Dakhma: Terrible Towers of Silence
Dakhma: Terrible Towers of Silence

"Towers of Silence" is the name of the Zoroastrian burial complexes that has taken root in Western literature: they really look like massive towers crowning hills in the middle of the desert. In Iran, these cylindrical structures without a roof are called more simply, "dakhma", which can be translated as "grave", the final resting place.

But the Zoroastrian funeral rites, in the opinion of a follower of any other culture or religion, seem extremely far from both the concept of "grave" and the concept of "repose".


The invention of the tower of silence is credited to Robert Murphy, a translator for the British colonial government in India in the early 19th century. Who came up with another beautiful name for similar funeral practices, "heavenly burial" - is unknown, but this phrase is often used in the English-language historical literature.

There really was a lot of heaven in Zoroastrian death: the bodies of the deceased were left on the upper, open platform of the tower, where scavengers (and, less often, dogs) were taken to work, quickly freeing bones from mortal flesh. And this is only the first stage of the corpse's long journey "back to nature", to purification, in full accordance with the tenets of one of the oldest religions in the world.


How old is it? To answer this question, you need to know the lifetime of its founder, the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek). And this is not known to science for certain. For a long time it was believed that he lived in the 6th century BC - this is the time of the spread of Zoroastrianism as a formed religion, and in the 5th century BC. Herodotus first mentions rituals similar to Zoroastrian ones. However, modern research is gradually "aging" the mysterious prophet. According to one version, he lived in the 10th century BC, according to another - even earlier, between 1500 and 1200 BC: this hypothesis is based on an analysis of archaeological finds and a comparison of sacred Zoroastrian texts with Hindu (Indo-Aryan) such as the Rig Veda.

The deeper the roots of Zoroastrianism go, the more difficult it is to trace its origins. So far, scholars agree that the teachings of Zarathustra were born in the Bronze Age and became the first attempt to unite people in faith in one God, and this happened against the background of the absolute domination of polytheism - polytheism characteristic of all cultures of that time. Zoroastrianism absorbed the features of more ancient Indo-Iranian beliefs, later it was formed under the influence of Greek culture, but the penetration of beliefs and cultures was mutual: the main ideas of Zoroastrianism - such as messianism, free will, the concept of heaven and hell - eventually became part of the main world religions.

Zoroastrianism is also called the "first ecological religion" for the call to respect and protect nature. It sounds very modern, but from a historical point of view, this, on the contrary, is an indicator of the antiquity of the doctrine, proof of a direct connection between Zoroastrianism and much older animistic beliefs of mankind, a belief in the animality of all nature. The Zoroastrian funeral rite can also be called environmentally friendly, although it is based on a completely different concept: death in Zoroastrianism is seen as a temporary victory of evil over good. When life leaves the body, a demon takes possession of the corpse, infecting everything that it touches with evil.

A seemingly insoluble problem of “utilization” of the deceased arises: the corpse cannot be touched, it cannot be buried in the ground, it cannot be drowned in water, and it cannot be cremated.Earth, water and air are sacred in Zoroastrianism, fire is even more so, because it is a direct and pure emanation of the supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, the only one of his creations that the spirit of evil Ahriman could not desecrate. The evil contained in a dead body should not come into contact with the sacred elements.

The Zoroastrians had to invent not only a specific and very complicated method of "burial", but also special architectural structures, houses for the dead - the very dakhma, or "towers of silence".


Dakhma were located in desert places, on a hill. From the place of death to the burial tower, the deceased were carried by special people, populares. They carried it on a stretcher so that the corpse would not touch the ground. The populace porters and the tower keeper who lived next to it were the only people "authorized" to carry out any actions with the remains. Relatives of the deceased were strictly prohibited from entering the territory of the burial tower.

Any differences in life - in social status or wealth - after death did not matter, all the deceased were treated equally. The bodies were set aside on the upper platform of the tower, open to the sun and winds: men lay in the outer, largest circle, in the middle row - women, in the inner circle - children. These concentric circles, three or four depending on the diameter of the tower, diverged from the center of the platform, where the bone well was always located.

