Tomb asks where Zoroastrianism began

Updated: 2014-09-05 12:22

By Gao Bo in Xinjiang(China Daily USA)

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A tomb complex discovered in a remote county in western China is believed to be the first remains of Zoroastrianism dating back around 2,500 years to be found in Eurasia, and could serve as proof that the ancient Persian religion may have originated in Central Asia, according to archaeologists.

The remains are located on high ground on the western bank of a Tashkurgan river called Jirzankale. Forty-one tombs are scattered through the area of a village called Quman.

More than 100 cultural relics, including Chamilia beads, agate beads, bamboo combs, eagle skulls, bronze mirrors and grains and seeds were discovered. Some bright and dark stone stripes were also found on the ground, and wooden fire pots and sticks were also excavated.

"The bright and dark stone stripes are typical symbols of Zoroastrianism as they represent the rays of sun or fire," said Wu Xinhua, head of the Xinjiang archaeological team under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The team has been excavating and researching the tombs since May 2013. The major excavations took place from June through August.

Followers of Zoroastrianism, believed to be the most popular religion before Christianity and the state religion of the Persian empire, usually prayed in the presence of some form of fire (which could be considered as any source of light).

"The fire pots were also a typical setting for Zoroastrian rituals," Wu said.

In Zoroastrian scripture and tradition, a corpse is a host for decay. Consequently, scripture enjoins the safe disposal of the dead in a manner such that a corpse does not pollute the living. Zoroastrian communities either cremated their dead, or buried them in graves cased with lime.

In addition, at a tomb, which was defined as a sacrificial pit, an eagle skull was buried. This also showed the relationship of the tomb with Zoroastrianism as eagles were honored by Zoroastrians, Wu said.

Common knowledge is that the roots of Zoroastrianism are from the pre-historic Indo-Iranian religious system, although the founder of the religion, Zarathustra, took it to the regions that are now China's Xinjiang and Tibet.

But the recent finding might disprove this.

The human remains archaeologists found in the tombs were both first burials and burials of bones that had been left in the open to be picked clean. This means the funeral mode was not so strict and it may have been in the starting period of the Zoroastrianism, Wu said.

"It is possible that Zoroastrianism might originate from here," Wu added.

Wu said, thus far, another seven sites similar to the Quman tombs have been discovered in the county. The features related to Zoroastrianism were common in this area.

"This supports the theory that Zoroastrianism might have originated in the Central Asia area," Wu said, "probably around the Tarim Basin or on the Pamir Plateau."

The remains are fenced and guarded by the government and cultural relics departments at different levels are formulating a protection program.

Zoroastrianism was once followed by many ancient ethnic groups of Xinjiang area. The brightness and progress Zoroastrianism promoted are the basic concept of many other religions, including Islam, said Shang Yanbin, a professor at Minzu University of China.

Before Islam was introduced into Xinjiang, there were already followers of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Manichaeism and Nestorianism. Even today, some minority groups in Xinjiang still adhere to some of the concepts and customs characteristic of those beliefs.

 Tomb asks where Zoroastrianism began

The remains of one of 40 tombs discovered in Quman may prove that the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism was founded in Central Asia. Gao Bo / China Daily

(China Daily USA 09/05/2014 page5)