27 Apr 2017
What is reality?
Many years ago, before I was married, I lived in a flat in Paddington with an excellent view of the brewery. One day a brace of Mormons came to my door. I invited them in, offered them instant coffee, and destroyed them with Science.
They asked if they could return the next day with someone better able to answer my questions. They did, and their chap absolutely blew me away.
His position was that Science was still discovering things, and what if all that they professed was true, but had simply not yet been discovered by Science?
Well, I had no answer. It seemed logical enough, but I felt there was some flaw in their argument, and I promised to think about it. After that, if they knocked on my door, I was not home, and if I saw them on the street, I crossed to the other side.
Nowadays, I would simply say, “But what of all the other religions? Are they not in exactly the same position? And what of my own deity, an invisible blue elephant, all-benevolent and all-remembering? Science has not yet discovered Ali Babar, but I know in my heart he is true, he exists, and he will one day pick me up with his trunk and carry me to glory. Or possibly stamp me underfoot if I ignore his trumpeted edicts.”
The Persian way of death
The Iranian city of Yazd has grown over the years to encompass two Zoroastrian “Towers of Silence”. Once low hills in the desert, crowned by high circular walls, these places are now only a moderate distance from apartment buildings and shops.
Zoroastrians – the ancient religion of Persia before the Arabs imposed Islam – believe that it is wrong to pollute the earth. Placing a corpse in the ground and allowing it to dissolve and decay is pretty gross in their eyes, so they long ago chose another method.
The dead were taken to one of these isolated enclosures, high and remote, laid upon stone, and exposed to the air. And to the birds, notably vultures. Men in the outermost circle, women next, children innermost.
And in the centre, an ossuary pit, into which the bones would be eventually swept.
This practice gradually fell out of use before being banned completely after the revolution. Zoroastrian dead are now buried, stones between the bodies and the earth, in dry cemeteries, but the Towers of Silence remain as cultural sites.
Waiting for the news
The bodies of the dead were carried up the hill by four young men – and they had to be fit; it is hard enough just climbing the steps – placed under the direction of a special attendant, and the family would remain at the foot of the hill.
They had lodgings available, because they had to wait for the attendant’s report, and this might take some time. The old buildings remain, empty and spartan, but once they would have been furnished and decorated. Meals were cooked and consumed, the benches were used for sleeping, and eventually, the attendant would come hurrying down the path to impart the news.
“Good news,” he might say. “I watched your Auntie Maud as she lay, and the vulture took her right eye first! She is going to heaven!”
If the left eye was preferred, it signified a different destination, but for some reason, the waiting relatives rarely heard such news.
We had to purchase tickets to enter. The Yazd Towers are popular tourist attractions, and the touring coaches line up shoulder to shoulder at the entrance. There are maybe half a dozen buildings at the foot of the hill in various states of repair. Guest accommodation, the residences of the attendants, outhouses, the access points for the underground water storage.
A long flight of stairs ascends to the hilltop, broken near the summit by a semi-circular platform (which incidentally affords a splendid view of the surrounding area).
There were only a few tourists inside the ground, which of course had long since been swept completely bare. We clustered around the central pit, peering into it in morbid fascination. “Holey ground,” I remarked.
This was the lesser of the two towers on the site. There was no obstacle preventing access to the other, but it was taller, more distant, and had no obvious pathway of steps to ease the ascent. I spotted one figure making the climb.
But for us, we travelled as a group. The guides keep track, they organise our time, and they now herded us back onto the coach and onto the next site: a Zoroastrian fire temple in the city centre. We sighed as we sank into the comfortable seats and took grateful gulps of cold mineral water.
Religion is a constant attendant upon humanity across the globe and down the ages. There are many things that Science does not know – more in the old days than now, of course – but still, we have no idea about some of the really big questions.
I think all religions contain a fair amount of twaddle serving to perpetuate the role of the priests and to aid group cohesion of the adherents. But they also serve as vehicles for many important lessons on how to live a good life and how to make sense of the creation. We would do well, for example, if we refrained from polluting the earth.