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Thousands of Iranians gather to celebrate ancient Zoroastrian fire festival

An Iranian Zoroastrian priest ignited a blaze during the annual Sadeh, an ancient Persian festival marking the creation of fire. An Iranian Zoroastrian priest ignited a blaze during the annual Sadeh, an ancient Persian festival marking the creation of fire. (Vahid Salemi/ Associated Press)
Associated Press / February 1, 2010

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CHAM, Iran - Thousands of Iranians gathered at dusk against a snowy mountain backdrop to light giant bonfires in an ancient midwinter festival dating back to Iran’s pre-Islamic past that is drawing new interest from Muslims.

Saturday’s celebration was the first in which the dwindling remnants of Iran’s once plentiful Zoroastrian religious minority were joined by thousands of Muslims, reflecting a growing interest in the strict Islamic society for the country’s ancient traditions.

The festival, known as Sadeh, celebrates the discovery of fire and its ability to banish the cold and dark. It is held in the frigid depths of winter.

Sadeh was the national festival of ancient Persia when Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion, before the conquest by Islam in the seventh century. Now it is mostly celebrated in the homes and temples of Iran’s 60,000 remaining Zoroastrians.

Recently, however, there has been an upsurge of interest among Iranian Muslims - 90 percent of the population - in their ancient heritage, when vast Persian empires held sway over much of central Asia and fought Greek warriors and Roman legions.

Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion predating Christianity and Islam and is believed to have influenced those faiths - and Judaism as well - being one of the first religions with a strong notion of good and evil.

Zoroastrians believe they must fight evil through good deeds, words, and thoughts, including charity and service. Fire plays a central role in worship as a symbol of truth and the spirit of God. Prayer is often performed in front of a fire.

The religion was founded in ancient Persia about 3,000 years ago, according to some scholarly estimates, by Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, whom the faith considers a prophet.

Zoroastrians once numbered in the millions but were persecuted and forced to convert after Muslims rose to power in Iran. According to some estimates, there are only 150,000 Zoroastrians in the world today.