IDENTIFYING ZOROASTER’S TOMB
IDENTIFYING ZOROASTER’S TOMB
Crypt of Zoroaster Under the Blue Mosque Tomb of Hazrat AliShutterstock Image
The original crypt beneath the Blue Mosque in Afghanistan, dates to over a thousand years before Imam Ali, who locals believe to be buried there. There is only one local candidate of sufficient celebrity from that earlier era to give the site its ancient name, The Tomb of the Exalted or “Mazar-i-Sharif.” The name of the first occupant is revealed in the image of the “radiant camel” or “zarath - ustra,” which, according to legend, carried thither the body of Imam Ali. The pronouncement on which this legend is based thus re-established the splendid grandeur of Zoroaster’s tomb, set now to become more important to all religions.
Current scholarship is divided on the dates of the life of Zoroaster, but traditional Persian, ancient Hebrew and early Christian sources agree that the Persian prophet died in 551 BCE during prayers in the chapel at Balkh, then the only city of importance in the Persian province of Bactria. If so, according to his teachings, his remains would not have been “exposed” to the elements inside the community of Balkh and buried there. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BCE, described the use of “high places” by Zoroastrians from their earliest period. "It is not their custom to make and set up statues and temples and altars but they offer sacrifices on the high places of the mountains." Over the course of time these natural sacred sites were elaborated and simple shrines were built for the bones of those whose bodies had been exposed to nature. These mountain mausolea became the focus of the Zoroastrian pilgrimage tradition, as compared with the later fire temples of the cities and villages.
So Zoroaster’s family and followers would have looked to the nearest “high point” of significance within walking distance, the place we call Mazar-i-Sharif, fifteen kilometers to the east, accessible but high enough to honor the most important prophet of that age and location. Similar such ancient high points remain unchanged near Yazd in Iran, near Petra in Jordan and elsewhere. We call the one in question Mazar-i-Sharif, which translates as Tomb of the Exalted, a name it acquired only after the building of a mausoleum there. That site is identified by its current name only after mid-sixth-century BCE as a memorial for the countless pilgrims then wishing to honor the life and ministry of the spiritual leader who had turned religious life upside-down from one end of the Silk Route to the other. They might just as easily called it The City of the Tomb, but that is how the community of Mazar-i-Sharif got its name as a settlement grew around the site on the cusp of an era described by the Economist magazine. “Societies became recognizably "modern" in the mid-first millennium BC, during the so-called "Axial Age," the period in which figures such as Plato, Buddha and Zoroaster appeared on the scene, promulgating their moralizing ideologies." This observation, with sixth century dates increasingly accepted for him in the twenty-first century, sets the search for Zoroaster’s tomb right into the context of this book which identifies him as the father of the Axial Age.
A tomb might be named after a person or after a place, but for a city to be named after a tomb the person buried there must be exceptionally famous. Through all time there is simply no candidate in that region for such an honor other than Zoroaster. It was identified as Mazar-i-Sharif more than a thousand years before the next significant burial in that mausoleum, that of Hazrat Ali, when it was appropriately expanded again on the earlier Zoroastrian foundations. However, it was following the time of the first burial there that the settled area of Balkh began to stretch beyond the geographic Bactrian plain to a “capital” area which grew to become the more important center. This fact is a key element in our contention that Zoroaster could not have died in the eleventh century BCE or earlier, since there was no such identifiable center as Mazar-i-Sharif for another five hundred years.
In his authoritative book on architecture in Afghanistan, the University of Edinburgh’s distinguished archaeologist Warwick Ball comments on the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif. “There are many non-Islamic practices associated with this shrine, such as the raising of a pole at Nauruz on March 21 each year when Mazar-i-Sharif becomes the main centre of the annual Nauruz (New Year) festivities. It might be that the shrine represents an Islamization of a much older, pre-Islamic cult that was focussed on this site, perhaps even of Zoroaster himself, who is traditionally supposed to be buried in the Balkh region.”
