Following his interest in Zoroastrianism, triggered by his earlier trips to the Zoroastrian Fire Temple and Towers of Silence in Yazd, Leo's Rabbit was eager to learn more about this ancient religion of the Persian people. On an unbearably hot day, he wetted his fur generously with water and set off to visit Markar Museum, a remarkable ethnographic exhibition of Zoroastrian culture and religion.
The spacious museum building is a part of a greater complex that occupies over 100,000 square meters and consists of Markar Elementary Schools for boys and girls, first grade of High School, orphanage and the clock tower.
Rabbit liked the interesting earthen architecture of the buildings – majestic sandy-coloured stone and clay walls with precise decorative carvings, tall, specious, beautifully crafted arches with colourful ceramic mosaic elements – all surrounded by beautiful gardens bursting with fresh and vividly coloured blossom. There was something majestic and dignified in the air and Rabbit quietly wandered around the area sucking its unique atmosphere. He enjoyed it very much.
After a stroll around the grounds in a scorching sunshine, seriously overheated Rabbit was pleased to find himself in a comforting coolness of the museum building. In the prominent position near the entrance, he noticed a pained portrait of a gentleman with a moustache. He learned that this is Peshotan Dossabhai Markar, the man who made it all happen, the founder of Markar complex.
Born in India in 1871, trained as a lawyer, Markar became a successful businessman and philanthropist. Over the years he developed a kin interest in Persian language, culture and religion. He was appalled to learn about the deplorable conditions and prosecution of Zoroastrians in Iran during the times of the Quajar regime. It became his life-long mission to help and empower Zoroastrian community. As a strong believer in education, he decided to aid young people in a pursuit of sound knowledge and skills that would give them a good start in life and hope for a better future. In 1922 he funded the first orphanage for Zoroastrian boys in Yazd. Elementary and High Schools for boys and girls were established in the following years, and Markar’s vision was completed in 1934 with an official inauguration of the whole complex. Schools stayed open until few years ago, with thousands of Zoroastrian students graduating during their operation, many becoming successful scientists, engineers, lawyers and doctors.
Rabbit paused for a while and stared at the portrait of a little man in a white suit. His heart was suddenly filled with warmth and a great respect for this remarkable human being, who changed lives of so many for the better. An old saying came to Rabbit’s mind: ‘Give a rabbit a carrot, and you feed him for a day. Teach a rabbit to grow carrots, and you feed him for a lifetime’ – and that’s exactly what Mr Markar did, thought Rabbit.
He further learned that the generosity of Mr Markar inspired some of the former students of Markar Schools, who sponsored renovation of the complex and established the very Museum of Zoroastrian History and Culture that Rabbit was just about to tour.
The exhibition, with a strong focus on the cultural aspects of daily life of Zoroastrians in Iran, their religious ceremonies, customs and history, did not disappoint our Rabbit. He was fascinated by the simple ways of living of these hard-working people. He felt humbled learning about demands of their daily activities, and privileged to be part of modern society with all the luxuries and technological advances we take for granted.
He wandered around the well-preserved kitchen with a stone wood-fired oven and stove. He imagined traditional aromatic dishes bursting with beans, grains and herbs being cooked in heavy metal pots, and a mouth-watering smell of freshly baked bread overpowering the whole kitchen. He has tasted oven-baked sangak, taftun and lavash before, and he was certain that the method of cooking adds extra flavour and taste to the bread. Where modern electric ovens cook food by moving hot air around inside an insulated, lightweight box, a stone oven works by soaking up heat, like a battery building up a full charge. When hot, the heavy oven walls release the heat slowly, for hours, so the food is cooked not only by hot air, but also by radiant heat from stonewalls of the oven.
There were many Persian recipes on display in the kitchen, and Rabbit made a note of the one for komach, slightly sweetened aromatic bread traditionally cooked in a copper pan. He decided to bake komach when he is back in the UK, and here is a recipe for those who may wish to do the same.
Rabbit continued his walk through the museum rooms and many interesting exhibits he encountered fascinated him. In one of the rooms he noticed a pull down wooden ceiling rack. He learned that it was traditionally used for food storage, keeping it away from rodents and insects. ‘Simple, yet clever idea’, thought Rabbit.
Charcoal iron was another household appliance that intrigued our Rabbit. It looked like a box that opens up and you put glowing coals inside it to keep it hot. It is difficult to use and requires a technique when it comes to not smudging the clean clothes or avoiding getting burned by stray ashes. Considering that it weighs almost 7kg (that’s the same as 5 rabbits!), ancient Persian rabbits had a good excuse not to do any ironing at all.
