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Thread: Zoroastrianism: "A Year Amongst the Persians"

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    Lightbulb Zoroastrianism: "A Year Amongst the Persians"

    "A Year Amongst the Persians" - Edward Granville Browne's interest in Persian studies and the plight of the minorities in that ancient land, resulted in his undertaking a trip to that country during 1887-1888. He took a steamer to Turkey, and there he hired a servant and bought several horses to set on his yearlong journey into Iran. Traveling on horse back he visited Yazd, Kerman and Shiraz and spent a considerable amount of time with the Zarathushtrians and the Baha'is in those cities.

    Upon his return to Cambridge, England, to take up the post of Professor of Persian, he began work on a book about his experiences in Iran. The book is very well written and holds the interest of the reader till the very end. It contains the author’s impressions as to the life, character, and thought of the people of Persia, received during twelve months' residence in that country in the years 1887-1888. There is a map of Persia before the title-page, opening from 9 sections. This book is now included among the foremost classics of travel in English literature' (E. D. Ross, in Dictionary of national biography). A full quarter of the book relates his experiences with followers of the Bab, founder of the Baha’i faith.

    The language may seem rather dated to many readers today, but one must not forget that it was written more than a century ago. Among other things, his book particularly mentions about the harsh treatment and difficult life the Zoroastrians in Iran had to undergo due to religious persecution. Zoroastrians in Iran in those days were referred by the derogatory term ‘Guebre’. Browne wrote, “The headquarters of Zoroastrianism in Persia were at Yazd and Kirmán [Kerman], in and about which cities there may be in all some 7000-8000 adherents of the old creed. In other towns they are met with but sparingly, and are not distinguished by the dull yellow dress and loosely-wound yellow turban which they are compelled to wear in the two cities above mentioned.”

    Browne traveled to Yazd and observed, "First, then, of the Zoroastrians. Of these there are said to be from 7000 to 8000 in Yazd and its dependencies, nearly all of them being engaged either in mercantile business or agriculture. From what I saw of them, both at Yazd and Kirmán, I formed a very high idea of their honesty, integrity, and industry. Though less liable to molestation now than in former times, they often meet with ill-treatment and insult at the hands of the more fanatical Mohammedans, by whom they are regarded as pagans, not equal even to Christians, Jews, and other people of the book. Thus they are compelled to wear the dull yellow raiment already alluded to as a distinguishing badge; they are not permitted to wear socks, or to wind their turbans tightly and neatly, or to ride a horse; and if, when riding even a donkey, they should chance to meet a Musulmán, they must dismount while he passes, and that without regard to his age or rank.”

    The Zoroastrians had become accustomed to these unjust rules, however humiliating they were, as minor vexations. But when there was a change of leadership or when a corrupt or fanatical Governor held office the Zoroastrians suffered worst. At those times the lútís [goons] would take over. During one such period, when king Muhammad Shah died [5 October 1848] and the next king Shah Násir ul-Dín took over, many Zoroastrians were robbed, beaten, and threatened, unless they would renounce their ancient faith and embrace Islam and several hundreds, who would not do so, were actually put to death. Browne reports finding at least one old Zoroastrian still living at Yazd who, on that occasion, had been threatened, beaten and finally shot with a pistol merely for standing firm and refusing to renounce the faith of his forefathers!

    The courage of Nâmdâr - On another occasion, Browne describes how a fanatic, who had disguised himself as a Zoroastrian, killed another Musulmán. The Musulmáns once again threatened to sack the Zoroastrian quarter in Yazd and massacre the inmates, unless the alleged murderer was surrendered to the authorities. The person who was alleged to have committed the crime according to the fanatics was named as one Nâmdâr, a relative of the chief-priest [Dástúr-í-Dástúrán] of the Zoroastrians. Nâmdâr, innocent as he was, surrendered himself to the authorities and was prepared to die rather than endanger the whole Zoroastrian community which would have suffered greatly had the threat posed by the fanatics been carried out. “I will go before the Governor” he said, “for it is better that I should lose my life than that our whole community should be endangered.”

    However, at the last moment the real murderer was found out and executed, and Nâmdâr was vindicated. Ardashír Mihrbán, the Yazd merchant banker who cashed Browne’s promissory note, told Browne that in 1874 his own brother Rashíd was killed by a mob of fanatics, led by one Rujub Ali, as Rashíd was walking through the bazaar in Yazd. The murderer was traced to the seaport of Bushire after strong representations were made to the Shah, but he was never brought to justice. A tablet has been put up in Rashíd's honor on the wall of the fire-temple at Yazd.

    Under the enlightened administration of Prince `Imad ul-Dawla, Browne reports, the Zoroastrians enjoyed comparative peace and security, but even he was not able to check always the ferocious intolerance of bigots and the savage brutality of the lútís. Browne witnessed the following: "While I was in Yazd a Zoroastrian was bastinadoed [beaten repeatedly with blows] for accidentally touching with his garment some fruit exposed for sale in the bazaar, and thereby, in the eyes of the Musulmans, rendering it unclean and unfit for consumption by true believers.”

