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ETHNONYMS: Gabar, Gabr, Guebre, Zardoshti


Identification. The ethnic identity of this Iranian minority group is derived from their religion, Zoroastrianism. They constitute only 0.18 percent of the Iranian population. The term "Zoroastrian" is taken from the name of their prophet Zarathushtra (Greek: Zoroaster). The majority Muslims of Iran considered them to be "infidels," hence the Zoroastrians were known as "Guebres" (Gabrs, Gabars).

Location. The Zoroastrians are spread throughout Iran, which has an area of 1,648,000 square kilometers. It is bordered in the north by the Caspian Sea and in the south by the Persian Gulf. Fifty percent of the land is desert, mostly concentrated in the center of the country. Annual rainfall in Iran is 127 centimeters in the mountains of the west and southwest and 6 centimeters in the Central Plateau. Temperature varies from -28° C in the mountains to 55° C in the desert. The province of Yazd, in the Central Plateau, is considered to be their religious center.

Demography. According to the Iranian censuses of 1956 and 1966, the Zoroastrians were concentrated in villages, provincial towns, and the capital city of Tehran. In 1956, 42 percent and in 1986, 15 percent of the Zoroastrian population were living in villages. Today, because of favorable economic opportunities, the majority are residing in cities, especially in Tehran. As a result, a number of villages have been abandoned. In 1971 Fischer recorded that the population of the village of Sharifabad, the most traditional Zoroastrian village, was declining. The village has since been entirely abandoned, and most of the inhabitants have established themselves in Tehran. Other villages, such as Astarabad (Gorgān) and Sadrabad, have also been vacated. In 1969 there were an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Zoroastrians in Iran; the 1986 census placed the figure at 90,891. There were 200 to 300 Zoroastrians residing in Tehran at the beginning of the twentieth century, 10,000 in 1971, and 24,240 in 1986. Early in the nineteenth century 7,000 to 8,000 were living in Yazd; their numbers had shrunk to 5,000 in 1971, and to 4,685 by 1986. According to the 1986 census data, there were 3,882 Zoroastrians in Kermān Province, 1,417 in Māzanderān, 5,794 in Esfahän, 5,008 in Gilān, 10,575 in Khorāsān, and 1,007 in Kurdistan. There have also been rumors of traditional villages existing in the valleys of the Alborz (Elborz) Mountains, but this has not been confirmed to date. In 1990 it was reported that some 20,000 Zoroastrians were residing in Tajikistan. The Zoroastrian population is relatively young. In 1986, 70 percent of the population was below the age of 30.

Linguistic Affiliation. Farsi, (Parsi, Persian) is the official language of Iran. This language belongs to the Indo-European Family of languages. The Iranian Branch of this family is spoken in an area ranging from the Pamir region on the east to the eastern border of Iraq on the west. The modern Persian language is derived from Dari, which was spoken in eastern parts of Iran. The transformation to the modern version occurred between the third and ninth centuries a.d. (Ahsan 1976). The Zoroastrians speak their own special dialect in addition to Farsi. Some scholars have classified it as Dari, but this has been a matter of debate. The Zoroastrian religious text is written in Avestan, the language spoken by early Zoroastrians. This language is also a member of the Indo-European Family and is closely related to Sanskrit (Wilber 1948, 23). The Avestan language was developed during the fifth century a.d. for the specific purpose of recording religious material; the existing languages were considered inadequate for the correct pronunciation of their holy words.

History and Cultural Relations

It is believed that the roots of the Zoroastrians are embedded in a tribal/pastoral ancestry. They resided in an area between the mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush and Seistan, a territory now divided between Iran and Afghanistan. Zoroaster, their prophet, is assumed to have been born between 2,600 and 3,500 years ago. His philosophy, which also set the foundations for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, originated in the northeast of Iran and spread throughout the south and west during the Achaemenid dynasty (sixth to fourth centuries b.c.). After Alexander's conquest, Greek and Semitic elements penetrated the religion during the rule of the Graeco-Persian satraps (250 b.c. to a.d. 226). The Sāsānid dynasty (a.d. 224 to a.d. 651) adopted Zoroastrianism as the official religion. In the seventh century, after the Arab invasion, Islam replaced Zoroastrianism as the state religion, and the Zoroastrians were subjected to persecution and forced conversion. There ensued a migration of Zoroastrians to India, where today they are known as "Parsis." Many also moved to China, but that community was suppressed during the eleventh century. The Zoroastrians remaining in Iran were able to survive in conditions of extreme poverty and discrimination. By the thirteenth century, their numbers were extremely low, and thereafter they disappear from the historical record. It was during the seventeenth century, when Europeans began to travel in Iran, that other countries learned about their continued existence in Iran.


