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Concealed in a nondescript building in a quiet upper middle-class Chicago suburb, lies a center devoted to one of the most prolific religions in the history of mankind. The movement does not proselytize or advertise, and many residents of Burr Ridge, Illinois may never know that the Zoroastrian Association of Chicago exists in their community.
Toonaripost was invited by prominent member of the ZAC, Rohinton Rivetna, to witness and participate in a ritual gathering. Rivetna is the founder of FEZANA, an organization dedicated to uniting the international Zoroastrian diaspora together; collaborating with organizations in India, Iran, and the U.K.
The ZAC affords its members a traditional forum to practice their beliefs and also functions as a community center. In an effort to cater toward the younger generation of Zoroastrian followers, (not to mention a great way for members to mingle and associate,) a Nintendo Wii was set up for tournament style play.
This advanced technological display was in complete contrast to the scene in the next room. Worshipers are asked to remove their shoes and place a small hat (topi) on their head before proceeding. What is witnessed next is a tradition that has been practiced for thousands of years. The priest, Ervad Jamshed Ravji stands before a flame, his face covered with white cloth.
He chants in ancient Iranian tongue known as, Avestan; the virtues of prophet Zoroaster and the blessings of the only god, Ahura Mazda. Others congregate in a semicircle and quietly observe or pray along from a small book written in Sanskrit. Donations can be made. In return, one receives a small wooden stick that can be placed in the flames.
At the end of the event, the priest goes around, offering ashes to one’s forehead, a tradition shared by the Catholic church. Rivetna is uncertain if there is a link between both theologies on this tradition, and does not know how that custom originated. This is a practice followed by the Parsi Indians only, and not from Iranian devotees.
After the ritual (which is optional to attend) members re-convene in the main hall to watch the Wii tournament be played out. Children run around while the elders chat. Many members are prominent professionals in the community, doctors, lawyers, etc. Several Zoroastrians brought a dish to be shared for lunch, the room filling up with exotic aromas.
Both Persian and Parsi practitioners of Zoroastrianism (also known as Zarathushti) now worship once again and side-by-side in Chicagoland. The Zoroastrian Association of Chicago has been operating for over thirty years and has a membership of over 700 who come together to worship Ahura Mazda.
This is the only congregation in the midwest, one of 27 total in North America. Most are both Parsi and Persian. Some sects in L.A. are exclusively of Iranian dialect (Farsi) so Parsi members might feel uncomfortable, unable to understand the ceremonial chanting.
The movement flourished for over 3,000 years before the Islamic conquests dominated the ancient Persian homeland. Some sects fled into Northern India, where they would be known as The Parsi, and continued to practice the teachings of Zoroaster in peace along their Hindu neighbors. A monotheistic faith, Zoroastrianism had a great impact on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Perhaps the most identifiable trait of the practice is the devotion and reverence of fire. Fire temples used to exist all throughout the middle-east, but most have been either destroyed, or converted into Mosques.
Zoroastrianism can be broken down by the six core attributes (Amesha Spentas) of Ahura Mazda (God)
Some components of the theology are no longer practiced; such as leaving bodies of the dead in vast open sarcophagus’ known as “Towers of Silence,” where vultures would swoop down and pick the bodies clean. The Zoroastrians did not want to poison the earth with cadavers. This was known as, “ritual exposure,” and may be the most foreign aspect of an otherwise approachable spirituality.
Zoroastrianism still survives in modern Iran, yet the numbers pale in comparison to the Muslim majority, and the amount of followers has continue to decline since the Islamic revolution of 1979. Bombay, India, remains the capital of Zarathustis, with an estimated 110,000 devotees. The most well known Parsi was former rock-singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury.
According to Rivetna, linguistic evidence estimates that 2012 marks the 3,750 anniversary of Zoroaster’s initial preachings, hailing from somewhere between the Caspian and Aral Seas, perhaps in modern day Uzbekistan.
His teachings gained movement around 550 BC, when Cyrus the Great made it popular under his Achaemenid dynasty. The likeness of Cyrus is celebrated for his bringing of peoples together and being the first true multicultural society.
Many books were destroyed between the conquests of Alexander the Great (known as the Cursed to the Persians) and the invasion of Arabs-Islam , but core-elements continued to this day due to an indomitable oral tradition.
More recently, The Shah of Iran absolved tax on Zoroastrians, restoring equal rights in their homeland and many would return until the 1979 Islamic revolution when persecution resumed.
Today, Zoroastrians are denied government jobs in Iran, and have trouble being accepted into Universities. Only in cities far from their cultural birthplace can the few remaining followers of the prophet Zoroastor find solace.
Image Courtesy of http://www.zac-chicago.org/