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Ashem Vohu

This ninth- or 10th-century Sogdian manuscript from Dunhuang, China, contains a version of one of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers: the Ashem Vohu, composed originally in the Avestan (old Iranian) language.

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Ashem Vohu

Zoroastrian prayer, the Ashem Vohu
British Library Or. 8212/84 (Ch.00289)
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is Zoroastrianism?

Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Iranians, is named after Zarathushtra (Zoroaster in Greek sources) whose songs (Gathas) are thought to have been composed 1500-1000 BC. Zoroastrianism teaches the importance of good thoughts, words, and actions, in a world where the forces of the all-knowing lord, Ahura Mazda, are constantly opposed by those of the evil spirit, Angra Mainyu.

Originating in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism spread to Iran where it was the religion of the Achaemenid kings (550-330 BC) and their successors until the Arab conquest in the mid-seventh century AD. In Central Asia, Zoroastrianism continued alongside Buddhism, Manichaeism and Christianity until finally supplanted by Islam between the eighth and 10th centuries. In South Asia, Zoroastrian refugees from Iran settled in Gujarat, India, in the 10th century, and from there Parsi 'Persian' diaspora communities became established worldwide.

What are the Avesta?

The oldest Zoroastrian scriptures are referred to as the Avesta or Zend Avesta. The Avesta contains the sacred texts in the Avestan language, whereas the Zend refers to their translations and explanations in Pahlavi, the language of Sasanian Iran (c. 224-651 AD). The Avestan language was probably spoken from the second millennium until the first half of the first millennium BC, but the Avestan scriptures, unlike the Old Testament and the Qur'an, were transmitted orally and were not written down in the form in which they are preserved today – until many centuries later in Iran, in late Sasanian times, when the oral tradition could no longer be completely relied upon

Zoroastrianism in Central Asia

Our knowledge of Zoroastrianism comes mainly from Iran and India where it continued to be a living religion. Since it was an essentially oral religion, comparatively little is known about Zoroastrianism in Central Asia, its original homeland. Traces can be found in the Middle Iranian Central Asian languages of Sogdian, Bactrian and Khotanese - where, for example, Ahura Mazda survives as urmaysde, 'sun' in Khotanese, and the day-names in Sogdian and Bactrian are those of the Zoroastrian calendar.

The most extensive evidence, however, comes from archaeological discoveries. Excavations at Sogdian cities such as Panjikent have revealed frescoes portraying gods and scenes of worship. More recently several sixth-century funerary monuments of wealthy Sogdian traders from Central China have come to light depicting specifically Zoroastrian scenes. For example, the priest wearing the padam (the white mask that Zoroastrian priests wear so as not to defile the sacred flame), with attendant dog before a fire altar, and deceased souls crossing the Chinvat Bridge to the next life.

Who were the Sogdians?

The Sogdians lived in the area around Samarkand in modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Sogdiana is first mentioned in the Avesta as one of the Zoroastrian lands of eastern Iran , and in Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions as a province of the Achaemenid empire. By the early fourth century AD the Sogdians were well established as traders travelling the length of the Silk Road as far East as the Chinese capital, Luoyang. Their commodities included gold, silver, camphor, pepper, musk, wheat, silk, and other kinds of cloth. Sogdian communities developed at staging posts along the trade route, and in Dunhuang, where this manuscript was found, there is written evidence as early as the fourth century for a Zoroastrian temple, which was still flourishing in the early 10th century. The Sogdian language died out some time after the 10th century AD, but a related dialect, Yagnobi, still survives as a minority language spoken in the Yagnob valley north of Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Why is this manuscript so important?

It is the oldest existing copy of a Zoroastrian scripture, written in Central Asia more than 300 years before any other surviving manuscript. All the others, such as the Avestan law book, the Videvdad, come from Iran and India and date from the end of the 13th century.

This short fragment contains one of the very few Sogdian texts which are wholly Zoroastrian in content. The main part, written in normal Sogdian of about the ninth century, describes Zoroaster addressing an unnamed 'supreme god.' However, the true significance lies in the first two lines which appear to be a transcription in Sogdian script of one of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Avestan Ashem Vohu , written more than 300 years earlier than any surviving Avestan manuscript.

Whether the text here represents the contemporary Dunhuang pronunciation of the prayer transcribed by someone who did not understand Avestan, or whether it was copied from some older transcription or translation is unclear, but the language seems to preserve features noticeably different from the Avesta as we otherwise know it while at the same time it is substantially different from standard Sogdian.

For example, the word for 'truth' is represented neither by Avestan ashem, nor by a Sogdian equivalent such as *rtu or reshtyak, but by -rtm, a spelling which represents a form identical with Achaemenid Old Persian *rtam.

How was the manuscript discovered?

This manuscript was one of 40,000 or so books and manuscripts hidden in one of the 'Caves of a Thousand Buddhas' – a cliff wall near the city of Dunhuang honeycombed with 492 grottoes cut from the rock from the fourth century onwards and decorated with religious carvings and paintings. The secret library was sealed up at the beginning of the 11th century, probably under threat from the Karakhanids who had taken Khotan in 1006.

The cave was discovered in 1900 by the Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu who presented manuscripts and paintings to local officials, hoping in return for financial support to pay for conservation work. When the archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein arrived there in 1907, Wang Yuanlu sold him large numbers of manuscripts and paintings which are now in the British Library, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the National Museum Delhi. For more details see our feature on the Silk Road.

What does this fragment show?

This manuscript fragment appears to be the top 10 lines of a scroll. Traces of where the next sheet was attached are still visible at the bottom. The text has been written with some care in a large and calligraphic hand, with a ruled margin on the right hand side. To judge from the paper and style of calligraphy, our scribe may also have copied another similar Sogdian fragment preserved in the British Library which tells the story of the Iranian national hero Rustam.