The Zoroastrian population is distributed between the cities and the villages. For centuries their stronghold was in the provinces of Yazd, Kermān and Fārs, but nowadays the largest populations are in Tehran, Shīrāz, and Eşfahān. The architecture of their houses has been heavily influenced by European styles, and there are no features distinguishing between the modern houses of Zoroastrians and Muslims. This was not the case in the past, however; until 1880, there were restrictions imposed on Zoroastrian architecture. Over the centuries, they had to develop architectural features that would satisfy their religious requirements while providing the security they needed against raids by fanatic Muslims. Most of the architecture that has been studied is located in the province of Yazd. Compared to Muslim houses, those of Zoroastrians used to be much smaller, and they lacked double doors, open courtyards, and wind towersthat is, tall chimneys with vents used to cool houses by creating a system of updrafts (Bonine 1980; Beazley 1977). To compensate for the lack of wind towers, they had to increase the number of air vents and holes in the roof. Roofs were restricted in height; Zoroastrians therefore built the main level of houses below ground level. Until the last two decades of the nineteenth century, two types of house were found among the Zoroastrians of Yazd, the do-pesgami and cor-pesgami, which differed in the manner in which their internal space was divided. Both types of dwellings featured a pesgam-i mas (great hall) and a pesgam-i vrok (small hall). These rooms were set aside for religious activities. (Muslim houses do not contain a room designated for religious observance.) The pesgam-i mas was never built facing the main door, in order to protect it from the eyes of those considered to be unclean according to the Zoroastrian religion. The corpesgami was much larger in size and was built in a cruciform shape (Boyce 1971a). The main characteristic found in a traditional Zoroastrian house is an open hearth in the kitchen, in which to maintain the sacred fire (the principal symbol of their religion). Clay boxes in the yard are used to sow herbs during festivals. Distinguishing features of every Zoroastrian community are the fire temples in which the holy fire is kept and members attend prayers and other religious activities. For centuries, communities concealed the location of the fire temples for fear of attacks by Muslims; fire temples were built to look like humble Zoroastrian dwellings (Boyce 1966). The restrictions imposed on Zoroastrian architecture were eliminated during the late 1920s, after the Pahlavi dynasty guaranteed Zoroastrian security. Today it is very difficult to differentiate their dwelling places from those of other ethnic and religious groups.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Until the nineteenth century, Zoroastrians were forbidden to follow any skilled trade or craft that could bring them into close contact with Muslims. The elder generation of contemporary Zoroastrians consists mostly of farmers, especially among those living in the villages. Because of educational opportunities made available during the Pahlavi dynasty, however, most Zoroastrians occupy various positions as teachers, doctors, engineers, bank clerks, private entrepreneurs, and the like. Owing to their improved economic status, Zoroastrians began to donate part of their wealth toward the construction of schools, hospitals, cultural centers, and places of worship. As in India, most Zoroastrians enjoy good reputations, owing to their honesty. Because many of Iran's professionals are Zoroastrians, their per capita income is above that of the rest of the Iranian population.

Industrial Arts. There are no specific industrial activities associcated with Zoroastrians.

Trade. Until the 1860s, Zoroastrians were not allowed to trade; they were thus forced to hide various goods in their cellars and sell them secretly. In the early 1900s they were given permission to trade in hostelries. These restrictions have been lifted, and many Zoroastrians are participating in various forms of trade.

Division of Labor. The women are mainly responsible for performing domestic duties and bringing up the children. The degree to which a woman contributes to the family income depends on the level of education of the head of the household. If the husband has had a college education, he is usually more tolerant of a woman finding a job and contributing to the finances of the household. Under the Islamic Republic of Iran, however, different means have been developed to force women to remain at home. Family-protection laws have been abolished, and abortion has been outlawed; women have been dismissed from high positions in the government and in the private sector; coeducation and coed sports have been banned; women have been prevented from participating in public tournaments; and an Islamic code of dress has been imposed on women, regardless of their religious orientation (Nashat 1980).

