Zoroastrian Towers of Silence: abandoned, enigmatic but touristic

October 11, 2021 - 17:20

TEHRAN - The enigmatic Zoroastrian Towers of Silence are set on two lonely, barren hilltops on the southern outskirts of Yazd in central Iran.

According to a tradition dating back over 3,000 years, dead bodies were left on top of those open towers – which are also called dakhmas -- to be slowly disengaged or picked apart by desert vultures.

Under ancient Zoroastrian beliefs about the purity of the Earth, dead bodies were not buried but left in these uncovered stone towers so that vultures could pick the bones clean.

Narratives say that men’s corpses were placed in the outer circle, while women’s were left in the middle, and children in the inner-most ring. Bodies were then left until their bones were bleached by the elements and stripped by the vultures.

After the process of purification, bones were placed in ossuaries near, or inside the towers. Ossuaries from these rituals have been discovered from the 4th and 5th centuries BC.

At the foot of the hills are several other abandoned Zoroastrian buildings, including a defunct well, cistern, kitchen, and a lavatory.

As Iran developed and urbanized, dakhmas became increasingly closer to city limits, severely curtailing their use. Since the 1970s, the use of dakhmas has been illegal in Iran, forcing orthodox Zoroastrians to adapt to new burial methods.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, such towers are about 25 feet (8 m) high, built of brick or stone, and contain gratings on which the corpses are exposed. After vultures have picked the bones clean, they fall into a pit below, thereby fulfilling the injunction that a corpse must not suffer contact with either fire or earth.

Zoroastrian Towers of Silence are currently one of the famed travel destinations of Yazd, which is a cradle of Zoroastrianism. In July 2017, the historical texture of the city of Yazd was named a UNESCO World Heritage.

Wedged between the northern Dasht-e Kavir and the southern Dasht-e Lut on a flat plain, the oasis city enjoys a very harmonious public-religious architecture that dates from different eras.

With its winding lanes, a forest of badgirs (wind catchers), mud-brick houses, atmospheric alleyways, and centuries of history, Yazd is a delightful place to stay, referring to as a ‘don't miss’ destination by almost all travel associates in the region. Yazd Jameh Mosque, Dowlatabad Garden, the Yazd Atash Behram, also known as Atashkadeh-e Yazd, Towers of Silence, and adjacent desert landscape are among its tourist sites.

Here is a selection of comments that visitors to the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence have posted to TripAdvisor, one of the most popular travel websites in the world:

‘Wonderful’

Should be visited to understand the ancient beliefs of Zoroastrians...

This is a place where are the Zoroastrians buried their dead in the sky... (Fatih U from Izmir, Turkey)

‘Eerie’

A must site to visit if you are in Yazd to check out how the Zoroastrians dispose of their dead as they believed that after death the soulless body is impure and by burying the impure corpse in the ground, the soil becomes contaminated with impurity. (shadgerami from Nikolayevsk-on-Amur, Russia)

‘An extraordinary site’

We had planned to visit a dakhma when we toured Uzbekistan but had to give it a miss, so I was eager to visit these in Yazd. I had not realized that buildings are having a ritual function associated with the dakhma.

Each family has its own building where a final funerary meal is eaten before the deceased is taken to the dakhma for excarnation. It was fascinating to walk around that part of the site before ascending the dakhma. The ascent is quite steep but aided by proper steps. Once in the main platform, there are excellent information boards in English explaining the processes undertaken. (Rod F from Royal Wootton Bassett, UK)

‘Spookily beautiful’

It is one of the most interesting sites we visited on our trip to Iran and one of the greatest reasons to add Yazd to the tour program. Totally recommended! (Muge S from Istanbul, Turkey)

‘A unique place to visit’

I can imagine how hot it must be here in the summer... we visited Yazd at Christmas time and the weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot. Climbing up to the hill makes you sweat but standing right where the corpses were left is a unique experience that catches one’s imagination.

There are helpful postings in English that help you understand the context and the customs. You really can’t miss this if you visit Yazd. (Joscar00 from Stockholm, Sweden)

‘Interesting history!’

Easy walk/hike to the top. One of the towers is on a much higher level than the other. Best time to go early morning or before the sunset. (Aida B from Los Angeles)

‘Very interesting place with strong energy flow’

Don’t miss the whole story of this place as it makes it so unique and special. Going up is essential to see the whole place. Also, it gives good views around. There is very strong energy there.

Going up to one of the towers is rather enough but you can choose the less popular one. This place is worth 20 min drive from the city center. (Very-sunny from Lodz, Poland)

‘A very interesting and beautiful place’

For millennia and until recently, in the 1970s, this place was used to dispose of the dead, a high priest would chop the pieces of the bodies to be fed to the birds.

It is located outside the city and you can visit it on tour or by taxi.

There are some temples or buildings at ground level and then you have the two hills with their sanctuaries on top. A great experience. (Etienne T. form New York)

‘Must do in Yazd’

A unique place to visit. Read a bit about the background before you come as all explanation is only in Farsi.

Walk up the tower and try to imagine how the burial ceremony must have been like in those days. A must-do when in Yazd. (Isabella Deruiter form Rotterdam, the Netherlands) 

‘Iconic place in Yazd with very interesting history’

This place is an essential part of the Zoroastrian religion, where the followers lay their dead loved ones' bodies at the top of the tower for the scavenging birds and weather to 'disintegrate' the bodies.

The ascent to the top requires a basic level of fitness but the view of Yazd city from the top is good. I remember seeing motorbikes that bring you to the top too. (Wei T. from Singapore)

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