What can we learn about long-term thinking from millennia-old Zoroastrian fire rituals?
By Richard Fisher | Long Now
Apr 13, 02023
At some point in the late fifth century, as the Western Roman empire fell, a group of Zoroastrian priests in Iran’s Fars Province lit a very special fire.
As the days passed, they kept the flame burning. Years became decades, and decades became centuries, with the fire moving between various locations, until it eventually ended up in the Yazd, a desert city around 600 km (373 miles) south-east of Tehran. In 01934, a new temple was built there to house it, where it continues to burn to this day. It’s one of only nine in the world – a flame that has been kept alive for more than 1,500 years.
The Eternal Flame of the Yazd Fire Temple in Iran. سیده زینب صفوی, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
This millennia-old Zoroastrian fire is an extraordinary act of long-minded maintenance – and one of many examples of long-term thinking in my new book The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time (Wildfire, March 02023). What might we learn from it if we want to think with a longer perspective?
The Yazd temple (constructed 01934) in 02018. Courtesy of R.shahi24, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Yazd temple that houses the 1,500-year-old fire today is situated on a busy street with cafés, clothing stores and a tourist information centre. Once you are inside the gate, however, the world outside fades into the background. Visitors encounter a peaceful garden, containing a round pool of water lined with benches and conical trees. Beyond that is a light-coloured, one-storey brick building, with a portico topped by the Zoroastrian ‘Faravahar’ symbol: a bird’s wings outstretched like an aeroplane viewed from above, with a holy male figure for a head.
Inside the building, the everlasting fire burns within a goblet. Several times a day, priests wearing all white tend the flames with a mixture of long-burning hardwood and sweet-scented softwood. Non-Zoroastrians are not allowed to go close, but visitors can view the chamber from the entrance hall. Looking at the fire through a tinted glass window, you can see the faint reflection of tourists peering in with their cameras, attempting to capture an image that will no doubt have faded or digitally decayed long before the flame goes out.
Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest faiths, and was founded approximately 3,500 years ago. It is based on the teachings of the Iranian prophet Zarathustra (also known as Zoroaster). In the Yazd fire temple, he is depicted in a painting with a bushy beard and long hair, a halo behind his head, carrying a staff and holding up a single finger, his eyes gazing upward.
A depiction of Zoroaster in the Yazd fire temple.
With believers concentrated mainly in Iran and India, Zoroastrianism is much smaller than the major global religions: between 100,000-200,000 followers by some estimates. But over the centuries, Zoroastrian practices and writings have significantly influenced other faiths, as well as intersecting with the politics of states and empires. It gave Christianity the three wise men who attended the birth of Jesus – scholars reckon they were Zoroastrian priests – and supposedly helped to inspire Judaism’s theology of the afterlife, with the idea that what you do on Earth affects your fate after you die.
Zoroastrians have a particularly strong relationship with fire, which they see as a focus for ritual and contemplation. The ancient flames they tend are called Atash Bahrams, which means ‘victorious fire’. The fires are not worshipped, but when standing nearby, believers feel they are in the presence of the deity Ahura Mazdā. The flame can be symbolic of various things, expressing inspiration, compassion, truth, devotion, as well as continuity and change.
The Atash Bahram fire at Udvada has burned for more than a millennium, and has been held at its current location since the mid-eighteenth century.
Atash Bahram fires are extraordinarily difficult to start, which explains why there are so few of them. The oldest fire in India, for example, has stayed burning for more than 1,000 years in a village called Udvada, north of Mumbai. To start it, Zoroastrian priests had to walk back to Iran to fetch a collection of sacred items called the alat – such as holy ash, a ring and the hair of a bull. En route they had to hide to avoid enemy armies and could not cross any rivers or seas, because fire and water cannot mix. It then took 14,000 hours of ritual. But here’s where it got really difficult: an Atash Bahram must be made by combining 16 different fires, taken from the homes of various professions such as a bricklayer, baker, warrior and artisan, plus the fire of a burning corpse and the fire of lightning. The latter fire is particularly difficult to source, because two Zoroastrians have to witness the lightning, and within a rainy storm hope that the strike sets something alight.
It is of course impossible to verify if the ancient fires have ever fizzled out once or twice. One can imagine that the chain has been disrupted by war, disease or natural disaster – and across 1,500 years there must have been many close calls. But the tending of the Atash Bahram flames is nonetheless one of the world’s longest-term commitments to a single act. And remarkably, it has endured through the medium of one of the world’s most ephemeral substances: a flame.
In The Long View, I write about how it’s possible to develop different “timeviews”: alternative perspectives of one’s place within the past, present and future to the dominant short-termist timeview of the modern age. The tending of the Zoroastrian flame is an example of what I call the continuity timeview: an approach to long-term stewardship defined by cross-generational baton-passing; a focus on making things last. (Another example would be the 20-year reconstruction cycle of the Grand Shrine in Ise, which Long Now’s Alexander Rose observed first-hand in 02013.)