Land Tenure. Following the Islamic Revolution of 19791980, there was widespread confiscation of land, especially from those who were associated with the previous government of the Pahlavi dynasty. Private lands were seized and were to be transferred to villagers. In October 1986 the Iranian Majlis (the lower house of Parliament) approved the Temporary Cultivation Bill. This bill provides for the transfer of lands that had been seized immediately after the Revolution from owners to cultivators; however, the transfers have not been completed (Bakhash 1989).


Kin Groups and Descent. The relationship between kin is much stronger than other social connections. A "family" consists of parents, offspring, and near and distant relatives. Relatives are expected to be financially responsible for each other. It is through their individual acts that near and distant kin influence each other's status in society. For example, when an individual reaches a high social standing, a number of relatives will surround him and create a new sociopolitical group. Marriage is still considered to be a system uniting two families rather than two individuals. This is the reason for the high percentage of marriages within the kinship group. The kinship group is also a system of protection. In times of crisis, it is to the family that one goes for security and protection.

Kinship Terminology. The Farsi terminology used for designating various relatives is very specific. The terms used to address uncles or aunts are determined by whether they are paternal or maternal: the maternal uncle is called daye, whereas the paternal uncle is ammu; the term for maternal aunt is khala and that for paternal aunt is ama. The terminology for cousins is also influenced by male or female parentage. The words "daughter" (dokhtar ) or "son" (pessar ) are added to the above terms; thus the daughter of the maternal aunt is addressed as dokhtar khala, the son of the paternal uncle is known as pessar ammu, and so on. The terms for members of the immediate family are madar (mother; Avestan: matar), pidar (father; Avestan: patar), khahar (sister; Avestan: qanhar), and baradar (brother; Avestan: bratar ).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The preferred system of marriage is next-of-kin or cousin marriage. The cousin-marriage system differs little from that of the Muslims. Zoroastrians insist more on marriage within one's religious group than on marriage with someone of equal status. One way for a Zoroastrian to perform social responsibilities is for a rich individual to marry a poor one. The problem that has emerged is the excess of inbreeding: this has resulted in a high recurrence of physiological defects such as diabetes, heart disease, and mental illness. These developments have led many among the younger generation to oppose cousin marriage. Because of the increase in the number of young individuals moving to Europe and the United States and marriage with non-Zoroastrians, there is a possibility of the extinction of the group. This has led to the acceptance of conversions to Zoroastrianism. According to the Zoroastrian anjoman of Iran, the marriage of a Zoroastrian to a non-Zoroastrian must be performed in compliance with Zoroastrian rituals. The marriage must be registered with the Registrar of Zoroastrian Marriages. The individual interested in marrying a Zoroastrian must make application to the anjoman and must submit various documents. The non-Zoroastrian party must certify that he believes in the Zoroastrian faith and will become part of the Zoroastrian community. The authorized mobed (priest) must certify that the person has learned the essential principles and prayers of the religion. A certificate signed by seven Zoroastrians testifying that the individual is of good character and integrity also is required. By Iranian law, a Zoroastrian girl who marries a Muslim boy must become a Muslim. One is not allowed to marry within one's primary and secondary kin. The prohibited group includes grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. The best choice for marriage is with the children of paternal or maternal siblings and more distant cousins. The various steps that must be taken in order to marry are xastegari (expressing the desire for the girl's hand), namzad (engagement), and nikah (marriage) (Fischer 1973, 199-204). It is only during the twentieth century that divorce has been recognized.

Domestic Unit. The head of the household is the father or husband. The members of the family must respect him and submit to his will. In return, he must satisfy their financial, social, and material needs. The wife is expected to perform her wifely duties, which include the care of the home and children. Many women have become educated and have entered the work force. They are thus contributing also to the financial security of the family. In the traditional family, dominance is determined by age and sex. The older dominates the younger, the male dominates the female. The reputation and honor of the family, which are influenced by the accomplishments of the head of the household as well as its individual members, are strictly protected. Households are either conjugal or extended. An extended household includes parents, unmarried children, a married child with a spouse, and grandchildren. The conjugal family simply includes the parents and children.

