Standing at the sidewalk of one of the oldest streets of Tehran, I was wondering how many people had stood here like I am today asking themselves how is it even possible that these buildings stand side by side, these people live together sharing a neighborhood for so many years.
I am at the corner of the Religions’ Intersection in Tehran; in front of me is a Zoroastrian Fire Temple; behind me is one of Iran’s most famous Christian Churches. I know that a synagogue is a few meters away, and down the intersection, I can find some of the oldest mosques and religious schools of Tehran. I am spending a day tour on the religious sites of Tehran with Visit Our Iran.
“This cannot become more interesting” I think; however, I am yet to be amazed again and again in my one-day journey in the Religions Intersection of Tehran. In this magical place, I can experience the lives and the coexistence of people with different religions in one neighborhood.
First Stop; Zoroastrianism and Adrian Zoroastrian Temple
Passing through the carved wooden door of the Fire Temple, I feel a rush of joy and excitement in my blood. It feels like I am about to pass through the gates of time and enter another era. An era in which most Iranians were the first monotheist people of the world and followers of Zoroastrianism.
Many people wrongly believe that Zoroastrians are fire worshipers, whereas the fire symbolizes how human life should be in this world, giving light and warmth and always soaring high.
The architecture of the temple is based on Takht-e-Jamshid. A beautiful garden, a Persian paradise, welcomes me while the beautiful building in front of me captivates me.
As a woman introduces the temple and the religion to the visitors, I am allowed to see the holy fire through a window. The woman says that the essence of this fire is brought here from a temple in the city of Yazd, around a hundred years ago when this temple was built in Tehran, and it has been lit all this time. However, the most interesting fact for me was that the original fire in the temple of Yazd has been lit continuously for two thousand years, from the time of the Sassanid Empire, and all the holy fires in Zoroastrian temples across the world have been taken from the fire in that temple.
The Zoroastrian beliefs can be simply summed up in three phrases widely known and highly appreciated; “good speech, good deeds, and good notion”.
Ancient Iranians were known as sincerely honest people. As the first monotheist nation in the world, they believed in honesty with their thoughts, their words, and their actions. A mantra that has enabled them to stand high in a historical timeline of more than two thousand and five hundred years.
Another famous building right beside the Temple is Firouz Bahram High school. One of the oldest high schools in Tehran. It was built to host the Zoroastrian children mainly. It is believed that a Hindi Zoroastrian man had built this school and named it after his dead son, Bahram. This splendid building contains many halls in which different rituals and gatherings took place.
Second Stop; Judaism and Haim Synagogue
Thinking about the history of a nation called Persians who once ruled over the largest empire on earth, I enter the Haim Synagogue. It is history alongside religion that welcomes me here as well.
The Haim Synagogue was built in 1913 by the Iranian Jewish scholar Solayman Haim following the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. Later on, many Jewish families settled in the neighborhood around. “They were multiplied at the time of the Second World War when many Polish Jewish refugees took shelter in Iran.” A Jewish man at the Synagogue was explaining to us.
However, the Second World War was not the first time that the Jewish people chose Iran as their home and were welcomed by the people of this country. When Cyrus the Great, the Iranian Achaemenian King, freed the Jewish in Babylon and gained the respect of Jewish people to the extent of being mentioned in their Holy book as a Savior, many of those Jewish people chose to live in Iran instead of going back to their motherland. From that time in history, Iran became home to the Jewish people and thus hosted many Jews for a long time.
As we arrived at the Synagogue, the morning prayer is about to end, and we are allowed to sit at the back of the great hall watching the rituals. After saying their prayers, a symbolic act is done which demonstrates the spirit of support amongst the Jews; one of the participants stands up, talking about his business and the kind of financial support he is going to need in order to succeed, another participant joins him, saying that he is going to support him, while he symbolically holds a bag of coins. Watching this ritual made me realize how the Jews have been able to survive through time and difficulties, living in different countries worldwide.
