs out of thedriver's seat and opens the door for me. I climb out and walk ahead of him toward the steps.There above the porch of the fire temple, the blue tiled wings of the Guiding Spirit are spread wide. Its divine head and beard are turned in profile. I look at this small temple. It could be mistaken for a library with steps leading up to four columns and a shady porch. I realize with a sense of poignancy that this is almost all that remains of what was once the religion of the rulers of the vast Persian Empire. Zoroastrianism was the religion of great kings such as Cyrus and Darius, who worshipped at fire temples and gave credit to the spirit of Ahura Mazda, God ofLight, when they won victories. The religion, full of complex theology, is, in essence, not so hard to understand: good thoughts, good speech, good actions. If the king failed to rule with justice for his people, he lost the divine right to rule at all. Now fewer than 30,000 Iranian followers of Ahura Mazda survive, and most live in Yazd. They believe that, with their good conduct, they renew Creation.

The Zoroastrians' daily struggle against darkness is the more dramatic because of Muslim prejudice and contempt. Their period of highest esteem in this century was during the period of Reza Shah and his son Mohammad Shah (1925 -1979). It was these Pahlavi rulers who guided the nation once again to an increased respect for the accomplishments of the Persian Empire under the Zoroastrian kings.

Indeed, that Zoroastrians have continued the practice of their religion for so many centuries after the Islamic invasion of 637 A.D., is a tribute to their faith and fortitude. During the early years, of course, Muslims forced whole villages to become Muslim or die. In 1719, thousands of Zoroastrians in villages east of Yazd and Kerman were slaughtered in the Afghan invasion. In the twentieth century, not even offers by Muslims for better jobs, higher pay, and places for students in the university could persuade faithful Zoroastrians to convert to Islam. Many feel a pride in being the true Persians.

I look around to find Jaffar. He's talking with a photographer below the steps. When Jaffar catches my glance, he hurries over. "That man's a friend of my father's. I haven't seen him in a hundred years. I always call him 'Uncle.'" Jaffar sits down on the upper step, fixing on me eyes so black they absorb the pupils. "Anyway, I have something to tell you about Zoroastrians. They're known for their honesty, and as you may know they've suffered a lot of persecution. A Zoroastrian from Bombay named Hataria did most to change the bad treatment of Zoroastrians in Iran. He first came to our country in 1854 and worked with authorities to remove the heavy yearly tax forced on all non-Muslims. When a Zoroastrian paid the tax, he had to appear before the Emir and present the fee in hisopen hand. Then the Emir struck his neck, and a court official drove him away. It took Hataria twenty-five years to bring about changes. Many Zoroastrians had lost their property because they couldn't pay the tax. He also worked to change laws that prevented Zoroastrians from building new houses or repairing old ones. The Zoroastrians were required to wear turbans, old clothes, and a certain style of shoes, and they needed to dismount from their donkey or horse if a Muslim was in sight."

I listen, somewhat puzzled about him. I feel surprised that a Muslim would have taken the trouble to learn so much about an officially despised religion.

Jaffar continues, "Hataria helped to open schools for Zoroastrians in Yazd and boarding schools for boys in Tehran with a modern secular program. In 1930, the Zoroastrian girls' school in Tehran was so good that Muslims wanted to enroll their daughters. Really! Muslims in Tehran began to show a greater respect for Zoroastrians.

"Laughing and having fun at weddings and during the seven yearly feasts helps Zoroastrians to enduredark times. Yet since the 1979 revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, they've become more subdued to avoid the frowns of the intollerant." Jaffar laughs. "I know all this, because I wrote a paper about them for a sociology course in England. Want a really good book? Read Rashna Writer's Contemporary Zoroastrians."

We enter the temple. It feels cool inside after the heat of the sun. I expect incense. None. Framedverses from the sacred book, the Avesta, hang on the walls. Centered on the far wall is a charcoal-tinted window. Behind it, a reddish glow wavers and straightens, as it conquers dark surroundings, then dips and flutters. The flame represents Light and Justice, the energy of Ahura Mazda. (Bapsi Sidhwa describes movingly the spiritual power of the flame and its effect on the worshipper in her insightful book about a Parsee immigrant, American Brat, p. 42.) This flame in Yazd has been burning, though not always in this location, since 470 A.D. I look around, wishing I could talk with a Zoroastrian, but we are the only ones in the room.

We leave the cool sanctuary and feel the desert heat close in. On the street a woman offers a plate offood to a stray. The scruffy dog with matted fur, black muzzle and ears, walks forward, approaches stiffly, sniffing. The lady in a black chador sets down the plate and the dog takes such eager bites that its chest jolts with each mouthful. It holds its tail straight and then begins to wag, alert for more. I wonder if the woman's a Zoroastrian. I remember that their families should feed at least one dog during the day, not just scraps, but good food. In fact, the dog should eat before the family. The Zoroastrian religion is the only one I know of that has written rules about the treatment of dogs.

For example, the Vendidad, a Zoroastrian scripture, states, "Whosoever shall strike a shepherd dog, a house dog, a stray dog, or a hunting dog, when the soul of that man shall pass into the other world, it shall go howling louder and grieved more surely than goeth the sheep in the great forest where the wolf rangeth."

