A review of "Zoroastrian Houses of Yazd"
by Mary Boyce
April 18, 2005
Sometimes old buildings possess the virtue
to express far better than words the fears and uncertainties
of nations or religious
groups. The old Zoroastrian houses of Yazd are one such example.
Civil and religious persecution have dictated the style and pattern
of their unusual architecture. Memories of repression are encoded
in the design of their thick adobe walls. They are voices frozen
Yazd is situated on a high, arid plateau at the interface of
two mighty deserts (the Dasht-e Lut and the Dasht-e Kavir). It
was once an important station on the Silk Road, famous for its
fabrics and textiles (1). For many years, its splendid isolation
protected it from political upheavals in the rest of Iran.
the Mongol invasions that saw the total disappearance of Zoroastrian
populations from the provinces of Sistan and Khorasan, Yazd emerged
unharmed, protected by its vast expanses of featureless desert.
It became a haven for Zoroastrians from all over Iran. In this
city of walled gardens and turquoise domes they continued to
practice their religion and customs relatively undisturbed. Most
still spoke Dari, once the official spoken language of the Sassanian
court, later confined solely to the Zoroastrian populations of
Yazd and Kerman (though fragmented into countless local dialects)
(2). The pleasant oasis city drew many artists, poets and sufis
to the safety of its walls (3)
The region’s prosperity and isolation lasted until the
beginning of the eighteenth century whereupon two hundred years
of political and religious turmoil ensued which decimated the population.
Yazd suffered attacks from Afghans, Zands and Afshars, to name
but a few. The Zoroastrian population was subjected to additional
hardships. As a religious minority subject to discriminatory laws,
it found it had as much to fear from its Muslim neighbours as from
the foreign forces armed against it. It took extra measures to
protect itself, a fact reflected in the community’s unusual
domestic architecture (4).
Yazd is famous for its unique sky-line of badgirs: tall, elegant
wind-towers intended to catch the slightest movement of air and
direct it downward into cool underground chambers. The houses of
the region have great vaulted talars that open out onto spacious
courtyards containing pleasant water features and gardens. But
the older houses of the Zoroastrian population are significantly
different from those of their Muslim neighbours.
In 1963 when professor Mary Boyce arrived in the region to study
them, she discovered gloomy, fortress-like buildings virtually
devoid of any furniture or greenery. They were low and airless.
No badgirs adorned their roofs. The primary consideration of the
builders had been defence. The ideal solution would have been to
build upwards, erecting high, tower-like houses as are found (for
example) all over Scotland.
But in Iran, Zoroastrians were not
allowed to build their homes any higher than a man could reach
(or any taller than the houses of Moslems). They could only build
outwards and downwards, creating dark honey-combs of subterranean
rooms with adobe walls several feet thick to withstand attack.
The Zoroastrians were physically greater in stature than their
Moslem neighbours (“mighty men”, as Mrs Boyce calls
them) and they could well have put up a fight if they had to. But
it seldom happened. The penalty for killing a Moslem was certain
death: to kill a Zoroastrian meant incurring only a modest fine,
usually waived by the authorities. Better, therefore, to prevent
attacks in the first place
Entry to the houses was via a single door from a narrow lane
just wide enough to allow a fully-laden donkey to pass. The Law
stated that the door of a Zoroastrian dwelling could be secured
by only a single hinge, so a series of doors had to be built (one
after the other) in the interests of safety. Finally, at the end
of a gloomy corridor, a narrow door - the smallest of them all
- led into a bare, central courtyard or rikda.
There were no widows. Sometimes glass bottles could be seen protruding
from the walls of the entrance lane. But these served as spy-holes
rather than windows, defence being uppermost in the minds of these
persecuted inhabitants. The only light to enter the house was through
the tiny courtyard or via irregular gaps in the doors or ceilings.
In some of the buildings the courtyard had been covered over completely
to prevent intruders gaining access from the roof. The result was
total darkness and oppressive claustrophobia. It is ironic that
Zoroastrians with their sophisticated theologies of light should
have been forced to live in such shadowy, enclosed buildings.
The oldest standard form of Zoroastrian house described by Mrs
Boyce dated from the early nineteenth century. All other houses
were variations on its basic design. It was known in Dari as a
do-pesgami (or “two-chambered” house) on account of
its two open pavilions facing each other across the rikda. These
were known invariably as the pesgam-i mas and the pesgam-i
vrok (the ‘great’ and the ‘small’ pesgams) (5).
Both had domed roofs to help minimise solar gain and speed up the
loss of heat from below.
The pesgam-i mas (or “great pesgam”) was so called
not because of its size, (which was often smaller than the pesgam-i-vrok)
but on account of its greater significance. It was the room set
aside for religious observances and where the ritual vessels, the
afrinigan, the bowls and spoons etc., were kept. It was never built
facing north (the direction of evil); and was always hidden from
the doorway so that no non-Zoroastrian visitor might set eyes upon
it. Clay rectangular pots in which grasses were sown at major festivals
were secured high up in its corners, a welcome relief from the
monochrome grey of the house.
