Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

When Was Central Asia Zoroastrian?

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

When Was Central Asia Zoroastrian?

Article excerpt

The Iranian peoples of Greater Iran are often collectively characterized as having been "Zoroastrian" in pre-Islamic times. In order to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such a blanket generalization, the author proposes that pre-Islamic Central Asian religion be considered as an ever-changing mix of local and non-local religious beliefs and practices, drawn largely but not exclusively from an Iranian pool of myths, deities, symbols and rituals.

Key Words: Central Asia, Zoroastrian, Zoroaster, Iran, Sogdian, Sasanian, Scythian, Avestan, Silk Route, religion.


The Persian-speaking Tajik minorities of Central Asia, who still form the majority of the population in the picturesque Silk Route cities of Samarqand and Bukhara, are living witnesses to the Iranian presence in the heart of Asia which dates back to prehistoric times. Before the beginning of our era, nomadic Iranian Saka tribes, whom the Greeks called Scythians, roamed the Asian steppes as far east as Mongolia, and well into the Islamic period the merchant Sogdians of Transoxiana - who were also Iranians - plied the caravan routes which linked the Mediterranean world with China.

Sometime during the third millennium BCE, Indo-Aryan peoples moved southward from the Eurasian steppe to the Iranian plateau, leaving amongst their legacies the name "Iran", which is etymologically derived from "Aryan". They brought with them elements of ancient Indo-European belief and ritual, the exploration and explanation of which was the life work of the late French scholar Georges Dumezil. Through a comparative study of myths and legends ranging from the Vedas of India to the Icelandic sagas, Dumezil was able to propose a reconstructed proto-Indo-European social and religious structure.


Early in the first millennium before our era, the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathrushtra), who probably lived within the pastoral society of what is now Khurasan in Iran and Afghanistan, made an effort to reform the religious practices of his people. A full thousand years or more later, during the rule of the Sasanian emperors, the religion known today as Zoroastrianism was codified and formalized as the official state-sponsored religion of the empire.

The Sasanians, like the earlier Persian Achaemenid emperors of the fifth century BCE, were able to incorporate into their empire the Iranian-inhabited lands of Central Asia with their lucrative east-west trade routes. During the intervening centuries of Greek Seleucid then Kushan rule, Bactria (roughly, present-day Afghanistan) had become heavily influenced by Buddhist ideas and practices. When state-sponsored Zoroastrianism emanating from the Sasanian power centers of southwestern Iran began to assert itself towards the east and northeast during the fifth and sixth centuries CE, did this influence result in a "reverting" of Central Asia to its previous religion?

Iranologists have frequently succumbed to such an analysis. A general assumption is often made that the various Iranian peoples of "greater Iran" - a cultural area that stretched from Mesopotamia and the Caucasus into Khwarazm, Transoxiana, Bactria, and the Pamirs and included Persians, Medes, Parthians, and Sogdians, among others - were all "Zoroastrian" in preIslamic times. As one writer recently put it, "After the conversion of King Vishtasp [by Zoroaster], all of Iran is thought to have become Zoroastrian, and it continued to be so up to the end of the Sassanian empire".2

The Need for Caution

Such blanket assertions must be taken with caution. The fact is, we know relatively little about the religious beliefs and practices of the Central Asian Iranian peoples of early times, compared to the documentation available for Sasanian Zoroastrianism. What is known of Sasanian Zoroastrianism, furthermore, does not necessarily apply to the religious beliefs and practices of ancient Iran. In the words of R. …

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