History News: World’s Oldest Ceremonial Fire?

Atlas Obscura publishes a daily newsletter that is one of the most interesting sites around. Its staff works tirelessly to ferret out odd or unusual places in the world for their brief articles, accompanied by photos and information about how to get there. Today they ran one about a beautiful site of worship in Yazd, Iran, a Zoroastrian temple that houses an Atash Behram (Fire of Victory). Fire and water are the agents of ritual purity, used to produce clean, white ash for ritual purification ceremonies.

This brick Zoroastrian temple holds a fire that has burned for more than 1,500 years. The ancient flame has been kept alive, in various locations, since 470, during the Sassanian Empire. The only temple of its type located outside of India,  it has been situated in Yazd since 1934. Today, the sacred flame burns within a bronze vessel and is protected by a glass wall. Only the temple priests are permitted inside the sanctum, where the flame is fed with dry wood.

In present-day Zoroastrian tradition, adherents bring offerings of pieces of sweet smelling  wood, such as sandalwood, which is received by a priest wearing a cloth over nose and mouth to prevent polluting the fire with the breath. He will enter the sanctuary alone, and, with a pair of silver tongs, place the offering in the fire. He then will use a special ladle to present a small amount of the holy ash to the layperson, who anoints his or her own forehead and eyelids, then takes some ash home for their private rituals.

There are many other features of this interesting and ancient  religious practice, which is quite complex, with plenty of information available on many internet sites. There are three different levels of ceremonial fire for three different purposes, for example, and 16 sources of fire.  It has been enjoyable and edifying to learn about this particular one, which is similar in some respects to the Christian Ash Wednesday.

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