Because the city is named after the tomb, it is only common sense that the tomb was there first. The community came into being and was settled in the sixth century BCE, co-incident with the burial of obviously the most famous person who ever lived in that area, whose tomb became the name of the city which grew up around it. In fact, from that day until this there has never been any personage other than Zoroaster of such import functioning out of that region and buried there, with the possible exception of Ali, a thousand years later, and he was brought there from elsewhere.
We may, or may not soon find missing pieces of the Zoroastrian Avesta (the “Dead Zee Scrolls”) a feature of this book, but increasing evidence identifying Zoroaster’s tomb provides at least a measure of increased familiarity and some intimacy with this prophet who, in certain respects, was the first to articulate a path to redemption for the world and its people. Moses and Homer are profoundly significant, at least to Western culture, like a Zoroaster who might have lived and died back in the mists of time. A Zoroaster of the sixth century relates to us like well-known figures of the Axial Age: Hebrew prophets, Greek philosophers, eastern mystics of popular religion. Identifying The Tomb of the Exalted as Zoroaster’s resting place connects him directly with Parsees and other Zoroastrians today, and with devotees and practitioners of the seven religions whose testaments are the subject of this study.
This book identifies Zoroaster’s tomb as being beneath the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Our identification of the tomb of Zoroaster fits the Islamic pattern of multiple burials in a single site, since he is regarded by Muslims as among the prophets of The People of the Book. Given the paucity of other possible candidates as occupant of a crypt beneath the tomb of Hazrat Ali, who could the original inhabitant of the mausoleum be except Zoroaster? It simply remains for experts with twenty-first century high-tech equipment to prove that somebody was buried there at a lower level, somebody important enough to have the city named after his mausoleum. We will get to that, but first let us become more aware of the whole story of the Blue Mosque and its connections to Zoroaster.
Canadian journalist Terry Glavin (National Post and Ottawa Citizen) described this location in a column after a visit to the site in Afghanistan. “For centuries, Mazar’s glorious Shrine of Hazrat Ali has been the journey’s end for Shia pilgrims from afar, and an everyday refuge of gardens and esplanades for the local Sunni majority. The Blue Mosque, where everyone prays together, is also a fountainhead of Sufi cosmopolitanism. It is a marvel of classic Islamic architecture built in the grand Timurid style on deep Zoroastrian foundations.” The latter point is information he picked up on site as part of the local, but unofficial lore.
Why does it matter where Zoroaster is buried? Discovery of the tomb of Zoroaster would be of great importance to Zoroastrians today as they assume a significant role in interfaith discussions based partly on facts at last, rather than legends about Zoroaster’s dates and the importance of his teachings in the world of the Silk Route. Because of their interface in Babylon, this relationship is of interest to Jews who may wish to know if the connection with Zoroaster is direct or distant. Christians increasingly identify Jesus as the Savior of the World, the Saoshyant or “Redeemer” of Zoroastrianism, rather than merely the one who would restore the throne of David for the Jews of the early church. The location of the tomb in Afghanistan and its date also fits with self-identification of the four world religions further east and others, as the Zoroastrian Avesta and the Dead Zee Scrolls begin to function as the Rosetta Stone of religion described in Part Two of this book. This may be a starting point in one of the most critical discussions in the shrinking world of the twenty-first century, namely the place of religion as part of the problem or part of the solution to problems of divisions and relationships in our time.
Local Muslim residents of Mazar-i-Sharif appear to have no objections to identification of this site with Zoroaster. To the contrary, guides and tour books often refer to the legend that the Blue Mosque sits on an earlier Zoroastrian foundation. Our presentation of additional evidence in this regard at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions was greeted as big news, and it may be regarded by some as “the big reveal” of this book, though we are only presenting additional pieces of the puzzle, synthesizing them and making obvious inferences from them. It is our intention to move from legend and speculation to history and fact. In doing so it may also be possible to finally settle the long-standing debate over the dates of Zoroaster’s birth, life and death.
