My first experience with a dakhma, also known as a Zoroastrian tower of the dead, or a tower of silence, was at Chilpik in the deserts of Qaraqalpaqstan. Built on top of a natural knoll, surrounded by flat wasteland, Chilpik rises above the desert landscape like a fantastical castle. Utterly ruined, actively disintegrating, with nothing around it to provide a clue to its function, Chilpik is cryptic, and mysterious, and awe-inspiring. Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun in Yazd, Iran, by contrast, is situated on the outskirts of a city of 500,000, in a region dominated by heavy industry, on a site crisscrossed by roads and power lines.
Surely it couldn’t be anywhere near as impressive as Chilpik. Could it?
What is a Dakhma?
Zoroastrians believe the human body, when deceased, to be impure (as it is going through a process of decay) and completely riddled by evil spirits.
Corpses cannot be buried in the ground as this would contaminate the soil, which is pure; they cannot be cremated as this would contaminate the air, which is pure; they cannot be dumped at sea for similar reasons.
What does that leave?
Placing the dead bodies in a purpose-built, circular tower, known as a dakhma, where vultures and other scavenger species will come to pick the bones clean.
When a dakhma is up and running – with its own resident population of vultures – bodies will be picked clean within an hour of arrival.
Once the body is clean of impure flesh, the bones can be collected and buried in the nearest necropolis, or they can be deposited in an ossuary pit where they will continue to disintegrate till nothing is left but dust.
Zoroastrians in Yazd
Yazd was a Zoroastrian stronghold; it remained a safe haven for Zoroastrians long after the Arab conquest of Iran (I wrote on the origins and influences of Zoroastrianism in my post on Takht-e Soleyman).
The Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun at Yazd (there are two of them on neighbouring knolls, as seen in the photo below) were utilised until the 1970s.
Use of the dakhma is currently prohibited due to health reasons.
Is Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun as impressive as Chilpik?
The environs surrounding Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun are industrial (as the photos convey); every which way you look there are telecommunications towers and power lines and roads and signs of urbanisation. Strangely, the severe, Mad-Max-esque landscape doesn’t detract from the experience one bit.
The Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun at Yazd, despite their setting, are just as cryptic, just as mysterious, just as awe-inspiring, as Chilpik, and definitely a highlight of my trip to Yazd.
Yazd is connected to the major cities of Iran by a network of highways. There are frequent buses to Tehran (10 hours), Shiraz (6 hours), and Isfahan (5 hours).
The Dakhmeh-ye Zartoshtiyun are situated on the outskirts of Yazd city. It’s possible to reach the site using local buses, but it is much, much simpler to get there in a taxi.
Read more on the historic city of Yazd in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.