Though it is there they worship fire, the first thing we encountered was the silence. Two dusty hills rise outside of Yazd, each crowned with a ringed wall of crumbling stone–as old as memory. This place is the cradle of Zoroastrianism, the ancient monotheistic religion of Persia.
A footpath snaked its way up a steep incline; the sand was dry and course and slid from underfoot. We followed a sparse chain of people, comprised of the pilgrims and the curious; our ascent was patient and unhurried, though our time was limited.
Pausing at the top, we turned to take in the view. Hills, dusty and dead, spread in one direction and the filthy stain of the city smeared the other. There was nothing so high for miles, nothing so lofty, so it was to here the dead had been carried.
The Towers of Silence–for that is what they are called–loomed ageless and imposing over a dead landscape. The silence of centuries–of death–was palpable.
We ducked through a low doorway, taking care to not hit our heads on the crumbling stone. The space within was open to the elements, ringed completely by a wall devoid of adornments. In the middle gaped a pit. It was here the dead had lain–in solace for the span of a week, save for the ministrations of a Zoroastrian priest.
Now, there were a group of students sharing the space with us. They laughed and chatted as they took in the sight, gathering together for a picture–I snapped one as sneakily as I could. They noticed, and insisted we join them for another picture. Then, they called us over to the wall, where they gave us tea and cakes.
Leaving our new friends behind, we descended and left the Tower behind as we dropped to the valley floor–towards the small cluster of domed buildings huddled around the base of the hill. In these buildings, the families of the dead had gathered and mourned as their departed communed with Ahura Mazda.
Once a week had passed, and the deceased’s time in Hell had been decided, the bones were gathered and carried away. We followed that ancient route, the way now a maze of city streets and traffic lights. At the end, away from all silence, we found the fire.
It was in a glistening white fire temple built behind a shimmering blue pool. Over the entrance, the regal faravahar gazed over the placid water where the dead had been placed.
While the temple was relatively new, the fire was ancient. Burning unabated for 1500 years, now it flickers behind a shield of protective glass. The brazier containing the eternal flame stood alone in a room, the flame casting eerie shadows on the encroaching walls.
Looking around, I let myself be distracted from the depictions of Mazda–the Zoroastrian deity– and the parchments containing his teachings which encircled the viewing area. Thoughts of burials and the dead fell away, and I focused instead on people–the living ones.
“Photo?” one man asked, gesturing at himself, me, and the flame.
“Okay!” I agreed.