This is held to be the earliest formulated religious philosophy in the world to have survived to the present day. Zoroastrianism is the religion which developed from the reforms of the old cults carried out by Zarathustra (or Zoroaster in its Hellenized form). Numerous legends exist about Zarathustra's life and it is often difficult to distinguish the fact from the fiction. The present consensus gives Zarathustra's place of birth as somewhere in eastern Iran; he is thought to have been born between 1000 and 600 BC and would therefore have lived slightly before the great Achaemenian kings. The main events of his life are known in part thanks to the hymns, or gathas, which are attributed to him and which form part of the Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians. His message, predating Judaism, Christianity and Islam, also centred on the uncreated God, Ahura Mazda, creator of all things, as well as ideas on paradise and hell, on free will, on a messianic promise, and the struggle between good and evil in which good would ultimately triumph.
Zarathustra appears originally to have been a priest who was expelled from his country for his strong heterodox views. He succeeded in converting Vishtaspa, the ruler of a Bactrian tribe, who became his protector and helped him spread his new doctrine. This was often done through the use of force. This doctrine inevitably aroused strong reactions when placed in oppositon to the traditional beliefs, and Zarathustra is said to have been mercilessly killed while at prayer in a temple.
Of the old Indo-lranian pantheon, Zarathustra retained only Ahura Mazda, a beneficent god from whom all things originate. Subordinate to Ahura Mazda were the two twin spirits, Spenta Mainyu (the Holy Spirit) and Angra Mainyu (the Spirit of Evil), better known as Ahriman, personifications of the battle between Good and Evil, and Light and Darkness. This dualism is fundamental to Zoroastrianism: man is blessed with free will, and the choice of the road he takes in life is thus entirely his own. The supreme virtue of Ahura Mazda is Goodness, and one whose deeds, thoughts and words have been good during his lifetime, and who will thus have lived in accordance with God, will be rewarded after death by a place in His kingdom.
One of Zarathustra's greatest reforms was to introduce the idea of monotheism into Mazdaism. The supreme god Ahura Mazda does not take part in the cosmic battle between Ahriman and Spenta Mainyu; the dualism represented by these two spirits is only temporary and will end with the final victory of Good over Evil. At the appointed time for the Last Judgement, a great trial by fire and molten metal, presided over by Ahura Mazda, will punish the evil and reward the good with spiritual resurrection.
Zarathustra appears as a strong opponent of some of the practices of the Aryan religion, in particular of bloody sacrifices and the use of haoma. For Zarathustra, the suffering and death of a bull were incompatible with the doctrine of goodness and wisdom associated with the god to whom the animal is sacrificed. As for haoma, its intoxicating effects lead men astray.
The spread of Zarathustra's doctrine did not entirely supersede traditional Mazdaism and a certain syncretism occurred under the Achaemenians, most notably by the incorporation into Zoroastrianism of some of the practices of the Magi. The Magi had for centuries formed a priestly cast with hereditary politico-religious functions in the Median Empire. After the conquest of Media by the Achaemenians, they became the priesthood of the new dynasty. Fundamentally conservative, they did not always adopt the radical ideas of Zarathustra, and animal sacrifice was therefore maintained and the use of haoma reintroduced.
Under the influence of the Magi, several of the old Indo-lranian gods were reinstated into the pantheon, particularly Anahita (a fusion of the Old Iranian water goddess with the Babylonian Ishtar, the love goddess and warrior), associated originally with water and rivers, and Mithra, associated with the sun. A rock inscription dated to the reign of the Achaemenian king Artaxerxes II (404-359 BC) invokes for the first time, and together, Mithra, Anahita and Ahura Mazda, signalling a change from the practice of earlier reigns when only Ahura Mazda was called upon. Mithra was also the god of war, and presided over the bull sacrifices and the haoma rituals. His cult, known as Mithraism, spread throughout the Classical world, and was particularly popular in the Roman army.
