CHAM, Iran — Thousands of Iranians gathered at dusk against a snowy mountain backdrop to light giant bonfires in an ancient mid-winter festival dating back to Iran's pre-Islamic past that is drawing new interest from Muslims.
Saturday's celebration was the first in which the dwindling remnants of Iran's once plentiful Zoroastrian religious minority were joined by thousands of Muslims, reflecting a growing interest in the strict Islamic society for the country's ancient traditions.
The festival, known as Sadeh, celebrates the discovery of fire and its ability to banish the cold and dark, and it is held in the frigid depths of winter.
Sadeh was the national festival of ancient Persia when Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion, before the conquest of Islam in the 7th century. Now it is mostly celebrated just in the homes and temples of Iran's 60,000 remaining Zoroastrians.
Recently, however, there has been an upsurge of interest among Iranian Muslims — more than 90 percent of the population — in their ancient heritage, when vast Persian empires held sway over much of central Asia and fought Greek warriors and Roman legions.
"I'm proud of Sadeh because it is part of Iran's cultural heritage," said Mohammed Saleh Khalili, a Muslim Iranian who traveled from Meibod, a town in central Iran, to join the celebrations. "Once it was a national festival and for centuries it has been restricted to Zoroastrians but there is no reason why Muslim Iranians shouldn't celebrate the event."
Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion predating Christianity and Islam and is believed to have influenced those faiths — and Judaism as well — being one of the first religions with a strong notion of good and evil.
Zoroastrians believe they must fight evil through good deeds, words and thoughts, including charity and service. Fire plays a central role in worship as a symbol of truth and the spirit of God. Prayer is often performed in front of a fire, and consecrated fires are kept perpetually burning in major temples.
The religion was founded in ancient Persia about 3,000 years ago, according to some scholarly estimates, by Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, whom the faith considers a prophet.
According to some estimates, there are only about 150,000 Zoroastrians in the world today.
After the 1979 revolution brought in a hard-line religious government, many Zoroastrians emigrated to the U.S. and their festivals were strongly discouraged. However, they have one lawmaker in Iran's parliament.
On Saturday, in the small mountain village of Cham in central Iran, an estimated 5,000 people — more than half of them Iranian Muslims — gathered for the festival, as white-robed priests recited hymns in ancient Persian from their holy book and children danced to lively music.
The ceremony climaxed with men and women dressed in traditional dress carrying torches and lighting the massive bonfire.
There was even a police band on hand playing the national anthem and other patriotic music, evoking wild cheers from the crowd of people, who made V for victory signs with their hands.
The band's presence marked a once unheard of official stamp of approval for the festival by the government, which used to strongly discourage anything to do with fire worship.
"It appears that Sadeh once again will be a real national festival in Iran," said Ebrahim Rezaei, also a Muslim.
Organizers held the festival outdoors this year because of the massive amount of interest from Muslims in the celebrations.
"We are proud of inheriting this great heritage from our ancestors. Celebrating Sadeh is celebrating the greatness of our homeland," Ardeshir Kameh, a local Zoroastrian leader, told the cheering crowd.
Although Islam has been dominant for centuries in Iran, its Zoroastrian past has left its mark on the people through festivals and traditions still celebrated to this day.
The most well known is the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, celebrated in March, when people light bonfires, set off firecrackers and dance in the streets to put their failures behind them and start the new year with prosperity.
At the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, Iranians buy fruit, nuts and other goodies to mark the feast of Chelleh, also known as Yalda, an ancient tradition when families get together and stay up late, swapping stories and munching on snacks. Sizdeh Bedar, or public picnic day, on April 4 is another legacy from the pre-Islamic era.
Both were discouraged by authorities in the early years after the Islamic Revolution by the conservative clerical establishment, but without success.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.