The eating of decaying flesh by dogs or scavengers is not a repulsive scene from the life of medieval Europe, but the last gesture of Zoroastrian mercy towards the deceased. In a matter of hours, scavengers pecked up the entire "shell", leaving only bare bones, but this is not enough: the remains were left to lie on the platform for at least a year, so that the sun, rain, wind and sand washed and polished them to whiteness.


The nasellars carried the "cleaned" skeletons to ossuaries (ossuaries, crypts) located along the perimeter of the tower or next to it, but in the end all the bones ended up in the central well. Over time, the piles of bones in the well began to crumble, disintegrate … In a dry climate, they turned into dust, and in a rainy climate, human particles purified from evil seeped through natural filters - sand or coal - and, picked up by underground waters, ended their journey at the bottom of a river or sea …

Despite the full compliance with the precepts of Zarathustra, the "towers of silence" and the area around them were considered desecrated until the end of time.

In Iran, the use of "towers of silence" was banned in the late 1960s, and the adherents of Zoroastrianism again had to invent a special method of burial: modern Zoroastrians bury their deceased in graves previously laid out with lime mortar, cement or stone in order to avoid direct contact of the corpse with the sacred elements …

However, scientific research has not yet been prohibited. Excavations of the "tower of silence" in the vicinity of Turkabad began in 2017 and have already yielded very interesting results. Dakhma turned out to be quite large, its diameter is 34 meters. On the east side, scientists discovered an entrance opening that was once closed by a door. When the tower ceased to "function", the entrance to the desecrated place was filled with mud bricks.


Scientists have counted 30 irregularly shaped compartments around the burial platform, of which only six have been examined so far. According to the head of the excavation, Mehdi Rahbar, all of them served as containers for bones: the remains, cleaned of flesh, lay on the floor in 2-3 layers. In addition, archaeologists have found 12 separate "containers" for large bones: "Among them we identified the skulls, thigh bones and forearm bones," Rahbar said.


Rakhbar also noted that such a significant accumulation of bones indicates a large number of followers of Zoroastrianism in the province of Yazd in the 13th century, during the reign of the Mongol dynasty of Ilkhanids - it was to this era that scientists dated the tower in Turkabad. The dating to the 13th century has been established from the analysis of bones and is remarkable in itself.

Zoroastrianism remained the dominant religion in Persia until the Arab conquest in 633, later supplanted by Islam.In the 8th century, the position of the Zoroastrians in Persia was so vulnerable that they were looking everywhere for companions and co-religionists who were ready to provide spiritual and material support - according to Mehdi Rahbar, such evidence was found in the correspondence of the 8th century between the Zoroastrians of Turkabad and the Persians living in India.


However, the excavations of the "tower of silence" in Turkabad and the abundance of bone remains in it indicate that in the 13th century the Zoroastrian community of the province of Yazd, despite all the difficulties of the "displaced" religion, remained significant and had the opportunity to observe ancient rituals. By the way, today the number of adherents of Zoroastrianism in Iran, according to various sources, ranges from 25 to 100 thousand people, most of them are concentrated in the traditional centers of Zoroastrianism, the provinces of Yazd and Kerman, as well as in Tehran. There are about two million Zoroastrians around the world.

Accordingly, the tradition of "heavenly burials" has also been preserved. Parsis in Indian Mumbai and Pakistani Karachi, despite numerous difficulties, still use the "towers of silence". It is curious that in India the main problem is not religious or political, but ecological: in recent years, the population of scavengers has dramatically decreased in this region, about 0.01% of the natural number remained. It got to the point that the Parsis create nurseries for breeding scavengers and install solar reflectors on towers to accelerate the process of decay of flesh.


“According to our research, the tradition of leaving corpses to be eaten by scavengers is not so much Zoroastrian as ancient Iranian,” Mehdi Rahbar said. We are talking about a long-known problem that we mentioned at the beginning of the article: despite the fact that Zoroastrianism has survived to this day in the form of a completely living religion, the history of its origin and development is still insufficiently studied and remains largely controversial.