This shrine is considered locally to be first and foremost the tomb of Hazrat Ali, the cousin, son-in-law and an eventual successor of Muhammad, even though most Muslims elsewhere in the world recognize Ali’s tomb as being at the Imam Ali Mosque at Najaf in Iraq. Local Muslim devotees and tour guides in Mazar-i-Sharif have maintained the legend which says that the body of Ali was carried here on the back of a white (or “shining”) camel,” secretly, long years after his earlier burial in Najaf. Books, brochures and tour guides recount the story of Ali being buried at Mazar-i-Sharif in a grave which had already been known for centuries previous as The Tomb of the Exalted, though the antiquity of the name has not been realized until quite recently.
In Sanskrit and related languages, the word “Zarah,” is often rendered as golden, shining or white in various traditions, though linguists are unanimous in lexicons that the very best translation is “radiant.” In Sanskrit, as adopted in Arabic, Persian, old Avestan and cognate languages, “camel” is ustra (or ushtra). The obvious, but only now articulated, meaning of the legend is that this memorial to Ali is mounted on Zarath-ustra, whose full name is usually translated as Golden Camel, though radiant or white camel works just as well in most languages.
The original crypt beneath the Blue Mosque in Afghanistan, dates to over a thousand years before Imam Ali, who locals still believe is buried there. The pronouncement on which this legend is based re-purposed the apparent splendor of Zoroaster’s more ancient mausoleum, the “Tomb of the Exalted.” Over time this phrase has been assumed to refer to Ali ibn Abu Talib, but the problem assuming that the title refers to Ali is confirmed by documentary evidence. There is wide agreement with Dr. Ahmad Hasan Dani, a leading epigraphist and archaeologist of the Quaid-E-Azam University in Islamabad, that the city was named the Tomb of the Exalted since 138 CE at the very least, half a millennium before Ali. “This more ancient date is witnessed by the Mazar-I-Sharif Inscription, clearly dated from the time of Veka, a local Shahi Ruler long centuries before Ali’s death in 661 CE and his second burial in the year 701 CE.” The only prophet of note from that area was obviously buried sometime before 138 CE but no earlier than the era soon after 550 BCE when the capital of Bactria was moved from Balkh to the newly established community which became Mazar-i-Sharif, surrounding the tomb of “the exalted,” a highly respected persona, one deserving of a mausoleum apparently like no other.
The eventual attribution of the Mazar tomb to Imam Ali was perhaps understandable since it is known that Ali travelled in Afghanistan, where his “footprints” are preserved in stone memorials in two other cities.Mazar-i-Sharif was “revealed” or decreed to be the burial place of Ali by Harrun Al Rashid some 40 years after Ali died in 661. Harrun was the fifth Abbasid Caliph, who ruled in Baghdad 786 to 809. The fictional book One Thousand and One Nights is set in Harun's magnificent court and some of its stories involve Harun himself, a figure of great imagination. He considered moving his court to the east, and eventually did move it to Syria for safety, but appears to have considered Afghanistan first.
Since there was already a mausoleum of a prophet in Afghanistan at the place called Mazar-i-Sharif, the Tomb of the Exalted, a tomb even then of interest to pilgrims, it suited his purpose for Harun to declare it to be also the tomb of Ali. He did so at the request of Ja’far as-Sadiq, who later became the sixth Imam in the Shia tradition and was seeking to establish a Shia stronghold in Afghanistan. Ja’far was a descendant of Ali on the side of his father, Muhammad al-Baqir, and his story was eagerly accepted by the local population of Mazar-i-Sharif, largely Shia at the time, even if rejected by many other Muslims. It is as if these holy men were looking for a ready-made shrine, popular among pilgrims. There were no such Jewish, Christian or Muslim sites that far east, but there was that mausoleum so impressive that the now substantial city was named for it, and the occupant was the prophet associated with the People of the Book named as Magian in the Holy Quran. Whether they brought the remains of Ali there physically or spiritually, the announcement had the desired effect of turning this shrine into a Muslim mosque.
It is possible that the remains of Ali were transferred there at a time when some could not remember who first was buried in the mausoleum. Others may have wished to deny that the prominent shrine tomb belonged to a non-Muslim persona, though as we have seen, burial above any prophet from among the People of the Book was an established practice. The “Chamber of Commerce” would have encouraged the recognition of further enhancement of the site following the declaration also ascribing the tomb to Ali to this location.
