Yazd Towers of Silence: Two Zoroastrian Soaring Graveyards
Yazd is one of the major tourist attractions in Iran not only because of housing the largest adobe neighborhood in the world (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), but also because of hosting a Zoroastrian minority whose unique way of life has contributed largely to fame of this old city.
In another article, we have extensively talked about the Fire Temple of Yazd, the house of the ancient religion of Iran, Zoroastrianism. In this article, we are going to tell you about a Zoroastrian’s journey to his/her permanent house after life. To achieve this goal, in this article we explore the old graveyard of Zoroastrians in Yazd, called Dakhmeh (Dakhma) or Towers of Silence, and also the death rituals performed there.
So, make sure to read our article to learn whatever you need to know before setting foot in this unique Zoroastrian land of the dead, The Towers of Silence.
Khorshid Negareshi or the Zoroastrian Death Ritual
Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Iran during the rule of the Achaemenid and Sassanian dynasties. As part of their religious code, Zoroastrians believed in the purity of the four fundamental elements of the universe, that is, the air, the earth, the wind and the fire. Consequently, polluting these four essential elements was considered a grave sin.
In this context, the corpse of a dead person was considered as the greatest pollutant of the four elements. But why? Well, Zoroastrians saw a live human body as the house of a pure spirit. However, whenever the death intervened, this pure spirit left the body, giving up his abode to an impure, satanic one. Obviously, this impurity was not allowed to touch the four pure elements. Therefore, instead of burying their dead, throwing them into the water or cremating them, Zoroastrians left the dead bodies on high places to be scavenged by vultures and dried by sun and, finally, washed away from the surface of the Earth. Among Zoroastrians, this process is known as “Khorshid Negareshi” or “observed by the sun.”
To perform the ritual of “Khorshid Negareshi,” certain structures were also needed to be built. These secluded monuments, a mysterious stretch of land in the realm of death, came to be known as “Dakhmeh.”
The appellation “Towers of Silence,” used mostly by Western writers, is said to be coined by Robert Murphy, a translator for the British colonial government of India in early 19th century.
The structure of Towers of Silence
As mentioned before, towers of silence were build atop hills or low mountains, outside the surrounding villages or towns, to keep people away from poisonous gases emanating from the decomposing bodies. Generally speaking, towers of silence were circular in shape, fenced with high walls constructed out of stone and cement and equipped with a low iron door for entry and exit.
The inner area of the tower was basically divided into three concentric circles or “Pavis”: the outer, largest pavi was dedicated to the bodies of men, the middle one to women and the inner pavi, the smallest one, to babies and kids.
These stone-carpeted divisions were slightly sloped toward a well in the middle of the tower, known as “Ostoudan” or “Saradeh.” Functionally, ostoudan was used as an ossuary. Actually, when the bodies were scavenged by birds like vultures and bleached by the sun, the bones were collected and thrown into the ostoudan.
Additionally, the main ostoudan was connected to four other wells through different tunnels. Dug outside and around the main tower, these wells were filled with coal. So, whenever it rained, the water washing the pavis and the bones in the ostoudan was channeled to these extra wells and purified by passing through the piles of coal. In this way, the area surrounding the tower was kept clean.
But, how did people get to the towers? Well, reaching the towers was made possible by a long flight of stone stairs, taking people from the foot of the hill or mountain to its peak.
A Short History of Yazd Towers of Silence
The Towers of Silence in Yazd actually includes two towers: 1. Manokji Limooj Haterya and,2. Golestan. Below we give you a brief history of these two towers, built during the 19th and 20th centuries.
- Manokji Limooj Haterya
This Dakhmeh was built by Manokji Limooj Haterya, a Parsee living in India, in 1856. At its entrance, on a stone inscription, the date and name of its founder were mentioned. Furthermore, at the entrance of the dakhmeh, there is a chamber. Earlier, there was another stone inscription mentioning the construction of building by Manojki. In the inscription, Muslims and Zoroastrians are advised not to touch the corpse of their dead person according to their documented reports.
