Though it didn't become a formalized religion until the 6th century B.C., Zoroastrianism has existed in some form for approximately 3,000 years. It once attracted millions of worshipers to temples across the Persian Empire, and while numbers have diminished significantly, modern temples seek to preserve the religion's tradition of prayer and worship.
Because Zoastrian scriptures make no mention of specific places of worship, historians and theologians surmise that Zoroastrianism lacked temples or altars until approximately 430 B.C.. Instead, it is believed that followers prayed in front of open windows where they could see sunlight -- a symbol of Ahura Mazda, the lord of light and wisdom. When individuals wanted to pray communally, they would gather at an outdoor meeting place, often on hillsides and hilltops.
The element of fire is essential to Zoroastrian worship as the primary manifestation of Ahura Mazda, and by the first century A.D., followers moved their worship indoors in order to protect the flame from being extinguished. These new fire temples became the center of worship for Zoroastrians and prevented the fire from denuding nearby forests. In Persian, the fire temples were called astash gahs and typically had four large arches oriented to the four cardinal directions. Fire keepers maintained these small, plain structures and used the position of the sun to determine seasons and important dates.
Modern Zoroastrian worship still centers around an altar and burning flame, though the sites of worship now exist in several different sizes and shapes. Temples typically have an inner sanctum where Zoroastrian priests and their attendants maintain the flame and conduct private rituals. This area is called the pavi and contains demarcated areas that the laity cannot enter. As with all Zoroastrian worship sites, congregants gather and pray around a fire urn, located on an elevated surface in the pavi.
Elements of Temple Worship
Zoroastrians believe that temple flames must be kept burning at all times and temples such as the Yazd Atash Bahram take pride in having flames that have been kept burning for hundreds of years. Burial ceremonies are one of the many rites conducted at Zoroastrian temples, and require the faithful to bring a dog before the corpse so that it may watch over the soul of the departed. When not observing these rituals or festivals, many followers choose to worship at home, since Zoroastrianism does not require communal worship. According to a September 2006 article published in the "New York Times," this liberal stance toward temple attendance has contributed to dwindling numbers of worshipers.
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