Persia, the Cultural and Religious Crossroads of East and West

Persia, the Cultural and Religious Crossroads of East and West

By: Carol Tebbs

Iran, Ancient Persia, stands as a bridge between East and West, a fact which has not only influenced her religion, but has also made Iran a watershed of history. Western Iran was influenced by Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, and Eastern Iran was influenced by India and even China since the ancient trade routes cross-pollinated those cultures. As an interesting fact of history, we could have had a vastly changed religious prospect for the Western world, had it not been for the defeat of the Persian King Xerxes in the Battles of Marathon and Salamis.

“In other words, if the western march of the Persian Empire had not been stopped, their religion of Zoroastrianism rather than Judeo Christianity would undoubtedly have been the prevailing religion of Europe and the Americas… so appealing to the human heart were many of the Parsi [early Persian] conceptions and precepts that much of Zarathustra’s [Zoroaster’s] creed lives on in the religions of Israel and Christ.”[1]

The Parsees are an Indo-European (Aryan) branch that moved into Persia about the same time as Abraham was said to have made his compact with Yahweh, about 2000 B.C.E. Zarathustra was born about 660 B.C.E and his influence was felt in that great age of religious consciousness and reformation between about 500 B.C.E. and the birth of Christ, while in India the conception of Brahma emerged as the supreme God, and Gautama Buddha, the great enlightener, was born. At the same time in China Confucius and Lao Tze were quickening the moral and religious perceptions of men through Confucianism and Taoism.

The religions of India and Iran, both under Aryan influence display a number of similar characteristics; 1) a number of gods appear in both, Mithras, for instance, 2) their concept of cosmic order is similar, and 3) their rituals have many common features. Though Zoroastrianism is not as dominant in Iran and the Near East today, its philosophy and sacred literature is still revered and respected world-wide for its formative role in human thought. Though the Avesta is the holy book of the Zoroastrians, the complete compendium of texts, including the learned commentaries of Zarathustra and all of the secondary texts, compromise the Zendavesta. This oldest collection of texts was once destroyed by Alexander in 330 B.C.E. and rewritten by the priests from memory. It was finally codified in about 350 CE and comprises four classes of writings: Yasna, for worship; Yasht, for sacrifice; Vendidad, for getting rid of demons; and Zend, for the secondary texts, written in Middle Persian (Pahlavi), to provide extracts of and to comment on the Avesta.

The Zoroastrians do not contrast the spirit and the flesh as St. Paul did. The soul and the body are a unity, and to withdraw from the world as a monk is to reject persianGod’s world. Asceticism is as great a sin as overindulgence. In fact, men have a religious duty to take a wife have children and to increase the good religion. Essentially, the Zoroastrian religion is a joyful one. It has a strong social ethic, and in contrast to Hinduism, an essentially activist one. Work is the “salt of life”. In contrast, death is the work of the devil, so a corpse is the abode of demons. To cremate or bury the corpse would defile the elements, so bodies are exposed in “Towers of Silence”, where they are devoured by the vultures. At death, one’s actions are weighed in the balance. If the good outweighs the bad, one passes on to heaven, but if not, then one passes on to hell, where the punishment is made to fit the crime. However, eternal hell is an immoral teaching in Zoroastrianism. A good God would never allow his creatures to suffer eternally. The purpose of punishment is to reform so that on the day of resurrection all may be raised by the Savior to face the final judgment. Then, when all are finally pure, the devil and all his works are finally destroyed and the distinction between heaven and earth is overcome so that all may worship and live with God in the full glory of his creation.[2]

For a short history of Arabian religion, the Achaemenid period (c. 550-333 B.C.E) was a time of Zoroastrian infiltration into the traditional and state religion. The official priests were the Magi, a hereditary priestly class, whose duty it was to look after religion and spread the teaching. The Achaemenid Empire was vast and the intermingling of cultures had its effect on religion. Greek statues were introduced into the cult and Babylonian astrology became a major factor. Alexander the Great’s invasion in 333 B.C.E. and the advent of Hellenism provided a tremendous shock to the Iranians. Despite Alexander’s attempts to unite East and West and his adoption of many Arabian customs, he was less than successful in converting them. Later, the Parthians, who invaded Persia, retained much of Hellenism there, although Zoroastrianism remained the state religion in later Sassanian Iran (247-635 C.E.) amid a plethora of minority religions: Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Mandean and Manichaean.[3]

Despite the small number of practicing Zoroastrians in the world today, Persian religion has played one of the major roles on the stage of world religious history. Zoroaster was known and respected in Greece at the time of Plato, and the worship of Mithras spread throughout the Roman Empire and as far as the North of England. On the East, Arabian art, as well as Mithras worship spread from Iran to India in the 6th century C.E. and after. Zoroastrianism may well have stimulated the growth of the Savior concept in Buddhism in the form of Maitreya Buddha. Iran has played a particularly important role in the religion of Islam, helping it to develop from an Arabian into an international religion; and the growth of the mystical movement and the Savior concept may all owe something to Iranian influence. Perhaps Iran’s greatest influence has been on the development of Judeo-Christian belief. It is widely accepted by biblical scholars, that the beleaguered Jewish concepts of the devil, hell, an afterlife, the resurrection, the end of the world and the Savior imagery were all colored by Zoroastrianism beliefs, which, of course, have affected the very foundations of Christianity.[4]

An offshoot of Zoroastrianism, the Mandeans believed that the soul became imprisoned in matter at the creation. The body is created by the planets and life and breath come from the world of light. The soul’s release is blocked by the planets, stars and false religions. When the earth and planets are done away with, the souls of the pious will be liberated.

There is no animal worship involved in Zoroastrianism, but the emphasis upon the goodness and usefulness of the dog is one of the most beautiful details in this religion of shepherds and cattlemen. By Zoroastrian rules dog life was protected as human life was, first because of his usefulness to people dependent upon herds and flocks, but also because of the devoted character of the dog, which has attracted dog lovers throughout history.[5]

In the two thousand years since Zarathustra’s teaching, Iran still stands at the cultural gateway between East and West, making it evermore important to learn its history and cultural heritage.


  • [1] Ballou, Robet O., editor, The Portable World Bible, Penguin Books, p. 163-164
  • [2] Parrinder, Geoffrey, editor, World Religions: From Ancient History to the Present, Facts on File
  • [3] Publications, New York, 1983, p. 181
    Parrinder, Geoffrey, editor, World Religions: From Ancient History to the Present, Facts on File
  • [4] Publications, New York, 1983, p. 191
    Parrinder, Geoffrey, editor, World Religions: From Ancient History to the Present, Facts on File
  • [5] Publications, New York, 1983, p. 191
    Ballou, Robet O., editor, The Portable World Bible, Penguin Books, p. 168-169