Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, July 25, 2011

IN SEARCH OF ZARATHURSTRA: ACROSS IRAN AND CENTRAL ASIA TO FIND THE WORLD'S FIRST PROPHET

BOOK REVIEW

In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia To Find The World's First Prophet
by Paul Kriwaczek
p. 2002
by Vintage Press

        As I've said before, you have to look pretty hard to get good information on the part of the world we know as "IRAN."  Iran has a baaaad rap in the West right now AND it's not as "interesting" to Western intellectuals as your Soviet Union's and China's. Of course, any discussion of MODERN Iran has to begin and end with Islam, but such wasn't always the case. Historically, the area of Iranian SPEAKING people extended from the edge of Greece (Scythia), down through Central Asia (Samaritans) into modern Iran and Afghanistan (Persians.)  Like other linguistic groups in the Indo European family, the Iranians were horse riding nomads and small-time farmers with an upwardly mobile streak.  The Iranians, Turks, Arabs and Mongols are the Asian equivalent of the Greeks, Romans, Germans and Celts of Europe.  The Persian Empire of the Classic Period most resembles the Roman Empire of the same period.  And in fact, beginning with Alexander the Great and running through the Middle Ages, Persians and Romans (and their succesors) fought amongst themselves in the area of modern day Syria, Iraq and the Caucuses.

    Additionally, the more nomadic linguistic relatives of the Persians got swept up in the great wave of Turkish invaders, typified by Attila the Hun.  In these armies, Germans (Goths) and Iranians (Alans) served side-by-side, Alans specifically making it into Eastern Europe to settle during the transition between the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages.  The Iranian nomadic "style" was instrumental in influencing Germanic/Celtic tribesmen in the Early Middle Ages: Think knights in Armor, riding horses and using lances, think the aesthetic of stylized animal imagery in Medieval coats of arms and royal banners.  The "knight in shining armor" was probably a phrase in Samaritan four or five hundred years before you could say that in Gothic or Latin.

   Unfortunately, none of this influence is particularly well documented, leaving a reader literally grasping at straws where the over-lap is concerned.  Sure, you can get 200 dollar (German language) books from the nineteenth century that talk about these subjects, but they were probably written by Nazis.  Into the gap comes In Search of Zarathustra, a mass-market attempt to chart the influence of "The World's First Prophet." Most Western readers know of Zarathustra through one of two sources:

    Nietzsche or the sound track to the movie 2001.  Kriwaczek is either well aware of this himself, or has been told it by his Editors, so it's unsurprising that he starts from the Present and works backwards in time to discuss Zarathustra, the semi-mythical founder of Zoroastianism.  Zoroastianism is widely regarded as the first mono-theistic religion, and it was the state religion up until the conquering of the Persian Empire by Arab Muslims in the Middle Ages.

   Unfortunately, Islam has done a pretty decent job of supresing Zorastianism in the same way that Christianity has done a good job of stamping out pre-Christian believes.   After reading In Search of Zarathustra I was left with the following impressoin:

       Zoroaster was an actual person who lived in south central Asia in the bronze age (1600 BCish).  At this time, the linguistic ancestors of Indian and Iranian speaking peoples lived together and practiced a religion analogous to that of the Rig Veda.  Zoroaster was an old testament style prophet who basically presented a critique of the existing religion.  This critique caught on with the Iranian speaking group, but not so much with the Indian speaking group.  At first, Zorasatrianism caught on with isolated tribal (Iranian speaking) kingdoms in Central Asia, but was adopted by the Persian Empire as a state religion.  This initial period was brought to a close by the conquest of Alexander the Great, but after that tide receded, Zorastianism was revived as a state sponsored cult, with the Emperor figuring prominently in the practice of the religion.  Outside of it's heartland, Zorastianism became known via Roman Cult adoption (Mithraism) and the activities of New Testament era prophet Mani.  Mani himself came from a group of Jewish-Christians in the area of the Persian Gulf, but the dominant religion at the time was Zorastrianism,  and it was incorporated into his "Manichisism" the same way Judaism is incorporated into Christianity and Islam.

      It is unknown, though highly likely, that Zorastrian proselytizers were working in Central Asia during the time of the Huns.  It is unknown, though likely, that Zorastrians were included among the Iranian speaking soldiers who fought on behalf of the Huns, Romans and Byzantine Armies, eventually settling down in Europe.  It is unknown, though possible, that these soldiers influenced the development Bogomill church in Bosnia and the Cathar Heresy in Southern France: Two putatively  "Christian" Churches that were stamped out by the Pope for heresy and had Zorastrian sounding believes.  Similarly, it is likely that these same soldiers influenced the aesthetic of the European Middle Ages by their successful example of Knighthood.

    Finally, it is known that Zorastrianism was basically eradicated by Islam everywhere except among the "Parsees" of India who have occupied the role of talented minority in that part of the world in a manner similar to the role of the Jews in the West.

No comments:

Blog Archive