A dog has the power to absorb evil and is present at the time of death. It has a part in the rituals of preparation for the Tower of Silence. In Rohinton Mistry's masterpiece Such a Long Journey, this ritual is described with great feeling and visual clarity. Though not mentioned in that novel, two dogs guard against evil forces when the soul tries to cross the bridge before judgment. When a family's dog itself dies, rituals are performed to help its spirit.

As we walk toward the main mosque, the Masjed-e Jame (built on the site of an early Zoroastrian firetemple), we pass a huddle of foreign tourists, all scarved and wearing the officially approved shapeless raincoats called manteaus or, as alternatives, black chadors. One woman wears black with a style vaguely familiar, but out of context. "It's my son's graduation gown," she tells her friend. "It's been hanging in the closet for ten years. A perfect black chador!" Her earrings, heavy anchors on each side, must help to balance her personality. Yet, if she only knew, they're outlawed by the Iranian dress codes.

An Iranian man, his black hair framing an expectant face, falls into step with an older man in the group and asks, "You're from?"

"Amrika," replies the man. His wide combed beard mixes with his long hair.

The Iranian's eyes widen, and he straightens. "Amrika? I've seen people from Holland, from Germany, from England. You're the first Americans I've seen in Iran. Are you supposed to be here?"

The Americans look at each other and laugh.

We turn the corner and the mosque rises before us. "Elongated" seems a strange word for describing a mosque, but in comparison with all others the façade of this Yazd mosque is El-Greco-esque. The soaring narrow portal, its inner apex patterned like a honeycomb, is the highest in the land. The mosque's geometrical blue tile and blue-banded minarets drain color from the sky, leaving it pale in contrast.

Architecturally, the Yazd mosque, with its innovative hall on either side of the main chamber, set a style. The influence of this mosque reappeared in Central Asia, because Tamerlane, sparing the town, took famous architects and tile-makers from Yazd to build his dream city, Samarkand.

It's a big day for Kodak, because the tour group, and I too, take an excess of both pedestrian and innovative shots from strange angles. On a scale of clicks, this might be the winning mosque of Iran. It's lucky that I'm looking at the sky for minaret shots or I would have missed two large birds slapping their massive wings in flight, wings like those in the symbol of the Zoroastrians over the fire temple, wide wings whose leading white borders taper to dark.

I learn at dinner that the covered bazaar is open at night, so after dark I ask Jaffar to let me off at the entrance. I walk into the bazaar, lit by a row of white lights smiling down from the arched ceiling. Knobs of unlit colored light bulbs vault the passageway, but they must be reserved for weekends or holidays. From deep within the cavern of the bazaar, comes the smoky smell mixed mysteriously with a spice sharp enough to be turmeric. Open stalls on either side sell clothes and crockery. I'm surprised by a row of legs as high as my shoulder, a dark chorus line of shapely calves and tip-toed feet. Certainly the legs are not for sale, but only their black patterned stockings with designs of leaves, hearts, and roses. Who can know what beautifu1 clothing a woman is wearing under her chador?

The lights of a yard-goods stall cast deep shadows on a cluster of women draped in black. With folds of their black chadors gathered to their chins, they examine bolts of black and measure cloth for more chadors. One gives a handful of rials to a young man dressed in a black shirt and trousers, and he wraps her cloth. Bikes and motorcycles lean against the side of the stalls.

From the wall above the counter of a jewelry shop, presides the triad of President Khatami, Ayatollah Khomeini—looking not fierce but benign—and his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, wearing glasses over his stern expression. Jars of cosmetics on shelves across the shop reflect and curve the photographed images.

Voices are soft. Iranian teenagers hold their chadors at the chin and gaze at the displayed strings of gold necklaces. Chains of gold descend to lower rows of bright rings. A teen asks the owner to lift out a tray of jewelry. In excitement, her friends try on rings. The jeweler, hunched and with watchful eyes, doesn't object. One ring's too big. The teen tries another, extends her fingers, admires the glowing effect. Within three minutes, in a flurry of hands and black sleeves, they return the rings and leave across the pebbled concrete floor, glistening from a recent washing.

Across the end of the lane, a row of white lacey girls' dresses, dancing in the breezy width of the vaulted roof, suggest the power of light against darkness, and of joy against solemnity and contempt.

References and Further Reading

Boyce, Mary. A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism. Oxford: Clarendon,1977.
Browne, Edward Granville. A Year amongst the Persians. London: A. and C.Black, 1893. Reprint New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984.
Dawson, Miles Menander. The Ethical Religion of Zoroaster. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Reprint New York: AMS, 1969.
Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation. NewYork: Dutton, 1996.
Mistry, Rohinton. Such a Long Journey. New York: Knopf, 1991.
Sidhwa, Bapsi. American Brat. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1993.
Writer, Rashna. Contemporary Zoroastrians: An Unconstructed Nation. Lanham,MD: University Press of America, 1994.


Barbara Cunliffe Singleton has taught in Bolivia, Indonesia, Peru, Taiwan, Tunisia, Turkey,and Uruguay. She has written for many periodicals, including the Boston Review, Christian Science Monitor, English Today (Cambridge University Press), International Quarterly, and New York Times. Her last Quest article was "Mourning Hussein in Ladakh" (Winter 1990).