The grave was then domed and greatly enhanced. Sultan Ahmed Sanjar of the Seljug dynasty expanded the main structure to something even greater, resembling present proportions, some three hundred years after the purported re-interment of Ali. It was desecrated and then partially hidden under earthen embankment for protection during the invasion of Genghis Khan around 1220 CE. In the 15th century CE, Sultan Husayn Mirza Baygarah repaired and extended the superstructure in an outstanding example of the Timuridarchitectural style. It has been well maintained ever since as the priority budget item in the city, province and nation. The latest addition is a monument to the national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Mujahadin leader, who fought both the Soviets and the Taliban, before his assassination in 2001.
The structure appears to be almost floating, a trick of this particular style of Islamic architecture, partially facilitated by intricately painted clay tiles, produced in a studio on site. Two square feet of tiling needs to be replaced every day, having been damaged by the elements or stolen by pilgrims as religious mementos. A site plan of the foundations made by engineers early in the twentieth century showed that there had earlier been a crypt in the smaller walled precinct under the original mosque, razed later but with portals still remaining as gateways for the current shrine.
No carbon dating has yet been undertaken, though current techniques of archaeological investigation are equally effective. LiDAR scans from space, as described by Richard Freund in Four Testaments, can reveal much about the original site, and close up Electrical Resistive Tomography and Ground Penetrating-Radar (ERT & GPR) scans are able to flesh out the story of this mosque and its sacred precinct as presented by Freund and his team at the 2020 Dead Zee Scrolls conference in Niagara Falls. The team includes Harry Jol, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, who literally “wrote the book” on Ground Penetrating Radar Theory and Applications.
Richard Freund is one of the world’s leading archaeologists. Since he and I write for the same publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, he had been asked to vet the portions of this book which pertain to archaeology prior to publication. Though he had heard unsubstantiated rumors about the burial of Zoroaster, it was when he reviewed the list of hints, clues and evidence listed below that he knew our theory about the tomb of Zoroaster was now more than speculation, and he got involved. Televised and written reports of the archaeological expedition to verify this identification of what lies beneath the Mazar-i-Sharif are available under the title The Tomb of the Exalted. Previous hints and clues about Zoroaster’s bones in repose in a crypt beneath the Blue Mosque had been rejected by scholars as mere speculation when considered individually. In this summary of the evidence, we précis the support for our model into twelve categories, which move from speculation and conjecture to an absolutely compelling concept when taken together.
Cartography (lay of the land within walking distance of Balkh)
Geography (zeroing in on the appropriate high point)
Migration (population from the Bactrian plain moving east)
Nomenclature (re the name of the city and the tomb for which it was named)
Common Sense (re significance of tomb existing before city)
Local folklore (then and now)
Muslim practice (assembling prophets’ bones in sites already identified as holy)
Linguistics (identifying Zoroaster as the “Zarah-ustra” in radiant camel legend)
Politics (the theocratic mix of government and religion by early caliphs)
History (facts about Ali in Afghanistan and other data re dates and personas)
Architectural (reviews of structural engineering issues over the last century)
Archaeological (verification by respected experts of the twenty-first century)
This much evidence and advance information from the site were enough for Freund to proclaim confidence that the proof is simply waiting to be announced at the launch conference for this book in Niagara Falls, May 29-31, 2020. The core of the shrine does contain a tomb chamber and an antechamber for prayer and worship, the starting point for high-tech investigations, untried heretofore. A question which remains is whether other members of Zoroaster’s family were also interred there subsequently, while the reputation of the mausoleum grew, long years before its expansion early in the Muslim era. If so, are there any artifacts, and could this be even the repository of the written materials for which Zoroaster was most famous. Missing portions of the Avesta found here may be the first cache of what we call The Dead Zee Scrolls, a motherlode of the missing Chapters 6 to 27, thought by scholars like Mary Boyce, to have been composed by Zoroaster himself. Such a tremendous possibility will be revealed in the future if the investigation by Professor Freund’s 2020 team is able to indicate that there is more there than just the bones of Zoroaster.