The great pesgam was considered pure (“pak”) and
hence no-one in a state of ritual impurity could enter it. Its
floor was of plain earth. Brick, being a man-made material, was
considered unsuitable as it offended the Zoroastrians’ feeling
of harmony with Nature. The age of a house could often be estimated
by the height of the great pesgam’s floor. This was always
higher than the floors of the rest of the house, a consequence
of the fresh layer of soil that was spread upon it every year during
the Farvardagan festival (the festival that welcomes back the spirits
of the dead). (6)
Opposite the pesgam-i mas was the pesgam-i vrok (or “small
pesgam”), a secular pavilion dominated by weaving looms with
threads strung from wall to wall across the room. Zoroastrians
were forbidden by law to practice any skilled trades, and hence
were forced to rely upon weaving (as well as some farming and cattle-droving)
to earn a living.
There were various other rooms around the periphery of the house,
all of which Mrs Boyce describes meticulously in her article. What
is striking about them is their emptiness: the almost complete
lack of furniture, decoration or even cupboard space. In the bedroom,
clothes and linens were stored in cotton bundles along the sides
of the walls as if its inhabitants were ready at a moment’s
notice to flee for their lives.
That was often the truth, for persecution
was endemic. In their haste they often buried valuables under the
floors, hoping to retrieve them at a later date. This knowledge
gave rise to the belief that all old Zoroastrian houses contained “buried
treasure”, and ensured that they attracted the attention
of potential burglars. Somewhere in the house, however, there was
usually a panahgah (a concealed room) where valuables, wine - and
even children - could be secreted in times of trouble.
Another room commonly found in these buildings was the ganza-yi
punidun. It was nothing more than a simple stone hut. Women
would pass the first few days of their menstrual periods here,
away from the men. But by the 1960s this architectural feature
of Zoroastrian homes was already passing into memory. Mrs Boyce
once asked a young Zoroastrian girl what purpose she thought the
structure might have served, and received the reply that it was
probably “a hen-house”!
The only heated room in the whole house was the long narrow kitchen
(or pokri) with its aromatic bread ovens. The weather in Yazd could
be bitterly cold in winter, so the family would often congregate
here in the evenings. Its fire was never allowed to go out.
Many of the laws discriminating against Zoroastrians (and other
religious minorities) in Iran were still in force at the end of
the nineteenth century. A Zoroastrian had to dismount from his
donkey when approaching a Moslem. He was not allowed out of his
house on rainy days because the water from his clothes might “contaminate” believers.
He was compelled to wear distinctive garments to identify him as
an outsider. He was not allowed to wear a hat or shoes, unless
they were torn. Even eye-glasses were forbidden him. Subject to
the notorious jaziya tax (7), he was kept firmly in poverty: a
second-class citizen in his own country.
But when restrictions upon them relaxed at the beginning of the
twentieth century, Zoroastrians again began to improve and upgrade
their homes. The do-pesgami developed into chor-pesgami (or four-pavilioned)
houses, upper stories were built, courtyards opened up and badgirs added. Water ponds and gardens began to appear to grace the inner
courtyards. Life began to return to normal once again. Mrs Boyce
reminds us at the end of her article that:
“Persia, with its love of gardens and flowers, was Zoroastrian
before it was Muslim; and it was poverty and oppression that forced
the Yazdi Zoroastrians into their small bare, fortress-like homes,
without a blade of greenness to relieve the monotony. [But] as
soon as pressure on them slackened, they created houses with gardens
again.” - Mary Boyce, 1964
1. Marco Polo, who visited the city in 1272 called it “a
noble and considerably sized city”. It was famous for Yazdi,
a silken fabric embroidered with golden threads.
2. Dari differs from Farsi in possessing fewer borrowings from
Arabic. Over the centuries, Dari speakers have experienced extensive
political pressure to yield up the language. Today there are less
than 10,000 of them worldwide, most of them in Kerman and Yazd.
Dari belongs to the N. Western Iranian language family and is related
to Kurdish Gilaki and Balochi. It is not equated with the Dari
spoken in Afghanistan.
3. A few of these Sufis built influential monasteries in the
district. Some of them, like the monastery of Sheikh Ahmad Fahadan,
can still be seen today in Yazd.
4. The Zoroastrians of Yazd distinguish between two kinds of
Moslem: the najib (kind, generous) and the na-najib (the opposite
of najib). They attach these names to several villages in the district
and travel considerable distances to avoid contact with na-najib
5. Mrs Boyce sought out the correct Dari words for many of the
domestic objects she wrote about in her article. She was helped
by two primary source books:
Soroushian, Jamshid. Farhang i behdinan. Tehran 1956, and
Ivanow, W. The Gabri dialect spoken by the Zoroastrians
of Persia IV. RSO, xviii (1939)
6. These basic house designs are peculiar to Yazd and are not
found among the Zoroastrian houses of neighbouring Kerman. If they
once existed there, they probably disappeared in the 18th century
after the massacre of the Zoroastrian population by Mahmood the
7. The heavy poll tax inflicted upon most non-Moslems.
"The Zoroastrian Houses of Yazd" by Mary Boyce in
Iran and Islam (In memory of Vladimir Minorsky).
Edited by Bosworth, C.E.
Edinburgh University Press. 1971. Printed in Great Britain by T. & A.
Constable Ltd. Edinburgh. Scotland. UK. (ISBN 0 85224 200 X)