    Zoroastrian lady molested - On another occasion, Browne says, the wife of a Zoroastrian of modest means, a woman of singular beauty, was washing clothes at a stream near the town of Yazd, when she was noticed with admiration by two Musulmans who were passing by. One of them clasped her and tried to kiss her but she resisted and cried for help, whereupon her molesters threw her into the stream and ran away. The next day the Zoroastrians complained to the Governor, and the two cowardly scoundrels were arrested and brought before him. The Zoroastrians held great hopes that justice will be done. But as the case opened in court an old Zoroastrian who was the only eye-witness [for a woman's testimony was not considered in court in those days] was so threatened with dire consequences, and at the same time promised a reward, by the fanatics and a prosperous Mohammedan businessman, respectively, that he changed his story. The old witness's affidavit in court said that he only heard the woman's cry for help and then saw her in the water, thereby implying that the cry for help was due to falling in the stream rather than due to any molestation. Hence justice was denied once again and the Zoroastrians left the court disappointed.

    An unjust civil code - And yet another unjust and evil practice reported by Browne in Yazd (and presumably existed all over Iran) was the following: "When a Zoroastrian renounces his faith and embraces Islám, it is considered by the Musulmáns that he has a right to all the property and money of his ingenerate [unconverted] kinsmen. A case of this sort had arisen, and the renegade [former Zoroastrian] had taken a sum of ninety túmáns [nearly £28] from his relatives. The latter appealed to the Prince `Imád ui-Dawla, who insisted on its restoration, to the mortification of the pervert and his new friends and the delight of the Zoroastrians."

    There were many other incidents, including abduction and forcible conversions of Zoroastrian youth. Only the limit of space requires that I leave them out. The reader may do well to obtain this book from a library and read for himself.

    Return to England - Browne left Tehran on 27 September and reached London on 10 October 1888. A full year and seven days had passed since he first set foot on oriental soil at Trebizonde, Turkey. A few days after his return to England he took up the post of Professor of Persian at Cambridge and held it till his death in 1926. On the last page of his book he wrote “Thus ended a journey to which, though fraught with fatigues and discomforts, and not wholly free from occasional vexations, I look back with almost unmixed satisfaction. For such fatigues and discomforts I was amply compensated by an enlarged knowledge and experience, and a rich store of pleasant memories which would have been cheaply purchased even at a higher price. For without toil and fatigue can nothing be accomplished, even as an Arab poet has said:

    “And he who hopes to scale the heights without enduring pain,
    And toil and strife, but wastes his life in idle quest and vain.”


    The Author : Edward Granville Browne (1862-1926) was born to an affluent English family from Gloucestershire. His father was the head of a successful engineering and shipbuilding firm in Northern England. His uncle, under whose spell for a while the young Browne fell demonstrated traits of Christian puritanical Non-conformism. Browne’s tempered dissent must have allowed him to see the weak and empathize with the underprivileged. His education in medicine at Cambridge, even in his undergraduate years, included interest in Eastern Languages and Cultures.

    In the age of British Raj and other colonial engagements across the seas, it was natural for the young Browne to look forward to the East for a career and to be fascinated by what he discovered there, first in Books and then in person. As he himself reminisced in his later years, it was the anti-Turkish sentiments during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 that first drew his attention to the East. But unlike the men of Byron’s generation whose romantic vision of the East tilted decidedly to the side of Christian Greeks and against the “terrible Turks,” young Browne had compassion for the Turks whom he felt had unjustly fallen victims to the Russian expansion or alternatively to the British jingoistic press.

    For his early image of Muslim East, which was largely constructed through avid reading of travel accounts and learning the Persian, Arabic, and Turkish languages, he could not have found a more moving picture of victimized minorities than Comte de Gobineau’s account of the minorities in Iran of the 1840s and 1850 decades, Les religions et les philosophies dans l’ asie centrale.

    As it turned out Edward Browne’s interest in Near Eastern Studies took precedence over the study of medicine, and in time he became one the best products of the British orientalism of the Nineteenth Century and a prominent Persian specialist Europe had produced. Browne’s area of specialization in Persian studies was mostly on Post Islamic Iran. His knowledge of pre-Islamic and Zararathushtrian literary heritage of Iran was limited. However, his detailed recording of the plight of Zarathushtrians and other minorities of the 19th century Iran provides valuable historical documentation of those minority groups’ heroic struggle for survival.

    His Publications: Although a professor and holder of Arabic chair at Cambridge University, Edward Browne is best remembered for his four volume Literary History of Persia. He was also author, compiler, and editor of numerous other works on the literature, history, and religion of Persia. Another book authored by Edward Browne, “The Persian Revolution of 1905-1909” provides valuable insight into the constitutional reform movement that took hold in Iran at that conjecture in its history. In that book Browne took upon himself to represent a nation wronged by the abuses of its own government and weakened by foreign encroachments. Whether Browne’s was a guilt-ridden flare of conscience in a Europe ashamed of its colonial exploits or an idiosyncratic voice of dissent calling for understanding of fair treatment of other societies and cultures, his “representation,” borrowing the jargon of the critics of orientalism was neither a manifest nor a “latent” agenda for domination.

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