The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London recently convened a major exhibition on Zoroastrianism, called the ‘The Everlasting Flame.’ The exhibition, the first of its kind and ambitious in scope, has attracted thousands of visitors and drawn attention world-wide. Housed over two floors at the university’s Brunei Gallery, it charts the history of the religion from its earliest textual attestations and inception in Imperial Iran through to its spread in Central Asia, its evolution through the Arab conquest of Iran, and the journey of Zoroastrians to India. The exhibition is rich in manuscripts of the Avesta and Pahlavi literature, and includes impressive re-creations of a fire temple, a display of the ritual space and a glass-etched replication of the staircase of Darius the First at Persepolis. It features a Parsi salon replete with paintings and textiles and tells the story of the Parsis’ arrival in India and their growth under British colonial rule.
Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Iran, looks back to an impressive three millennia of history with considerable legacies that transcend its boundaries beyond Iran proper. In the West the religion’s founding figure, Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, first fascinated the Greek philosophers of antiquity, and continued to occupy a firm place in Western imagination, even if only in various transfigured forms, until the arrival of modern sciences. In the East it spread up to China and was engaged in a deep exchange of ideas with various other traditions. Today Zoroastrianism is by all estimates a small religion, featuring world-wide less than 150,000 adherents. The exhibition, the accompanying catalogue and the conference have offered a small but significant religion, its adherents and the scholarly community engaged in its study, a rare moment in the public spotlight.
We spoke with Dr Sarah Stewart of SOAS, one of the exhibition’s curators, about the ambitions of ‘The Everlasting Flame’, how it has been received and the challenges Zoroastrian studies face in academia.
Could you tell us a bit about the aims of the ‘The Everlasting Flame’? It is accompanied by an excellent catalogue, virtually a publication its own right, and you also convened a conference, so it seems you were striving for more than just an exhibition.
The initial idea was drawn from the book ‘A Zoroastrian Tapestry: art religion and culture’ and was to do an exhibition on the Parsis. But we wanted to do something that encompasses the whole story of Zoroastrianism, from the earliest times through to the modern diaspora. We wanted the focus to be on the history, that is predominantly about Iran, and less about the Parsis. That’s how it all started.
But if you want to have a legacy for the exhibition, which comes and goes in two and a half months, you need to do more. So we thought that we should have a proper publication rather than just a catalogue - something that would last. We added eight academic papers and created a book which has an academic section and then the catalogue proper which shows all the sections in the exhibition. But we also wanted everyone to see who works on Zoroastrianism. And that’s how the idea of the conference was conceived. And I hope that we will be publishing the proceedings.
Were there aspects of the exhibition you felt you had to handle sensitively? Like all faiths, the Zoroastrian community faces its own internal controversies.
The exhibition is about history, it is about imagination. It wasn’t one of our objectives to discuss sensitive issues that pertain to today. We wanted to show the huge impact that Zoroastrianism has had on world civilizations, cultures and other religions. To do this we looked at other cultures outside the boundaries of Iran proper and then later India. That’s why we have Central Asia, even some things from China and the medieval Christian world and Judaism in the exhibition. Many people do not know about these aspects. The number of Zoroastrians in the world today is very small, probably no more than around 120,000, and yet the impact Zoroastrianism has had, and its history are completely disproportionate to the current numbers of its adherents.
What has the response been like? How many visitors have you had?
We have had a fantastic response in terms of interest, with over 15,000 visitors, which is absolutely amazing for an exhibition that is only open five days a week. I expect that by the time we close the number is likely to be nearly 20,000. The response has been wonderful and people have come from all around the world. The feedback has been very positive. Many people say they knew nothing about this religion and that they really come away feeling they have learnt something. A lot of Zoroastrians feel it has made them proud to be Zoroastrian.
What about critical response, has anyone raised any issues around the exhibition’s thematic focus?
People see what they want to see. Some have said that the exhibition does not contain a great deal about the religion. The answer to that is that it is about the history of the religion and the people, not just about the practices of the religion. We have included a number of texts which describe many of the rituals and practices and a whole fire temple.
Some people have said that they would like to see more about the modern communities around the world and indeed in Iran. The whole of the first part of the exhibition, texts, languages and in particular the objects from Central Asia, have to do with Iran. Then, the focus downstairs has been Imperial Iran, the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian times when Zoroastrianism became the religion of the great empires. We then move to the post-Arab period when Zoroastrianism gives way to Islam in Iran.
We did not focus on contemporary Zoroastrianism in Iran. For the modern period we discuss the pre-modern period of the 19th and 20th centuries. We go on to tell the Parsi story, which is the journey from Iran to India, and then the Parsis under British colonial rule, the era during which they became very prosperous.
I understand that the narrative of the migration to India is central to the Parsi story, but would contemporary Iranian Zoroastrians feel that this exhibition told their story?
As curators we had to make some very hard choices. Within the exhibition’s ten sections, we trace, as it were, sound bites through Iran after the Arab conquest. One of the things we wanted to show was the growth of New Persian literature and the much applauded and beloved Ferdowsi and the Shahnama. The exploits of kings and heroes draw on pre-Islamic Zoroastrian myths and legends, and indeed texts, as in the stories that we have in the Yašts. I was very keen to show that. Our Persian miniatures all relate to the pre-Islamic period and we have a small section on 20th century Zoroastrianism in Iran.
Would it have been feasible to include more from Iran?
