The history of Zoroastrianism began with the Prophet Zarathushtra teaching what was called “the Good Religion,” to ancient Persia and Central Asia. His teachings taught obedience to one god; while he drew a small group of dedicated men and women, he also met with great resistance from local priests and princes. According to legend, Zarathushtra was invited to present his teachings before King Vishtasp, who became one of the first of many rulers in Central Asia to embrace this new and revolutionary faith. The religion continued to evolve into its present form from the belief in a supreme god representing what became the state religion of the Persians. Its present monotheistic and at least what some would call dualistic varieties all involve worship of one god, the good one who will triumph over the evil forces. This represents the dualism in all forms of the faith that goes back to its founder Zarathushtra.
Zoroastrianism gradually gained wider acceptance, becoming the religion of the Achaemenian Empire (550–330 BCE) founded by Cyrus the Great. The Achaemenians established the first “universal empire” across linguistic and cultural frontiers, practicing religious and ethnic tolerance for their subjects. The Achaemenians were defeated by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, and the city of Persepolis, along with its library of religious texts, was destroyed by fire. After nearly a century of Greek rule under the Seleucids, the Parthians (256 BCE–226 CE) came to power and ruled in ancient Iran for many centuries. The Sassanian Empire (226–652 CE) succeeded that of the Parthians and during the next four hundred years, the Sassanian kings established Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Iran. This was the “golden age” of Zoroastrianism, with as many as thirty million people practicing the faith. The liturgy of the Avesta was collected into a cohesive unit, and new literature in the Pahlavi language flourished.
In 652 CE, the Sassanian Empire was defeated by Arab Muslims. The majority of Zoroastrians accepted Islam. Those who did not and were not fleeing the country fled to other areas within Iran. The Zoroastrian refugees developed their own language, Zoroastrian Dari, as well as a separate culture.
The Zoroastrians faced considerable adversity and religious persecution, which varied under different dynasties. Under the Umayyad dynasty, personal rights could be obtained with the payment of jizya, a special tax for non-Muslims, while during the Qajar dynasty, repression of the Zoroastrian religion took on cruel and violent forms. The life of Zoroastrians in Iran was often characterized by humiliation—with rules preventing them from riding on horseback, building places of worship, receiving an inheritance, or even from carrying umbrellas or wearing eyeglasses. With greater freedoms in the 20th century, Zoroastrians were able to establish themselves in business, industry, the educational field, and philanthropy. Many of today’s Iranians are Zoroastrians who pretend to be Muslims.
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