So, what elements of the Zoroastrian faith led to this longevity, apart from pious dedication?
The everlasting flames show that it’s not necessary to leave behind something designed to last forever if you want to bridge across the long term. While Zoroastrianism certainly has its precious treasures, such as the alat used to start an Atash Bahram, arguably the faith’s most valuable heirlooms are instead their community practices and habits. It is these that define the continuity timeview.
While Zoroastrianism has its fair share of holy artifacts – both ancient and modern – the most long-lasting parts of its traditions are intangible rituals.
Like so many faiths and cultures, Zoroastrianism emphasizes that there is a bond between generations. Through a shared act, by focusing attention on a fire that must be tended, the Zoroastrians pass a sacred responsibility forward. What makes this so powerful is that along the way, individuals personally benefit with status and other rewards.
But this is not the only long-minded lesson we might draw from the continuity timeview. Another crucial way that Zoroastrianism – or indeed any successful religion – passes ideas across time is via the power of ritual.
The performance of ritual can be traced into human prehistory. But as societies grew larger, the more routine community-building rituals of faith came into their own, such as prayer, music, tending flames, ceremonies and more. According to the anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse at the University of Oxford, rituals helped to foster the trust, cooperation and cohesion that enabled civilizations to flourish: a social glue that bound people together across space and time.
Rituals helped to spread the idea of what a ‘good’ citizen should be, gluing together heterogenous societies. Every time a prayer was recited or a ceremony performed, it signalled a commitment to shared moral beliefs and collective goals among disparate people. As the Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun observed in the fourteenth century, rituals fostered asabiyah, which in Arabic roughly means ‘social cohesion’, transporting solidarity beyond direct kinship to a national scale.
Over time, ritual practices became ever-more embedded in the major organized religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism. They are all different in detail, but have much in common.
Many involve synchrony or display, such as the Islamic call to prayer or the Christian singing of hymns. Food makes a regular appearance, such as in Catholic Communion, or the Buddhist preparation of meals to feed hungry ghosts (a neglected spirit or ancestor). Fire or burning incense is also seen across countries and faiths – the lighting of candles to mark the start of the shabbat, or the diya lamps during Diwali. And so is cleansing, such as the various procedures followed before entering temples, or the Hindu practice of bathing the body in holy rivers before festivals.
For the Zoroastrians, tending the fire is a ritual in itself, and the locus for regular ceremonies to mark occasions, called jashan, which involve implements such as fruits, nuts and wheat pudding in metallic trays placed on a white sheet with milk, wine and flowers, led by a priest called a zoatar, while another person looks after the fire: an atravakshi.
Plenty of rituals have no obvious reason to be performed in the specific way that they are, and one culture’s ritual norm can raise eyebrows in another. But the detail does not matter. It’s about the ideas they carry, and the community behaviours they help to foster. As well as encouraging repetition and remembrance, these rituals are a way of forging a relationship with longer-term time, marking beginnings and endings, as well as a connection with ancestors. Rituals therefore are a human behaviour by which ideas can travel across decades and centuries.
If a non-believer or secular organization were hoping to become more long-minded and create ideas that endure, they might do well to ask: what rituals and traditions bring their communities together?
Some rationally minded sceptics might be reluctant to participate in a spiritual practice, but not all rituals involve deities or worship.
Gatherings at The Interval, the Long Now Foundation’s bar and gathering space in San Francisco, play an important ritual role within the organization.
Recently, I asked Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, the director of strategy at the Long Now Foundation, how he thinks about ‘long rituals’ within the organisation. He cited the obvious events like the monthly seminars the foundation holds, inviting speakers to talk about long-minded research or writing, as well as more casual meetings for the broader Long Now community at The Interval, Long Now’s office, bar, and gathering-place in San Francisco, California. But there are also less frequent traditions that Brysiewicz and his colleagues follow: for example, the team makes regular camping “pilgrimages” to the original site of the 10,000 Year Clock project in Eastern Nevada. Then there’s the annual Lost Landscapes of San Francisco event in December with the Prelinger Library, he says, and the concomitant Winter Party for members and friends.
Through these activities, Brysiewicz and his colleagues are participating in the same kind of shared acts and ritual practices that have connected people for centuries – bearing witness to oration, finding fellowship in communal meals, pilgrimage, and honouring important sites.
If you think about it, your life is probably already packed with rituals: national holidays, sports events, family traditions, and far more. They can be celebratory, such as a song sung over a birthday cake, or sombre, such as a minute’s silence to remember the dead. But one question to ask yourself might be: which ones are promoting the principles of maintenance and stewardship?
Whether it is the commitment to a single act, such as tending the everlasting Zoroastrian flame, or participation in a chain of acts, observing rituals connects us across space and time. They are one of the most long-minded habits we have.
Richard Fisher is the author of The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time (Wildfire), which was published in the UK and other territories on 30 March 02023. He writes the newsletter The Long View: A Field Guide.