Thursday, March 21, 2013

Uzbekistan | Navroz Holiday | Tower of Silence

As I mentioned earlier one reason I came to Bukhara at this time was to observe the Perigee of the Moon. The other was to celebrate the Spring Equinox. As you all know, the Equinox occurred yesterday, March 20. In Bukhara the actual time was 4:02 PM. Navroz, the so-called Persian New Year, begins today, the first full day after the actual Equinox. This is a big holiday in Bukhara. Although it is now celebrated as an Islamic holiday its roots go back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism. According to legend Zoroaster himself, founder of Zoroastrianism, introduced the practice of celebrating the Spring Equinox as Navroz. The Equinox is also significant to various shades of Neo-Pagans, Wiccans, and even some Post-Modern Neo-Pantheists (I am looking at you, David Weinberger).

Given its allegedly Zoroastrian origins I thought the best place to observe Navroz was at Chilpak, the so-called Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, located on the banks of the Amu Darya 285 miles northwest of Bukhara. I have been to the Chilpak Tower of Silence before, in 2010, and had planned this trip then. 

I hired a car and proceeded to the site on the afternoon of the 19th. That night my driver and I stayed in a truck stop about five miles away from the Tower of Silence. We hired a private dining room with a low table and mats on the floor so that when we were done eating we could just stretch out and rest for the night. The room was $6 a night per person. The magnificent fish dinner we had, however, set me back $15. That was for one kilo of fish (you order by weight) fresh from the Amu Darya River just a couple of miles away, and all the fixings (bread (naan, actually), pickles, pickled tomatoes, carrot slaw, fresh onions, sour cream, tomato-based fish sauce, etc.) plus of course all the green tea you could drink (I will observe a dignified silence about the quality of the tea; this was, after all, a truck stop). 

The next morning at dawn we proceeded to the Tower of Silence. My driver waited in the car while I climbed to the top to perform the appropriate orisons. 
The Tower of Silence from the distance. The structure at the top is man-made (click on photos for enlargements)
The man-made addition to the summit of the hill. The dating is uncertain, but it could well be over 2000 years old.
 Entryway to the top of the man-made structure
 Cult site at the top of the monument. Zoroastrians brought their dead here and left them so that their bodies could be stripped down to the bone by vultures and the desiccating heat of the sun. The bones were later stored in ossuaries. I shudder to think of the scenes that must have been played out here. 
View from the top with the Amu Darya in the distance

8 comments:

  1. It seems then that Zoroastrian practices for the disposal of the dead were similar to Tibetan sky burials.

    In a conversation centered around "What did you do yesterday", I can think of very very few things to say that possibly top " I celebrated spring equinox alone on top of the Tower of Silence, where once vultures devoured the flesh of dead Zoroastrians."

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  2. Going to the Roots of Nowruz in Uzbekistan

    About 20 countries and communities almost all over the world celebrate Nowruz today. Commonly known as the ‘Persian New Year,’ Nowruz has its origins in the ancient religion Zoroastrianism. Don Croner celebrates the holiday on the ruins of the so-called ‘Zoroastrian Tower of Silence’ in Uzbekistan. The blogger writes about the history of the festival and posts photos from the venue where people celebrated the holiday centuries ago.

    http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/03/21/going-to-the-roots-of-nowruz-in-uzbekistan/

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  3. Yes, there are some similarities. In Tibetan burials, however, the bones are broken up so that they can be disposed of by vultures, etc. I once witnessed the very end of a sky burial in Tibet. The ground was still littered with small shards of bones. These were not saved. The skull itself was broken into pieces with a large wooden mallet. The Zoroastrians keep the bones and stored them in ossuaries, some of which were elaborate works of art. These can be seen in museums today.

    As a conversation topic it probably beats out what happened to your favorite soccer team yesterday.

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  4. Alexander: Just one small point. I do not think people celebrated Navruz, which is hopefully a joyous holiday, at the Tower of Silence. It was used for funerals. Going there on the Equinox was my idea.

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  5. Celebrating a new year at the vernal equinox is another practice that originated with Mesopotamians and was then likely appropriated by Zoroastrians, when ancient Persians came into greater contact with Babylonian culture (via conquest). Here's an old scholarly article that mentions that the Babylonian calendar year started at the vernal equinox: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/627003. And, here's a more recent article that gives a time frame for how the Babylonian calendar was adopted by the ancient Persians: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4300642 .

    Anyway, it's very interesting to visit museums with extensive Mesopotamian and ancient Persian collections - one can see how much Mesopotamian art and culture influenced ancient Persian art and culture (and, later, ancient Arabic culture - even to this day, there are older Semitic words descended from Akkadian words that are unique to the Iraqi Arabic dialect, for instance).

    Feel free to correct me if you think that I'm wrong about anything, though.

    -a mes

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  6. Oh, you Sumerians! All roads lead to Babylonia, right? Well, you probably are right. The Persians were just a bunch of Johnny-Come-Latelys. Anyhow, I must get up to speed on the Babylonian Calendar. Also, see This Story About The Sumerians.

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  7. Thank you, it is important to get funereal practices right.

    I have always confused Zoroastrians and Mithraists. I think it is because of the whole synchretic mess in the Roman Empire in the early AD centuries.

    Regarding the Summerians, yes, they seem to have become some sort of litmus test for 'really old times'. Did Lovecraft ever write that Cthulhu was so old, he was pre-Summerian? I wonder

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  8. Of course all roads lead to Babylon - even the Romans stole that idea and phrase from us and made it their own! : )

    Nice article, clearly from the America's Finest News Source.

    -a mes

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