At this point we get to the Indiana Jones style speculation that some undergraduate students may enjoy, or the Dan Brown portion of the story for public library and congregational book clubs, except that some of all of it could well be proven true. The week-long expedition is set to proceed under the on-site administration of financial manager Arthur Brown. The earth penetrating radar equipment is set up at sixty predetermined target locations identified by Dr. Harry Jol through preliminary scanning. Richard Freund’s practiced eye looks down one visual shaft after another. John Bedel videotapes the sequential moments for the TV networks.
Interviewer David Bruce keeps asking “What do you see, Dr. Freund?” When the EPR cameras detect anything promising (bone, wood, even crypt-shape stones) at a depth of up to forty feet, Freund exclaims, “This could be it.” A discreet two-inch steel tube then extracts material from the level under consideration for identification and carbon dating. This all takes place under government permits granted to Dr. Omar Sharifi of Boston University and the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies in Kabul, and under the watchful supervision of environmental technician Sarah Brown, trained for this at Seneca College in Toronto and present to insure absolute structural integrity, with no disturbance whatsoever in any part of the Blue Mosque itself.
At least that is the way things have been scheduled to unfold by Jenny Sutacriti, my wife and research associate, who described the historic opportunity to her professional grandchildren, Arthur and Sarah, and persuaded them to dedicate their professional talents to the financial and environmental concerns in support of the archaeologists who volunteered for this expedition. It is Jenny who envisioned the aspirational moment as David Bruce again asks, “What do you see?” and Richard Freund replies, “I see a stone structure that appears to be a crypt, with a human skeleton, and some objects which could be scrolls on either side of the bones.”
At this point in the actual expedition, Freund would interject. “Hold on, everybody. It is true that Brian Brown’s evidence is enough for us to be sure that if there is anything that far down there, it is likely from 2500 years ago rather than 1500 years ago. In that case we can presume that what we see is related to Zoroaster, and that he was buried around 551 rather than much earlier. But we are not going to find the Dead Zee Scrolls just like that. There is something there, but much analysis remains to be done, and if its results are more specific, we still need Afghan government approval to actually excavate to the level which proves that in burying Ali here and others since that time, the custodians of this sacred precinct did indeed honour the memory and the earlier prophetic ministry of Zoroaster. This is very exciting, and may indeed verify the site as Zoroaster’s tomb, but there is much work yet to be done.” This may be closer to the report we will receive at the Niagara conference following the expedition. Watch for it as a TV documentary or as a new book from Rowman and Littlefield.
Tombs of varying dimensions were added to the Blue Mosque for a number of Afghan political and religious leaders over the years, which has led to the development of irregular dimensions which have done nothing except enhance the beautiful structure. The Blue Mosque is already a magnificent attraction for pilgrims and visitors, and its current recognition as being also the tomb of Zoroaster will increase the worldwide interest in this shrine. It already has national status similar to Westminster Abbey in the United Kingdom and Notre Dame in France or Wat Arun in Thailand and the Taj Mahal in India.
The Blue Mosque is one of the most beautiful edifices on the planet, but following the verifications by the archaeological team under the leadership of Professor Freund, this multi-layered shrine may attain world status more like that attributed to the Vatican in Rome and the Kaaba in Mecca. This will assist in the current quest to gain a better understanding of the story of Zoroaster, the dates of his life, and where he was buried. As with the examples from other countries given in Appendix C, a great debt is owed to the Muslim community for preservation and respect for earlier prophets from among the People of the Book, a contribution to the twenty-first century quest to develop new mutual respect one another among traditions across the religious spectrum.
The Histories of Herodotus 1:131
 Economist, March 21, 2019
 P. Leriche, "Bactria, Pre-Islamic period." Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. 3, 1998.
 Warwick Ball, The Monuments of Afghanistan, p. 248
 Dissent Magazine, April 5, 2011
Ahmad Hasan Dani, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 61, Part One: Millennium Session (2000-2001), pp. 132-135
Afghanistan: A Treasure Trove for Archaeologists, Time Magazine. 26 February 2009
 An Elsevier book, Amsterdam
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