If our Rabbit would have been born few hundred years ago in Iran, he probably wouldn’t have had any clothes to iron as they were all made from scratch. Yarns were formed from vegetable fibres - hemp, flax or cotton. Then two distinct sets of yarns or threads were interlaced at right angles to form a fabric or cloth. At first this process, called weaving, was done by hand, but then a loom was invented and used to aid weaving. Its basic purpose was to hold the warp threads under tension to facilitate the interweaving of the weft threads. Rabbit examined an example of a loom displayed in the museum. It looked like a wooden frame with the heddles fixed in place in the shaft. The warp threads pass alternately through a heddle, and through a space between the heddles (the shed), so that raising the shaft raises half the threads (those passing through the heddles), and lowering the shaft lowers the same threads — the threads passing through the spaces between the heddles remain in place. It looked quite complicated for a small Rabbit to get his head around it. He thought that an old sewing machine on display looked more familiar and rabbit-friendly
Other interesting exhibits that captured Rabbit’s attention included traditional Zoroastrian costumes, tools, instruments, gym equipment, crafts and artwork. There was also a large collection of photographs portraying daily life of people of Yazd, various religious ceremonies, places of pilgrimage and fire temples.
There was a series of small paintings that especially intrigued our Rabbit. He learned that they tell a story of Sadeh, an ancient Persian festival celebrated to honour the power of fire and its energy. Legend has it that the tradition dates back to King Hushang of the mythological Pishdadian dynasty. One cold day, he and his people were returning from a hunting expedition. Suddenly a snake appeared coiled on their path. Hushang aimed at it with a stone. He missed and the snake slithered away. But the stone hit another stone and since they were both flint stones, a bright spark was produced. The curious king took hold of the two flint stones and struck more sparks. He learned to produce enough sparks to ignite a fire. He discovered how to make fire! Hushang cheered up and praised God and announced, ‘This is a light from God. So we must admire it’. He held a great feast with people singing, dancing, drinking, and feasting around the bonfire. For the first time, Hushang and his people could light their dark caves and feel cosy and warm in their beds. They passed a wonderful winter. The king never forgot his revolutionary discovery and from that day onward, the new tradition of Sadeh was established.
The feast named after 'the number one hundred' (Sad in Farsi), marks 50 days and 50 nights before Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, on March 21. Zoroastrians celebrate Sadeh by burning firewood in an open space to signify the coming of spring and as a symbolic token of the eternal fight with evil forces. Prior to lighting the huge open fire, some Zoroastrian priests recite verses from Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrians. The priests are always dressed in white cotton robes, trousers and hats as a sign of purity and neatness. People gather and pray, and then they hold each other's hands, form a circle, and dance around the fire. They have fireworks, music and feast of roasted meat.
After couple of hours strolling around the museum very satisfied little Rabbit exited to the courtyard with an impressive ab anbar, traditional Persian water reservoir. This uniquely built water container consists of a dome and up to six windcatchers. Their purpose is moving the wind at the top of the building and keeping lower temperature inside, similarly to a cave. The ventilating effects of the windcatchers further prevent any humidity or contamination of the water inside. Rabbit learned that the walls of ab anbars are almost 2 meters thick and are made of a special mortar that consists of sand, clay, ash, egg whites, lime, and goat hair. Apparently such a mixture was considered to be entirely water impermeable. Many traditional water reservoirs are capable of storing water below the ground at near freezing temperatures during summer months. Rabbit was amazed by such a clever use of natural resources and windpower.
He concluded his visit with a refrshing stroll around the traditional washrooms located within Markar complex. He admired their simple, yet practical, design and he liked the blue mosaics. He also had an opportunity to cool down a little as the temperature inside was very comfortable.
Leo's Rabbit enjoyed his visit to Markar Museum of Zoroastrian culture and religion, and he would recommend it without hesitation. Learning about the Persian traditions, simple ways of living, hard work and demanding daily activities of people of Yazd made him realise how privileged he is to have access to all the advances of modern civilisation. He felt very grateful for his little life in a small town of Leamington Spa.
Leo's Rabbit 'lives' in my handbag and he travels with us everywhere we go. He has pictures taken at various locations, tourist attractions and places we visit. As a part of this blog we will describe Leo's Rabbit Travels to share our personal experiences from these visits. Hopefully couple of people (apart from us :-) ) will find it interesting and may even feel encouraged to visit one of Rabbit's destinations.