Chak Chak

When the traveler sets from Yazd, the adobe city standing on the edge of the desert, where for thousands of years the caravans gathered to start together on the thousand-kilometer-long road across the desert, and follows their traces toward east, the city of Mashhad lying on the other edge of the fertile fringe of the Iranian plate, after eighty kilometers arrives to the adobe village of Kharânaq. Here, a smaller road branches off the ancient caravan road sharply to the left, among the mountains bordering the road. It meanders between ragged mountains and barren rocks of bizarre shapes, where only the scattered dry tufts suggest some life, and the traces drawn in the sand by the snakes, who in the daytime hide from the scorching heat under earth. After thirty more kilometers an even narrower road turns left again, slowly spiraling in between the giant mountains. When we are already deep in the belly of the mountain, we suddenly catch sight of the sanctuary of Chak Chak, one of the holiest places of pilgrimage of the Zoroastrians, sticking high upon the huge mountain wall, like a swallow’s nest. At that point, a believer dismounts his horse or, more recently, parks his car, and continues his way on foot.

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Chak Chak means drip-drip. This is how the cave sanctuary, opening in the rock wall, speaks, by falling a drop of water every few seconds on the floor of the sanctuary. The water flows out, and creates a small green life among the barren rocks. This gives the other name of the place: Pir-e Sabz, the Green Sanctuary.

The mountain mourns for Nikbanu, the daughter of the last Persian king, Yazdegerd III, who, when in 636 the Arab conquerors coming from nowhere destroyed the Persian army in the Battle of Qadisiyyah, fled to the east. Here she was caught up by the Arab horsemen sent to pursue her. To avoid falling among their hands, she prayed to the God of Zoroastrians, Ahura Mazda, to whose command the mountain opened up and embraced her.

We also climb on foot the steep stairs to the sanctuary. On both sides we read quotes from the Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians, carved in stone or engraved on metal plates, in the original Old Iranian language, or translated to modern Persian. Not a soul can be seen, the large covered terraces are now empty, which between 14 and 18 June of each year accommodate thousands of Zoroastrian believers coming from all over the world. From the hot walls, large green lizards curiously stare after us. Planted in the middle of the stairs, a tall green cypress, Zarathustra’s sacred tree.

Arriving to the highest terrace, a door opens suddenly. A guard comes out. He absently greets us with a “ya Ali”, he is probably a Muslim guard paid by the Zoroastrians. He calls for an entrance fee and for donations. The he lethargically flops on the little chair, as if amidst the endless idleness even this much effort would be fatal. “Do you want some tea?” he asks the obligatory Persian question of courtesy, and, without waiting for the answer, he fills it only to himself. Then he continues staring into the space, like a particularly overgrown lizard.

The sanctuary might have been renewed in the days of the last Shah, perhaps in 1971, in preparation to the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy, when the Pahlavi regime tried to efface the conservative Muslim clergy and petty bourgeoise by emphasizing the country’s national traditions. This is evoked by the retro feeling of the equipment, the pavement, the eternal lights, and the holder of the food offering, as well as the Persepolis bodyguards, the indispensable decoration of Pahlavi-era public buildings, on the bronze doors. A label states that we have to take our shoes off, we have to cover our head, and if we were in the days of menstruation, we could not enter the sanctuary. Inside, the holy water patiently drips on the floor, like it has done for several millennia. From the side of the shrine, a huge old plane tree grows out, which, according to tradition, is Nikebanu’s cane, and otherwise a holy tree in the Zoroastrian tradition. As Herodotus mentions it, when describing the way of Xerxes marching to the Greek war:

“…found a plane-tree, which he adorned with gold because of its beauty, and he assigned one of his immortals to guard it.” (Historiae, 7.31)