Inheritance. If a husband dies without a will, a settlement has traditionally been made to the widow after all debts have been paid. Brothers and sisters are technically supposed to receive equal shares; however, a division similar to the Islamic rule of two parts for a son and one part for a daughter has been practiced (Fischer 1973, 196). The rule for division applies only if a husband dies without a will; otherwise, he may pass on his inheritance as he likes.

Socialization. It is the duty of a Zoroastrian to marry and have children. At birth, the child's lips are steeped in haoma (Sanskrit: soma ), which is the juice of an intoxicating plant. The child becomes a full Zoroastrian at the age of 7. The initiation ceremony, sedre-pushun, lasts nine days and requires the learning of a few of the important prayers in Avestan. The child is also given the sacred shirt of cotton (sudre sedre ) and the sacred girdle (kusti ) of fine lamb's wool, which is formed of 72 threads, wound three times around the waist, and tied with three knots. The knots symbolize the three rules of Zoroastrianism, which are "good words, good deeds, and good thoughts." The kusti is tied over the sudra, which has a little purse sewn into the throat. The pocket is to be filled with the results of complying with the three rules. It is to assist the wearer in concentrating on the practice of the faith.

It was not until after the 1870s that Zoroastrians were given permission to establish schools for their children. In the villages, the schools were funded and supported by wealthy Parsis in India. Relative to the entire Iranian population, the level of education of Zoroastrians is high.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The community is divided into two groups, the hereditary priests and the laity. As among the Muslims, the influential families are those that have members strategically distributed throughout the most important sectors of society, each prepared to support the other in order to ensure family prestige and status.

Political Organization. There is no supreme head of the Zoroastrians in Iran. In each city, there is a Zoroastrian association known as the "Anjoman Zardoshtian." Its governing members are elected by the community. Today the anjoman in Tehran, owing to its location, has developed a position of leadership; however, local affairs are handled by the local anjoman. In addition to these associations, each city has a youth club, which is mainly involved with sports and cultural activities. In Tehran, a Zoroastrian Women's Association has also been established. Government officials do recognize minority groups such as the Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. They are permitted to sustain organizations, elect a representative to the Majlis (lower house of Parliament), maintain religious schools, and publish periodicals; however, they are restricted in political activities. Non-Muslims cannot reach command positions in the armed forces and cannot achieve policy-making positions in government. The Zoroastrian community was formerly organized through priest rotation; now it is through appointments and by the influence of the anjoman structure. Formerly there was a katkhoda, a local political leader, and, at the highest level, the kalantar (magistrate) of the entire Zoroastrian community.

Social Control. Of concern to the Zoroastrian community are the ritual calendar, the upkeep of the priesthood, and conversion. There is also a conflict between the younger generation and the older one, which is more orthodox. The community is in transition, and the population is attempting to become Westernized.

Conflict. Boundaries have always been maintained between the various religious groups such as the Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Baha'is, especially under the Islamic government. One of the ways to alleviate intercommunal tension is to allow non-Zoroastrians to enter the fire temples. Muslims have been seen participating in the funerals of Zoroastrian friends. In the past, because of strict Zoroastrian observance of the laws of purity, this was not permitted. Until 1885, the Zoroastrians were subject to various forms of persecution. They were not allowed to wear rings, and their girdles were made of rough canvas. Until 1895, they were not permitted to carry umbrellas or wear glasses or spectacles. Until 1896, they were forced to twist their turbans instead of folding them (Malcolm 1905, 45).

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In Zoroastrianism, moderation, truthfulness, honest dealing, and charity are stressed. Having to capacity to select between good (Ohrmazd) and evil (Ahriman), individuals bear responsibility for their own souls. The Zend-Avesta is the Zoroastrian sacred book. Only a small portion of it, the Gathas, is considered to be the work of the Prophet. Their chief cult objects are fire and water. Water made life possible, and fire was the source of warmth and the means of cooking meat. Zoroaster saw divinity in its flames and called it Atar. Fire thus became the symbol of the religion and of righteousness. The holy fire is kept in their place of worship, which is a fire temple (atesh kadeh ). Five times a day the mobed (priest) sprinkles perfumes on the fire. The lower part of his face is covered with a veil to keep his breath from polluting the sacred fire. Every Zoroastrian has a sacred fire in his own house. Today not many followers participate in templecentered ceremonies. They usually participate twice yearly at festivals during early spring and autumn. Other ceremonies related to initiation, marriage, death, and the seasons are conducted at home.