Third Stop; Christianity and Saint Mary Church of Tehran
Hosting the office and the residence of Armenians’ Archbishop from 1945 to 1970, the Saint Mary Church, also known by the name of Holy Mother of God Church, is the first Armenian Cathedral built in Tehran. It is still one of the most important and sacred churches for Iranian Armenians.
Alongside other sects of Christianity such as Protestants, Catholics, and Assyrians, Armenians have lived in Iran for ages. As we enter, a Bishop of the church welcomes us to the garden and then the Church while explaining the architecture, history, customs, and beliefs.
He mentions that from the time of Jesus Christ till the Roman Empire accepted Christianity as their religion, Iran was the destination for the Christians who wished to follow their beliefs freely. They have built churches in Iran and gained followers during that period of three hundred years, and many of them chose to stay in Iran even after the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Also, during and after the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1912, many of them took shelter in Iran.
Adjacent to Saint Mary Church is the Museum of Ardak Manookian, which hosts many Bibles, silverwork, and different types of handicrafts of Iran’s Christians. This interesting museum introduces the various Christian sects and their history in Iran.
Still, the Saint Mary Church is not the only church in the Religions Intersection in Tehran. Saint Peter Evangelical Church of Tehran was built in 1891 by the Protestant missionaries living in this area of Tehran, and even today, it hosts a large number of Iranian Christians.
Fourth Stop; Islam and Majd Al-Dowla Mosque
Knowing that in the past, all the mosques were built with a particular religious school beside them to train future clergymen, I enter the splendid Majd Al- Dowla Mosque of Tehran which is just a few minutes’ walk down the churches I have just visited with my companions. We are welcomed in the mosque, and as we took our shoes off, I cannot stop myself from staring at the beautiful tilework on the walls.
A religious man accepts us, telling the history of the place as it was built in the early 19th century by a courteous man named Majd Al Dowla, and this is where the name of the mosque comes from. There is also a religious school just beside the mosque, the man informs us, which has trained people on Islam for almost two hundred years now. Traditionally, most of the old mosques in Iran are accompanied by a school.
Mosques have always been a place of comfort, a refuge, and a home to those who seek answers and wish to help people out. Majd Al-Dowla Mosque is no exception to that and has seen many historical events in its two hundred years of history, comforted many people, and answered numerous questions while being a place of gathering five times a day, each day for people who wish to say their prayers in a group.
Iran; the Cradle of History and the Home of Religions
Joining us in our one-day tour of the Religious Intersection of Tehran is a Polish couple who are amazed to see these religious buildings and their followers living beside each other with their holy places just across the street. They told me that they had seen followers of different religions living in a city but not living in an intersection with their mosques, temples, churches, and synagogues beside one another. It was against what they have already heard or read about Iran and its stance towards different religions. They thought they would never see such a thing in this country. I am thus encouraged to talk to them about a street in Urmia in Iran, which I have recently visited. “When I reached there, I saw a mosque, a church, a synagogue, and a fire temple in one street. I had arrived a bit late, so the places were mainly closed. A local man told me that a woman is responsible for these holy sites and I can ask her to show me around since she lives in this very street. The man said that her name is Iran, and all the people call her Iran Khanoom. At that moment, I realized that these holy places can exist beside each other, and their followers can live so close to one another, as long as Lady Iran holds the keys. This metaphor touched my heart to the extent that I was intrigued to figure out the reason. I believe Iranians have always been monotheists, so the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic ideas were never something unknown or unacceptable to them. That is why they have accepted these ideas throughout time and continued to live in a society with all these different ideas.”
The woman nods and says: “After all, this is what the Bishop told us at the church when we asked him to preach us; he said, in what words can I preach you better than what is written on the wall of the Fire Temple across the street? Just think about that and follow that in your life, good speech, good deeds, and good notion. This is all I can say, and this is how people should be”.