To expand that section we would have ideally needed materials from Iran itself, but nothing, absolutely nothing could come out of Iran to our exhibition. I would have loved to include paintings I have seen in fire temples in Iran, and this was one of the first things I explored. But there was no possibility of anything being insured, so that was a non-starter. Photographs would have been the other way to expand that part of the exhibition, but this is not a photographic exhibition. It is about the religion’s history and we thought the main focus on Zoroastrianism in Iran had come through so many aspects at the exhibition, that the Parsi story should also be told. And it’s very rich in artefacts and paintings and fabrics, so the Parsi salon is exactly the same size as the Imperial Iran phase.
Just out of curiosity, was it difficult to get things out of Iran because of the complications sanctions would pose for insuring items?
Obtaining loans from abroad involves a huge bureaucratic process. You obviously have to have an agreement with the loan institution and in turn with the government. The National Museum of Iran, for example, has wonderful treasures from the Achaemenid period, but in order to get anything from Iran we would have needed government cooperation. However, before even embarking on that, I asked whether we would get insurance and I was told ‘No’.
It is our great loss that it was not going to be feasible to bring any objects or paintings from Iran to Britain, even if they had been agreed I rather doubt that fire temples or the National Museum in Iran would have wanted to send objects to Britain. In any event, it would not have been possible, and it actually took us a full year to negotiate loans from Uzbekistan and Russia.
Would you take the exhibition to Iran if you could?
It would be my absolute dream. I would love to take the exhibition to Iran. I have friends there, a former student of mine and her family. She is co-editing a forthcoming publication with me which is looking at Zoroastrian communities in Iran and aspects of Zartoshti life in Iran. It would be wonderful to take the exhibition there, we could substitute some of the objects that we might not be able to take or we could bring in Iranian components, which would make it even better. If we were able to travel, that would be my first choice and ambition.
Are Iranian scholars working on Zoroastrianism inside Iran able to be active on the international stage? How integrated are they in the field?
They are able and they do. But the breakdown of diplomatic relations between Britain and Iran has recently made things very difficult and unpredictable. If you are running a conference and you don’t know if people are going to turn up, it is very, very difficult. But, yes, Iranians do come over participating in conferences, or certainly they have done in the past, and I hope they will do in greater numbers from now on.
Are there any future plans for the exhibition? What will happen to it when it comes to a close?
It closes next Saturday and all the loans go back to their respective institutions. We had a wonderfully rich loan from the British Library, some twenty six volumes including some illustrated manuscripts. We had loans from the British Museum, various other libraries, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Samarkand Institutions in Uzbekistan, and everything has to go back. And the installations we had specially made for the exhibition in India, will go back to Mumbai and will be on permanent display in the Alpaiwall museum within a Parsi colony.
The other installation we had, which I was really pleased with, is the staircase of Darius the First at Persepolis etched in glass, based on a 19th century plaster cast kept at the British Museum. The original cast is about thirteen meters long. We had the drawings made slightly smaller, ten meters, and we had it etched in glass, again in Mumbai, and it was shipped over. It gives us an idea of imperial splendour of the Achaemenid period. That piece will also go back to Mumbai. Everything gets dispersed, and if we were to put it together again, obviously we would have to basically start all over again in terms of loan requests.
The last question here is a broader question about Zoroastrian studies. The academic study of other faiths, for example Islamic studies or Jewish studies, often have the strong financial backing of states and funders who make the study of the faith feasible through endowments and other various forms of support. Zoroastrian studies obviously lacks this, is there an impact?
I think Zoroastrian studies is reasonably strong. It’s difficult to know whether more posts and more teachers would result in more students. Of course I speak in a very privileged position being at SOAS, where we have the only endowed chair in Zoroastrian studies in the world, where students can learn Avestan, Pahlavi and other ancient Iranian languages as well as modern Persian and Gujarati. Basically all the languages of the Zoroastrian texts, and they can learn about Zoroastrianism throughout its history. But Zoroastrianism as a religion needs to be put on the map, which is why I think more outward looking ways of explaining it, like an exhibition, are a very good thing. It’s a question of people knowing about it, knowing that it is relevant to all world religions. I hope we can encourage more students.
Who comes to SOAS to study Zoroastrianism, what is the make-up of your students? Is it feasible these days to make this an academic focus?
At SOAS, at the Department of the Study of Religions, we have a cross-section of British students and students from around the world, who come and study various religions. Zoroastrianism is one of them and it’s popular. I think it’s maybe also a question of students today having to study or being drawn to subjects that they feel are going to provide them with jobs at the end. That’s why I’m interested in promoting Zoroastrianism as a living religion as well as its history, of course, but not too narrowly focused, because that’s going to limit the number of students.
Very few students can make their academic life by focusing their academic studies on Pahlavi and a single religion of the ancient period. I’m afraid it breaks down to economic realities when it comes down to why students study certain subjects and not others.
Is it part of the problem that Zoroastrianism doesn’t enjoy the same modern context that other religions benefit from?
Well, for example, if you think of what people perceive as the relevance of Islam, you notice that it is studied for itself, but it is also incorporated into other programmes such as media studies, politics and economics. I think one of the ways to make Zoroastrianism relevant, is to show people how important it is and has been and to bring it into the 21st century.
We have to think of ways we can collaborate with other institutions. We must continually try and increase the student numbers. Funding for scholarships is very important. So you may be right that Islamic studies has had generous grants for scholarships and that enables more students to study the religion. If we had more scholarships for students of Zoroastrianism undoubtedly we would get more students.
Arash Zeini is a research fellow at the School of History, University of St. Andrews. His main research interests include the study of ancient Iran and Zoroastrianism, particularly the late antique exegesis of the Avesta.