Zoroastrien's Dakhmeh (The Silent towers) - Yazd

Dakhmeh Zartoshtian (Zoroastrian Towers of Silence) in Yazd

     Dakhmeh Zartoshtian complex is the name of one of the Zoroastrian relics. Also known as the Silence Tower (Borj-e Khamoshan) or the Death Tower, the complex is situated 15 kilometers southeast of Yazd city in central Iran. The Indian Persians, who are considered to be Zoroastrians of Iran, call it Dakhmo. The Dakhmeh of Yazd complex or Yazd Crypt is located on a low altitude sedimentary mountain called “Kooh-e Dakhmeh” (The Dakhmeh Mount) around the Safa’i area. The complex was built to hold the particular Zoroastrian funeral of the dead and is now among the leading Zoroastrian monuments in Iran. Although, Zoroastrian crypts are also found in Tehran, Kerman, Sirjan, Isfahan, and other cities in Iran, but the Yazd Dakhmeh is the most prominent since the city has been known as the religious capital of Zoroastrians and in addition it holds many other historical monuments which are listed as world heritage sites by UNESCO.

According to historical Zoroastrians documents, the site had two crypts, both were used periodically for six months. One of which is the large Maneckji crypt on the left. It is about 15 meters in diameter and is named after its builder Maneckji Sahib who came from India as the Zoroastrian representative to enhance the living conditions of Iran Zoroastrians during the Qajar era.  A second smaller crypt known as the Golestan crypt was built about 150 meters west of the Maneckji crypt. It is 25 meters in diameter with a 6 meters high wall.

Within 150 to 200 meters of the crypt and on the north side of the mountain, there are several buildings made with backed-brick, mud-brick, and stone, usually in two floors with several rooms as resting facilities. The oldest of which is known as the Khayla on the west side, dating back to the Safavid era. One of these buildings belonged to the Salar who was the person in charge of the crypt. The Salar is the one who carries out the affairs of the dead and in the past bathed the bodies of the dead and delivered them to tower. The Salar had to stay in and near the crypt for all of his life and was not allowed to go anywhere. At that time most of the deaths were due to contagious diseases, and since the Salars were constantly in contact with the dead, they may have contracted the disease. As a result, their place of residence was somewhere outside the residential areas and had less contact with people.

One of the structures in the Tower of Silence complex was the fire room which two attendances. Their job would begin on the day the corpses were brought in the crypt. In the dark of night, they would light a fire in the room with a window facing the crypt and would keep it kindling until morning. The flame was to light the crypt through a small opening along the fire room window for three nights. According to the Zoroastrians believe, the deceased’s spirit flies around the body for three nights before heading for heaven during which it is not to be left alone in the dark. The ceremony also stemmed from the belief that the deceased would not be left alone in the dark for the first three nights after his death.

In the past, placing the deceased body in an exposed location so that animals and the sun expedite its decomposition, has long been a part of Zoroastrian tradition. According to the religion’s beliefs, a body becomes impure at death, when the agents of disease and contamination called Nasu, attack the flesh and the soul of the deceased. Contaminating the corpse, Nasu also threatens the living. Special cleaning rituals and prayers were required to be performed expeditiously to keep these evil spirits away. Open burial was considered a clean death because it prevented putrefaction. Birds such as vultures could eat a body down to the bones in just a few hours.

The crypt, whether man-made or natural, were arranged to facilitate carnivores’ access to the corpse, most of them without roofs or, out of urban and rural settlements, usually over elevations.  With the passage of time and changes in Zoroastrianism made the funeral process of the crypt more complex, and the task of stripping the flesh from the body was changed from all scavengers to birds like vultures (with measures such as raising the crypts to limit the access of scavengers).  The crypt of Darius the Great in the Naqsh-e Rostam in Shiraz is such an example and in some crypts such as Gonbad Kavoos in Golestan province natural factors such as the Sun was used to do the task.

The guiding principles for disposing of a dead body was that the environment (land, air, and water as well as the element of fire) should not be polluted and the living should not be harmed in any way. The crypt towers were constructed without a ceiling and often on high grounds outside urban and rural settlements to ease the access of carnivore birds to the corpses in order to accelerate the process of striping the bones from the flesh. The cylindrical tower with a perimeter of 100 meters was made of stone, cement, brick, and plaster. Soil which in the Zoroastrian belief is a sacred pure element and must not be contaminated was not used in the construction of the towers. Considering the place of the building, accurate calculations were made to prevent wind and rain from contaminating residential areas.

The inner surface of the Silent Tower consists of a flat, round space covered by large boulders. This section hypothetically consists of three circular strips. There was a special place for each corpse according to its gender or age. Men were placed in the outer ring that was the largest circle attached to the inner wall around the crypt. The female section or ring of the female dead was in the middle next to the male ring. The children were placed in the inner-most ring nearest the center of the crypt. In the common center of the circles was a deep hole called the ossuary, where, in the end, the bones of the corpses would be thrown in. According to the Zoroastrians’ religion, no matter poor or rich in life, all will be in the same place after death which is the Ossuary.

 According to a tradition dating back over 3,000 years, bodies were carried to the Dakhmeh and arranged in the towers in three concentric circles during which special religious ceremonies along with prayers were conducted. Zoroastrians’ funeral consisted of different ceremonies. A ritual procedure called Sagdid (a dog sighting test) was performed 3 times during the ceremony to confirm the death. After the confirmation of death by the dog, the body was then carried only by the caretakers (khandhias or Nasa-Salars) and placed in the tower before the sunset to allow it to be bathed by the sunshine, a process called Khursheed Nigerishn or viewing by the sun.

The last part of the funeral was placing the corpse in Dakhmeh. They were then left until their flesh was eaten by the vultures and their bared bones were whitened, dried, and eventually purified by the sun.