Maokji Dakhmeh is built with stone. Its interior is divided into three parts, as we mentioned before. The floor of the dakhmeh is flat and paved. Its interior diameter is 28.40 m and the ossuary’s diameter is 10 m.
- Golestan Dakhmeh
This monument was built as a circular tower in 1931. The tower’s diameter is 29.40 m and the diameter of the ossuary is 5.40 m. To reach Golestan Tower, you should ascend a rocky road, about 2 meters wide. The tower is constructed out of stone, but the walls are covered with thatch and plaster. There is a brick chamber next to the entrance of the dakhmeh. It seems it was used by the tower’s guard or for arranging the ceremony before putting the corpse into the tower. The walls of the tower are three meters high.
Other Structures Found in Yazd Towers of Silence
Entering Yazd Towers of Silence, in addition to the main two towers mentioned above, you will notice a number of structures scattered at the foot of the hills. Taken together, these monuments make a complex known as Kheyleh, used during the mourning ceremony or “Porsea” of the departed person. The monuments include:
- Water Cistern: The Kheyleh in Yazd Towers of Silence includes a water-cistern, biasting two delicately designed brick-lattice wind-catchers. To reach the water, you have to descend two flights of stairs; the first one composed of thirty steps and the second one of fifteen steps. This water-cistern was built by Fereydoun Khosrow Ghasemabadi in memory of his wife, Nasrin Rashidi.
- Fire Temple: Adjacent to the dakhmeh, there used to be a conical fire temple, housing the sacred court fire. Whenever a person died, the guard attending the fire temple kept the court fire alight for three days in memory of the deceased. For this reason, the guards were also called “fire burners”.
- a room for the fire temple’s guard,
- a room for Nesa-Salar,
- rooms to hold the mourning ceremonies,
- rooms for storing the corpse and antiseptic material,
- and, finally, several shafts to which people fastened their animals.
Zoroastrian Funerary Ceremony
When a Zoroastrian person passed away, his relatives closed their eyes, put their hand on the chest and folded their legs up to his knees in order to be placed in a casket and carried easily.
Then, he was washed at home and put on the ground or an iron bed to be covered with a nine-folded clean shroud. Then, those present recited some parts of the Avesta or Gahanbar as a requiem for the departed.
After these ceremonies at home, the corpse carriers or “Pishgahanan” carried the dead bodies to dakhmeh. The number of attending pishgahanan was always even, that is, two, four or six.
In dakhmeh, they put the corpse in the hands of Nesa-Salar. The male nesasalar washed the males and the female nesasalar washed the females. Then, the corpse was put in a metal casket called “Gahn” or “Gahan” and taken to the main tower to go to his eternal abode.
In the past days, to ensure that a dead person was really dead, Zoroastrians put a sacred loaf of bread, called “Draona”, on the chest of the deceased. Afterwards, they brought a dog to corpse. If the trained dog didn’t eat the bread, they understood that the person was for example in comma as a result of a stroke. But if the dog took the bread, it meant that there was no cause to doubt the death of the departed. So, the corpse was carried to dakhmeh.
Before reaching the dakhmeh, there was a building in which the dead person’s relatives offered food, fruits and drinks for the forgiveness of the dead soul. There, as the last step, the pries read a special prayer from Ahunavaiti Gathas before the corpse.
The New Cemetery of Zoroastrians
The ceremony of Khorshi-Negareshi continued until the years 1318 and 1319. However, when Reza Khan came to power, Zoroastrians were prevented to use the towers of silence in certain cities such as Tehran. Consequently, Zoroastrians began burying the dead in graves, fortified with cement and rock in order to avoid the contamination of the soil. It is believed that Zoroastrians stopped using the towers since the 1320s in Kerman and since the 1340s in Yazd. However, there are some who believe that the dakhmehs were closed in Yazd in the year 1350.