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In the first centuries after the conquest, the Arabs took in possession rather the western half of Persia, the fertile plain of the large rivers, today’s Iraq. Yazd and its surroundings at the edge of the desert for another half millennia only payed tax to the caliph. An Arab governor and army were rarely seen here. The great number of local or refugee Persian Zoroastrians and Judes – for ten of Israel’s twelve tribes were settled here, “in the cities of Media”, after the Assyrian deportation – could freely practice their religion for a half thousand years. Only in the 13th century, after the establishment of the Muslim Yazd government, are the Zoroastrians and Judes chased from the old towns to the outskirts or the neighboring villages, where their communities have survived up to recent decades. Yazd is still a center of the few living Zoroastrian and Jewish communities in Iran, with a working fire temple, and, in a circle of a radius of 100 km, with fifty other pirs, holy places, the remains of former fire temples and holy sources.

Among the pirs stand out six ones, which are considered especially sacred, and where thousands of pilgrims come together between March and August of every year. The legends of them are identical: in all six places, a member of the fleeing royal family was embraced and hidden from their Muslim persecutors by the earth, one of the four Zoroastrian sacred elements. In Pir-e Sabz and Pir-e Banu, Princesses Nikbanu and Banu, in Pir-e Narestane, Prince Ardeshir, in Pir-e Naraki, the daughter of the governor of Persia, in Pir-e Herisht, the royal maid of honor Morvarid, and in Pir-e Seti, Queen Shahbanu Hastbadan herself. As the event had obviously no Persian witness at any place, therefore in all six locations the hidden majesty him- or herself appeared in the dream of a local shepherd or hunter several centuries later, entrusting him with the construction of a sanctuary.

The emblem of the Zoroastrians stenciled on the wall of a house in the desert town of Iraj

We do not know exactly how many children King Yazdegerd had. The Arabic, Shiite, Jewish, Bahaʿi, Indian and Chinese sources say different things, each trying to locate a royal descendant on his own half-court. However, Nikbanu and Banu, Prince Ardeshir and Morvarid are not mentioned by any source. Perhaps they were subsequently created by the Zoroastrian tradition, when they had to give a new meaning to those lonely sanctuaries, lying on the top of high mountains, where before the Islamic conquest they offered sacrifices to the one God, Ahura Mazda, as Herodotus writes:

“It is not their custom to set up statues and temples and altars, because they have never believed the gods to be like men, as the Greeks do; but they call the whole circuit of heaven Zeus, and to him they sacrifice on the highest peaks of the mountains.” (Historiae, 1.132)

According to the Zoroastrian theology, every soul returns to heaven, to God the Creator. Thus they need no holy intermediaries. Therefore they do not go on pilgrimage to the graves of holy persons, to seek for their intercession, as the Shiites or the Christians do. Their sites of pilgrimage are the locations of memory. In the pilgrimage season from March to August, when they go from sanctuary to sanctuary, they tour and refresh in their memory a sacred topography, like the Christians who follow the traces of Jesus in the Holy Land, or the Jews who on pilgrimage to the wall of the Temple. This is the topography of their religion, which developed in Iran, and was fixed in the Avesta.

Several items of this topography are missing by now, those holy places, which were carefully expropriated by the Islam through the building of a mosque, as they expropriated the memory of the Jewish Temple with the Dome of the Rock. The missing items are compensated by incorporating into the tradition such sanctuaries, which are not mentioned in the Avesta, and which were originally only sacrificial sites, but now, linked to the last Zoroastrian royal family, become part of the sacred geography of the Zoroastrian memory. As the sanctuary of the Indian Udvada, the most important Zoroastrian place of pilgrimage is called Iranshah, and dedicated to the returning King of Iran, and as the Zoroastrian years are still calculated from the ascension to the throne of the last king Yazdegerd III, so are the former sanctuaries linked to the members of the royal family. By visiting them again and again, they embrace their former land and and make it again theirs. In the tears dropped by the mountain, as the historical summary reads on the sanctuary wall, they see the tears of the orphans and the oppressed. In the fate of Nikbanu, they recognize their own fate.