A CRUMBLING TEMPLE for an ancient religion lies hidden from the street, just beyond the fields of Mnazi Moja. All but forgotten, its doors are rarely opened; the once prominent Zoroastrians have all but disappeared from Zanzibar. Their fire temple, now falling to ruin, was once a place where worshippers gathered to celebrate their god, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord), and where weddings were held and people buried.
Article by Vanessa Beddoe | Swahili Coast
Movie reels now lie scattered throughout the buildings, from the days when Zanzibar had an operating cinema run by a Zoroastrian family. Prayer books, coated in dust and debris from the falling ceiling, are littered about the temple. Photographs and paintings of prominent Zoroastrian families from the past 100 or so years are stacked against the walls, still in their elaborate frames.
This is the Zanzibar that you dream about. Mysterious and charming, crumbling and beautiful…and all but forgotten.
Zoroastrianism is the oldest recorded religion in the world and its ancient scriptures, known as Avesta, have had a profound influence on mankind, both directly and indirectly. The Avesta speaks of individual judgement, Heaven and Hell, the future resurrection of the body, and life everlasting for the soul and body– doctrines that were to influence the teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The dominant world religion during the Persian empires (559 BC to 651 AD), Zoroastrianism was the most powerful world religion at the time of Jesus, and the Magi who brought gifts to Christ were Zoroastrian.
The Zoroastrian religion was founded by Zarathushtra, more than 3000 years ago. Zarathushtra lived and preached in the Inner Asian steppes and Zoroastrians believe that he received his revelations directly from Ahura Mazda and his Archangels (Amesha Spentas). Two sacred garments, the shirt (sudreh) and the cord (kusti) are the emblems of the reli- gion and devout Zoroastrians perform a short cleansing ritual and retie the cord several times a day as a sign of their faith. Other prayers are recited daily from the Avesta, with prayers spoken in the Avestan language. The faithful also participate in seasonal communal festivals during the year.
So what do the estimated 140,000 remaining Zoroastrians worldwide believe? Their god, Ahura Mazda, is considered ‘all good’, and
created the world and all good things, including people; he is opposed by Anghra Mainyu (Destructive Spirit), the embodiment of evil and creator of all evil things. A cosmic battle between good and evil will ultimately lead to the destruction of all evil. Fire, the ‘original light of God’, holds a special place of esteem in the religion. Prayer often takes place in front of a fire, and consecrated fires are kept perpetually burning in the major temples.
Zoroastrianism is often referred to as the ‘Parsi’ faith. Parsi are a remnant of the great Persian Empire, which was toppled by invading Muslims around 1400 years ago. Some, known as Irani, took refuge in the desert, while others, later joined by the Irani, fled to Gujarat in northern India. It is these Indian Zoroastrians who are termed Parsi.
The Parsis erected Zoroastrian fire temples, where a flame is kept burning as a symbol of the life cycle and eternal recurrence. Their ‘Towers of Silence’ – the tall buildings in which they leave their dead – have the ancient religious purpose of affirming the equality of all men in death. Vultures remove the flesh from the bodies, and the bones turn to dust
The religion may have first swept into Zanzibar with monsoon dhows from India and
Arabia, over two thousand years ago. More recently, during the 1940s, many Parsis moved to Zanzibar from India, to work as civil servants for the British colonial government. This is what brought the parents of Farokh Bulsara (more commonly known as Freddie Mercury) to Zanzibar’s shores.
Today, most of the Zoroastrian tradition in Zanzibar has been lost after a millennium of Islam, the one exception being the annual Mwaka Kogwa festival ‘Year of the Washed’, which is a traditional Zoroastrian New Year celebration. The festival has been somewhat reinterpreted by Zanzibaris, who celebrate Mwaka Kogwa with the building of huge bon- fires, the staging of mock fights, men dressed as women, and a high consumption of alcohol. Zanzibar is the only place in the world where the festival is officially observed and celebrated by most of the population.
The future of Zanzibar’s fire temple is unknown: it’s rumoured to have been sold, but restoration is urgently needed to stop it falling to the ground. A short stroll from Stone Town along Nyerere Road, the temple is closed to visitors, although it’s possible to catch a glimpse through the wrought iron gates and over the fence. If you’re passing by, it’s worth pausing outside this hidden relic of Zanzibar’s past, if only to contemplate an all but forgotten religion that has quietly influenced so many.