The practice of excarnation (separation of dead flesh from bones) is really very ancient and has been noticed in many cultures around the world - from Turkey (the most ancient temple complex of Göbekli Tepe, the proto-city of Catal-Huyuk) and Jordan (we have devoted a separate material to the “travels” of the local dead) to Spain (Celtic tribes of the Arevak). Excarnation was practiced by the Indian tribes of North and South America, there are mentions of similar rituals in the Caucasus (Strabo, "Geography", Book XI) and among the ancient Finno-Ugric tribes, the "heavenly burials" of Tibet are widely known - in other words, this phenomenon existed almost everywhere in different cultures and in different eras.

The Zoroastrians brought this rite to "perfection" and preserved it to this day. However, scientists have a limited set of data on its history in Persia, and these data - written sources, images, excavation results - have been known for a long time, and there have not been major breakthroughs for a long time either. Since many copies have been broken on the topic of Zoroastrian rituals and many studies have been written, including in Russian, we will cite only some facts that “confuse” scientists.

The Persian tradition of exposing corpses to be devoured by scavengers was first described by the Greek historian Herodotus in the middle of the 5th century BC. At the same time, Herodotus does not mention either Zarathustra or his teaching. Although it is known that a little earlier, at the end of the 6th century BC, Zoroastrianism began to actively spread in Persia under Darius I the Great, the famous king from the Achaemenid dynasty. But Herodotus speaks unequivocally about those who at that time practiced the rite of excarnation.

Magi are a Median tribe, from which the Zoroastrian priestly caste was later formed. The memory of them, long cut off from the roots, has survived to this day - for example, in the word "magic" and in the Gospel tradition about wise men from the East who came to worship the baby Jesus: the famous story about the worship of the Magi or, in the primary source, magicians.

According to some scholars, the custom of magicians to leave corpses to be torn apart by animals goes back to the funeral customs of the Caspians - a description of a similar practice is given by Strabo:

However, the Persian kings - Achaemenids, who sympathized with Zoroastrianism, their successors Arshakids and Sassanids, under whom Zoroastrianism turned from the dominant religion into a state one - obviously did not adhere to the rite of excarnation prescribed by Zarathustra. The bodies of the kings were embalmed (covered with wax) and left in sarcophagi in rock or stone crypts - such are the royal tombs in Naksh Rustam and Pasargadae. Covering the body of the deceased with wax, which Herodotus also mentions, is not a Zoroastrian, but an older Babylonian custom adopted in Persia.


Judging by indirect information, Zarathustra was buried in the same way: his mortal flesh was not given to be torn apart by birds and dogs, but covered with wax and put in a stone sarcophagus.

Archaeological finds also do not give an unambiguous answer to the question of when exactly the Zoroastrian rite of excarnation "took root" in Persia. Both in the west and in the east of Iran, researchers have already found ossuaries of the 5th-4th centuries BC - this suggests that at that time there was a practice of burying bones "cleaned" of the flesh, but how this happened, by ritual excarnation or not, has not yet been determined. At the same time, judging by other archaeological finds, the burial of bodies covered with wax was practiced in parallel - scientists have discovered several such burial mounds.

So far, it has only been more or less accurately established that the "towers of silence" are a rather late invention - the description of the corresponding rituals dates back to the Sassanid era (III-VII centuries AD), and records of the construction of the dakhma towers appear only at the beginning of the IX century.

All of the above is just a short explanation of one phrase of Mehdi Rahbar, quoted by the Iranian media: “According to our research, the tradition of leaving corpses for eating flesh by scavengers is not so much Zoroastrian as ancient Iranian”.

If Rakhbar does not hint at some new data obtained during the excavations of recent years, then his remark can be regarded as a statement of the fact that since the publication of the canonical work of Mary Boyes “Zoroastrians. Beliefs and customs”in 1979, by and large, little has changed.

“Zoroastrianism is the most difficult of all living religions to study. This is due to its antiquity, the misadventures that he had to experience, and the loss of many sacred texts, "Boyce wrote in the preface to her book, and these words still remain a kind of prophecy: despite all the achievements of modern science, Zoroastrianism is still" difficult for studying". Excavations of a previously unknown medieval tower of silence in Turkabad give scientists hope to learn something new about the history of this amazing faith.

Used material from the portal "Vesti. The science"

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