Religious Practitioners. The priesthood is hereditary. Any male descendant of a priest (mobed/dostur ) to the fifth generation may take up the profession. In the 1970s there were only fifteen active priests in all of Iran. Offerings are part of the required daily priestly activities (see "Ceremonies"). Pav, or "the pure place," is where all the high rituals are performed. This area consists of a small piece of ground, rectangular in shape, its boundaries marked off by prayers to exclude all evil influences. It is also purified with water and prayers. The primary duty of the priest is to keep himself in a state of purity and to pray and perform daily prayers. The rituals must be performed and attended only by those who are spiritually and physically clean. Non-Zoroastrians are usually not allowed to enter the temple because they do not observe the rules of cleanliness prescribed by the religion. The minimum age for the initiation of the priests is 12. The life of the priest is strongly linked with that of the temple. Major ceremonies are performed by a group of priests, the dastur-nishin, who reside near the fire temple.

Ceremonies. The chief ritual is the Yasna, or sacrifice, which includes the offering of haoma, the intoxicating juice of a plant, together with water and milk, presented before the fire and drunk by the priest in honor of Ahura Mazda and lesser deities and for the benefit of the dead and the living. The Yasna, a life rite, strengthens the forces of good against those of evil. In former days, the slaughtering of animals was part of the ritual; this practice survived into medieval times but is now extinct. The two main principles that form the basis of Zoroastrian ethics are the maintenance of life and the struggle against evil. There is a devotion to purity, physical as well as spiritual. The chief feasts are New Year (Nouroz); the equinox between seasons, which is consecrated to Mithra; the days of the dead at the end of the year; and the days of the full moon and new moon. Three offerings, which involve two elements from the plant world and one element from the animal world, are made to the fire. The offering usually consists of dried leaves of herbs and animal fat.

Medicine. Many Zoroastrians have access to modern medical facilities. (It is required that Iranian medical students serve four years as residents in the provinces.) Among the elderly, herbal medicines are used. Some of the traditional medical practices are accompanied with prayers.

Death and Afterlife. The traditional system of disposing of the corpse is the use of the towers of silence, which are technically cemeteries. Three main reasons have been given for their use. First, the corpse is considered to be the most polluting element in the world. The stone platform where the body is placed used to be built away from the area of habitation and the corpse was exposed to sun and vultures. Second, the body was given as a gift of nourishment to the birds. Third was the sub rosa, which is the speed with which a body is disposed of. This is taken as a symbol of the progress of the soul into the other world, and it is a signal for intensification of death ceremonies among the living. Because they live among Muslims, the Zoroastrians were forced to make certain adjustments. The towers of silence are no longer used. The body is now placed on a metal stretcher, the legs of which keep the body away from the ground. The bed of the stretcher is made of strips of metal so that a body, while supported, is also open to surrounding elements. The metal is nonporous, so as not to conduct pollution or disease-bearing microbes. The sides of the grave are cemented and a cement cover is placed on top so that dirt does not fall on the body (Fischer 1973, 63-65). It is believed that for three days the soul haunts the home. On the morning following the third night, the soul is taken by the angel Sorush, who has been protecting it on earth for three nights, to the judgment tribunal (aka ). The soul is judged by using a balance and must cross the Chinvat bridge. If the soul is righteous, the bridge will be wide and will lead the individual to paradise. Good deeds are personified by a beautiful young woman or a handsome man, depending on the gender of the deceased, who will accompany the soul. If the soul was sinful, the bridge will narrow to a razor-sharp edge; the soul will eventually fall into hell and be accompanied by an old and unattractive individual. During the Farvardegan, which is the time to remember the dead, seven kinds of greens (wheat, barley, beans, etc.) are sown, to welcome the spirits with freshness. Most believe that the world of the souls coexists with the world of the living, and dreaming is a method of communication between the two worlds. It is also strongly believed that the soul wanders from the body during the dream state. The sites of visions of saints and angels and of communication from God are often made into shrines. Memorials are held on the tenth day, the thirtieth day, and each month thereafter until the anniversary, and each year until the thirtieth. The ritual setting of these memorials is in the ja-pak (clean place) of the pesgam. It must include four items: wine, milk, pomegranate, and quince. The cult of the ancestral spirit remains very strong among the Zoroastrians.

See also Parsi in Volume 3, South Asia


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