The Achaemenids were perhaps the first rulers in Iran to establish Zoroastrianism as the state religion, and it remained dominant until the spread of Islam in the mid-VII century AD. Under the Sassanians, who were themselves descendants of a high priest of Anahita, Zoroastrianism became a state religion organized around the Magi. At the beginning of the Sassanian period, there still existed a variety of Mazdaian doctrines, but orthodoxy developed under the influence of the priest Kartir, who held from AD 240 until 294 different functions of increasing importance under six different shahs from Ardeshir I (224-241) till Narses (293-302). Kartir commissioned a series of inscriptions in which he described the main events of his career. Kartir was not alone in having built fire temples throughout the empire or in destroying pagan places of worship, but he was much more aggressive than his predecessors. He reorganized the priesthood and openly attacked the followers of non-Zoroastrian doctrines, particularly Manichaeans, Buddhists, Jews and Christians; the latter were seen as pro-Roman fifth columnists. The compilation at this period of a canon, the Avesta, from oral traditions of various origins, contributed to fix the orthodoxy of this state Zoroastrianism.
Although Zoroastrians were, with difficultly, recognized as ahl al-dhimma - Protected minorities - after the Arab conquest and were therefore free to worship in their own manner, a large number nevertheless were forced to convert to the Islamic faith. Conversion brought with it a number of important financial and social advantages, including the avoidance of the poll-tax paid by non-Muslims and the opportunity of holding an administrative post. The status of this community in Islamic law and periodic toughening of the Islamic position towards Zoroastrianism caused mass conversions and large-scale emigration to Northern India from the VIII century on. Zoroastrian communities in Iran and India have remained in contact since this time, and in the XX century the Parsis (from Fars province, Persia) have given considerable financial support to their fellow Zoroastrians in Iran.
In XIX-century Qajar Iran their situation improved due to British and Indian diplomatic involvement, and in 1979 the community quickly announced its support of the Islamic Revolution. Today there are some 100,000 Zoroastrians living in Iran, with parliamentary representation, mainly residing in Tehran and Yazd. There are thriving communities in England, the USA, Canada and Australia as well as India (particularly Mumbai).
The Zoroastrians, despite their relatively large numbers, have experienced a certain amount of discrimination, generally in the form of confiscation of belongings or property, arbitrary taxation or profanation of their sanctuaries. However, in the rural areas well removed from the large Muslim centres, and particularly in the Yazd region, which was considered strategically unimportant, Zoroastrian traditions were kept alive. Zoroastrians are based mainly around Yazd, with its fire temple and nearby desert pilgrimage site at Chak Chak. Some communities also live in Tehran. Estimates of Iran's Zoroastrian population vary between 30,000 and 100,000. Several traditions and ceremonies dating from Zoroastrian times are important in modern Iranian culture, including No Ruz (the Iranian New Year), Chahar Shanbe-soori on the Wednesday before No Ruz, and Shab-e yalda, celebrated on the winter solstice.
According to Zoroastrian beliefs, Earth is one of the elements associated with the divinities known as Amesha Spenta, and it cannot be soiled by contact with a dead human body, as death is an evil brought about by Ahriman, the spirit of Evil. For the same reason, Fire, the most holy of the elements, must not come into contact with dead bodies either. As burial in the ground and cremation were prohibited, Zoroastrians adopted the practice of exposing the bodies of their dead in large open-air circular constructions, known as towers of silence, or dakhmeh. A few hours after a death, the body would be brought to the foot of the tower where a ritual ceremony would be held in the presence of relatives and friends of the deceased. The body was then carried by the priests into the tower where it was laid out on flat stones on the ground - thus avoiding any contact with the earth. In a short time the body would be torn apart by vultures and crows; the bones were then thrown into a circular pit in the centre of the tower.
Zoroastrian women can be recognised by their patterned head-scarves and embroidered dresses with predominant colours of white, cream or red. They never wear chadors, but do follow the strict hejab laws governing women's dress.