Fire, a primordial power has long held a certain fascination for mankind. Anything from its ability to heat early caves, and later homes, and then when fire was confined into gas boilers, we still decorate our homes with candles.
It has also been a topic for religions, often just candles in churches — but more profound for the Zoroastrians — and underneath a gallery in central London, you can find a Zoroastrian temple with its eternal flame burning brightly.
As it happens, the temple is temporary, as is the fake flame within, for this is an exhibition that seeks to explain some of the mysteries of this truly ancient religion.
Zoroastrianism originated amongst Iranian tribes in Central Asia around 2,000 years before Christ turned up in Galilee and then it spread to Iran where it became the principal faith until the advent of Islam. Central to the religion is the belief in a sole creator god, Ahura Mazda, his agent Zarathustra (Zoroaster) and the dichotomy between good and evil.
And no, they do not worship fire, any more than Christians worship “the Cross”.
The fire is considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom is gained, and water is considered the source of that wisdom.
The exhibition doesn’t start with fire though, but relics of its early years and explanations of how the faith converted from an oral tradition to something was was later written down.
An explanation of the death rites and the astonishing mortuary buildings and some displays of stonework complete the ground floor.
It was not that well signposted, so I suspect that a fair number of visitors wont realise that there is an entire basement to visit.
It is here that a replica of a rather good Zoroastrian temple greets visitors who descend the concrete steps.
It is also down here that you’ll find a selection of paintings of notable people in the history of the religion and samples of traditional clothing. Some furniture has been glossed to the point that looks astonishingly like it would be wet to the touch. But don’t touch.
A replica of the Cyrus Cylinder has been made for this exhibition — the original usually in the British Museum is currently on loan to the USA.
The religion’s more modern history is covered up the staircase, including a drawing of the moment that Dadabhai Naoroji entered Parliament the first time as an MP — he took his oath as the first Asian MP in the UK, and a Parsi.
Overall, this is a fascinating insight into a religion that is little understood, and often misunderstood. Anyone with an interest in history, or religion should pay it a visit.
The exhibition is open until the middle of December at the Brunei Gallery just behind the British Museum. Open Tues-Sat with late-night opening on Thursdays.
Entry is free.
Take time to relax in the roof garden while you’re there. If it isn’t raining, as it was on my visit.
(sorry – had to disable comments as I keep deleting messages prosthelytizing the faith rather than commenting on the exhibition — it’s damn annoying)