Do human beings (living things) have real “free will”? The philosophical debate over this question probably will continue eternally even as most people believe they know the answer. I maintain that we do have “free will," but only a little (let’s guess 5%). That little bit, a divine “spark," sets in motion an alteration of fixed destinies that evolve as people multiply and shift the course of history.
Earth, air, water, and fire were the most evident powers available to human dwellers in the deserts and mountains of central Asia as early civilization took root. Most dynamic and evidently life-affirming in a visible sense to the people then was the phenomenon of fire — a heat generated by a “spark” and a power capable of destroying or creating things. There was, in another way to put it, a good and evil.
Image of Zoroaster taken by me at current fire temple
Way back when, even predating Judaism, the one true god, Ahura Mazda (Lord of Wisdom), was proclaimed in pre-Persia as the uncreated spirit, wholly wise, benevolent and good, as well as the creator and upholder of Asha (“truth," as opposed to druj, or “lie”), by the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra). Fire was "grandly conceived as a force informing all the other Amesha Spentas [Immortals], giving them warmth and the spark of life.” (Mary Boyce, 1975, A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. I, Leiden/Köln: Brill; and others).
In Zoroastrianism, the purpose in life is to "be among those who renew the world...to make the world progress towards perfection".
At the time of Darius, Ahura Mazda, the divine creator, was symbolized by a "faravar,"a guardian angel holding a solar disc (apparently the Hittites used this symbol also). This symbol is at the Zoroastrian temple in Yazd. See below - the faravar and solar ring also seem to be inscribed in the cliff walls above the tombs at Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rostam.
Above the City of Persepolis (note the faravar -- a bird-like symbol alongside a round ball)
Naqsh-e Rostam - Tombs of Xerxes, Artaxerxes I and Darius II (an exchange of a ring, ie, maybe the sun)
In modern Iran, traveling south from Kashan to Yazd, we drift back in time and circulate with the ghosts of the so-called “fire worshippers.” The religion persists today, but only in a minority of worshippers (estimated less than 200,000), scattered about Iran and India. Zoroastrianism is first mentioned in recorded history in the 5th-century BCE, and along with a Mithraic influence, served as the state religion of the pre-Islamic Iranian empires for more than a millennium, from around 600 BCE to 650 CE. Zoroastrianism was suppressed from the 7th century onwards following the Muslim conquest of Persia of 633–654.
The older Mithraic faith (Yazdânism) apparently is still practiced amongst Kurds. And of course the name of the city of Yazd, in Iran's central desert, suggests a hangover influence of the Mithra, the Light of the World, identified with Sol Invictus (the great "bull" of the sun), who was born like Jesus on December 25th (a virgin beginning) and also like Jesus ascended to the heavens with 12 disciple-like angels. (I encountered evidence of the bull's and the lion's enigmatic interference in human affairs throughout Iran, depicted on its palaces and antiquities).
Aqa Bozorg Mosque (Kashan)
Before leaving old Kashan, on the road to Yazd, one of the finest examples of much more recent 18th-19th Century Islamic architecture beckons from the city center. The mosque known Aqa Bozorg points in many places to a different heaven than the one championed by Zoroaster. The buildings' motif is spare but beautiful, as color of the finished core is juxtaposed against bare brick as though mimicking an unfinished picture puzzle.
Many famous artists of the area contributed to the wall art of a complex that serves as both a mosque and a theological seminary.
South from Kashan, passing the Karkas mountain subgroup and entering the heart of the Persian sun world, an ancient redoubt named Ardestan nurtures a prominent landmark that retains fire-worshipper origins.
Ardestan is located in the proximity of Dasht-e Kavir, a desert. Its inhabitants had to face extreme heat for most of the year and lack of water. Water though was available at mountain springs and long tunnels (qanats) were excavated to carry it to the town into domed storage structures, limiting its evaporation. Natural air conditioning towers catch the wind and push air downwards reducing its temperature. Nearby shabestans are cool temperature-moderated underground halls built at the qanat level.
In Ardestan, a large water storage complex resides adjacent to one of the most exquisite older religious centers of Iran, the Jameh Friday Mosque.
Note the fine art of the brick ceiling of the north Iwan
In old Ardestan a primeval mosque, which consisted of a single domed sanctuary, was built in the 10th century to fit Islamic sensibilities but sources suggest the site served 4 epochs of congregations. It is a particularly compelling historical structure because it displays some of the refinement of the unfinished brickwork patterns that in modern times are being restored with tiles and artwork reminiscent of the original intention of these exquisite buildings.
The mosque's five entrances join a pebbled courtyard that is enclosed by rows of arcades interrupted by an iwan (open three-sided arched hall) on either side. The south sanctuary with the main mihrab (a prayer niche) is beneath a two-shelled brick dome dated from 1158-1160. The south iwan displays patterns inscribed in brick and stucco (not tiles). Its vault features whirling arabesques made of brick and whitewash. The main mihrab is ranked among the best achievements of Seljuk Turk plaster art. It has seven rows of inscriptions in Kufic, Naskh, and Taliq, carved on a background of stucco flowers and arabesques. (see gallery below).
As a note of interest, the Seljuks were followers of Sunni Islam (not Shia) and sponsored the construction of many large mosques and medreses (colleges for Islamic study).
Ceiling of the outer chamber
In another nearby town, Na'in, a magnificent mosque sits atop a qanat and water pool and dark chambers and passages that once shielded congregants and worshippers, perhaps even pre-Islamic Zoroastrians, from the torrid climate.
The somber cool chambers below ground hold many secrets and tales, I have no doubt. Silent jugs bear witness to many visitors even as they once also held water and/or ceremonial ointments for use over many centuries.
Finally, while there is much else going on in this region of northern Esfahan Province, probably the most notable takeaway is the sheer audacity of Persian endeavors in this challenging rocky land over thousands of years. The Darius's and his minions of Zoroastrian believers built monuments to heaven.
Today, the Iranian uranium enrichment program, a bone of contention globally, continues on a scaled back basis in underground bunkers scattered about the hills near Natanz.
A bunker near Natanz
Gallery: Additional images inside the Ardestan Mosque
(To be continued)