The Magi, revisited
Another translation of Marco Polo's classic
By H. Behzadi
May 28, 2002
Religion did not play a big part in my upbringing in Iran. What little I know comes
from those interminable compulsory Religious Study classes at high school in Tehran
which as I recollect were either run by clerics or Literature teachers looking for
extra income. The Persian Literature teachers never took it that seriously and as
long as you remembered the main tenets and could basically write. You were assured
of getting through with a reasonable grade.
We (or at least I) could never understand what the clerics were on about, as they
seemed to speak in a foreign language. Those who have read Jamalzadeh's short but
very witty ingenuous piece "Farsi Shekar Ast" ("Persian Is Nectar")
will know what I mean. They seemed to pride themselves into making the subject at
hand totally uninteresting and arcane. And to a child they were dangerous as they
were liable to fail you in "Feqh". IMagine the risk of losing those beautiful
summers having to study for a Religious Studies re-sit.
I know even less about Christianity and it wasn't till
my daughter started school run by the local church in the suburbs of London, chosen
mainly for its proximity and better reputation that I had any proper exposure to
it. Don't worry! This is not an attempt to convert you. The religious schools in
England are very popular with the immigrant communities, non-religious and even non-believers.
They are chosen solely because of their reputation for better discipline, smaller
class sizes and higher standard of learning. In some ways it shows up something of
the double standard by these groups and I have often wondered why the school organisers
tolerate it. Some Catholic schools now insist on at least one parent being Catholic
and the local priest confirming regular worship before acceptance.
One of the stories the kids become familiar with from an early age is the story of
three Magi (or the three Kings) who foresaw the birth of Christ and went on a pilgrimage
to see the newly born baby Jesus. My mother, god bless her soul, was kind of funky
with a surreal aspect to her character. She had a habit of sometimes dropping and
boring you (that is how it seemed to me then) with "pearls of wisdom" either
totally unrelated to the subject of conversation or what you were up to at the time
(like trying to find an excuse to get out of the house to play football in the street
or to spy on the girls in the neighbourhood).
The funny thing was that she never liked anyone else doing the same to her and
if she was concentrating, say reading a good book, the only response you could ever
get would be a 'hmmm'. You could shout and scream about the house being on fire but
if she was reading a particularly good novel, 'hmmmm' meaning: "don't bother
me kid; let whatever is happening, happen without me."
Just after my mother moved to England I have a vague recollection of her dropping
one of these pearls of wisdom without any solicitation on my part about the three
Magi, according to her the the three Magi must have been Iranian as Magi must be
the same as "mogh" in Persian meaning Zoroastrian priests, being young
and not interested in these matters I never really paid attention.
I recently read "The
Travels" of Marco Polo translated by Ronald Latham for Penguin Classics
and the first story Marco Polo relates about Persia proper is about the three Magi.
The Iranian published an excerpt from another
translation in 1997 but I prefer the Penguin version as it is a better translation
and Ronald Latham has used modern names where it has been possible to make a match.
Thanks to the Internet I also found the story as it appears in the Bible in
the Testament of Matthew.
Marco Polo's version relates the version of the story prevalent in Iran in the
middle of the 12th century with specific references to places in Iran making it very
interesting reading. I also looked up Magi in the dictionary and learnt that it is
indeed plural for magus, meaning "a: a member of a hereditary priestly class
among the ancient Medes and Persians; b often capitalized : one of the traditionally
three wise men from the East paying homage to the infant."
Here is the Ronald Latham translation:
In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they
came to worship Jesus Christ. Here, too, they lie buried in three sepulchres of great
size and beauty. Above each sepulchre is a square building with a domed roof of very
fine workmanship. The one is just beside the other. Their bodies are still whole,
and they have hair and beards. One was named Beltasar, the second Gaspar, and the
Messer Marco asked several of the inhabitants who these Magi were; but no one could
tell him anything except that they were three kings who were buried there in days
gone by. But at last he learnt What I will tell you.
Three days farther on, he found a town called Kala Atashparastan, that is to say
Town of the Fire-worshippers. And that is no more than the truth; for the men of
this town do worship fire. And I will tell you why they worship it. The inhabitants
declare that in days gone by three kings of this country went to worship a new-born
prophet and took with them three offerings -gold, frankincense, and myrrh - so as
to discover whether this prophet was a god, or an earthly king or a healer. For they
said : 'If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh,
When they had come to the place where the prophet was born, the youngest of the
three kings went in all alone to see the child. He found that he was like himself,
for he seemed to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out, full of wonder.
Then in went the second, who was a man of middle age. And to him also the child seemed,
as it had seemed to the other, to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out
quite dumbfounded. Then in went the third, who was of riper years; and to him also
it happened as it had to the other two. And he came out deep in thought. When the
three kings were all together, each told the others what he had seen. And they were
much amazed and resolved that they would all go in together.
So, in they went, all three together, and came before the child and saw him in
his real likeness and of his real age; for he was only thirteen days old. Then they
worshipped him and offered him the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh. The child
took all three offerings and then gave them a closed casket. And the three kings
set out to return to their own country.
After they had ridden for some days, they resolved to see what the child had given
them. They opened the casket and found inside it a stone. They wondered greatly what
this could be. The child had given it to them to signify that they should be firm
as stone in the faith that they had adopted. For, when the three kings saw that the
child had taken all three offerings, they concluded that he was at once a god, and
an earthly king, and a healer. And, since the child knew that the three kings believed
this, he gave them the stone to signify that they should be firm and constant in
The three kings, not knowing why the stone had been given to them, took it and
threw it into a well. No sooner had it fallen in than there descended from heaven
a burning fire, which came straight to the well into which it had been thrown. When
the three kings saw this miracle, they were taken aback and repented of their throwing
away the stone; for they saw clearly that its significance was great and good. They
immediately took some of this fire and carried it to their country and put it in
one of their churches, a very fine and splendid building.
They keep it perpetually burning and worship it as a
god. And every sacrifice and burnt offering which they make is roasted with this
fire. If it ever happens that the fire goes out, they go round to others who hold
the same faith and worship fire also and are given some of the fire that burns in
their church. This they bring back to rekindle their own fire. They never rekindle
it except with this fire of which I have spoken. To procure this fire, they often
make a journey of ten days.
That is how it comes about that the people of this country are fire worshippers.
And I assure you that they are very numerous. All this was related to Messer Marco
Polo by the inhabitants of this town; and it is all perfectly true. Let me tell you
finally that one of the three Magi came from Saveh, one from Hawah, and the third