Friday, April 9, 2010

Towers of Silence

A Tower of Silence or dakhmeh (دخمه) is a place on top of a hill where Zoroastrians brought corpses for vultures to devour as a funeral formality. With its Zoroastrian history, Yazd is home to many of such Towers although they are no longer utilized for their original purpose and currently just serve as a tourist attraction. The bodies of the deceased were placed atop the Tower and so exposed to the sun and birds of prey. The Tower was surrounded by walls built to prevent others from seeing the frightening sight of the big birds using their powerful beaks and picking on the body of the deceased. As a result generally in less than an hour nothing of the body would remain other than bones.  

According to Zoroastrians beliefs, nature and its four elements of earth, water, air and fire are sacred. Zoroastrian tradition considers a dead body to be unclean and death a temporary triumph of evil over good. Specifically, the corpse demon was believed to rush into the body and contaminate everything it came into contact with, hence there were rules for disposing of the dead as safely as possible. This made it the most appropriate way of getting rid of a corpse as an animal fed upon another.  

The roof of such Towers are divided into four concentric rings; the bodies of men are arranged around the outer ring, women in the second circle, and children in the third ring. Once a body was stripped of its flesh by vultures, the bones would then be sprinkled and washed with pure nitric acid and slaked lime for further purification. After the bones had been bleached by the sun and wind (which could take as long as a year) they were collected in an ossuary pit in the inner most circle of the Tower. Assisted by lime, they would gradually disintegrate and the remaining material with runoff rainwater would run through multiple coal and sand filters (which prevented the sacred earth from getting contaminated) before being eventually washed out to sea.  

In essence a Tower of Silence was a reusable grave. Its ceremonial procedures were handled by the resident guardians who lived in a tiny roofed place near the Tower of Silence on top the hill, while relatives of the deceased stayed in a house down below, never allowed to enter inside. The resident guardians would gain access to the top of the Tower to perform their duties via an accompanying stairway. In the early twentieth century, the Iranian Zoroastrians gradually discontinued their use and began to favor burial or cremation.  

According to its adherents, using such a disposal method for the deceased had its benefits. Its positives included the fact that there would be no difference in the method of disposal regardless of the deceased’s class or wealth and thus all would be treated equally. Furthermore it would prevent a body from decomposing underground and mice, worms and maggots feeding upon it.  

In addition to many more in Yazd, Kerman and even Tehran, there are two Towers of Silence about 15 kilometers south of Yazd and on top of a hill. The older one is known as Maneckji Hataria while the newer one is called Golestan. Their diameters are respectively 15 and 25 meters and their perimeter walls rise 6 meters. The area is also home to a number of mud, stone or brick dwellings. One of such dwellings was used, as was with other Towers of Silence, to light an all night burning fire for three consecutive nights after disposing of a body in the Tower. The positioning of the window of the dwelling would allow the fire’s light to illuminate the Tower. Another famous Tower of Silence is Cham Dakhmeh, located adjacent to a modern day Zoroastrian cemetery in Yazd. The entire area, considered a mass Zoroastrian cemetery was registered as a national monument by Yazd’s Cultural Heritage and Tourism Department in 2005. 

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