The Original Holy Land

What place do most of us think of when we hear the term “Holy Land”?

Perhaps we ought to think of Afghanistan.

Let us begin by looking at that highly influential proto-western religion of the Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism. Though it is evident that Judaism originated in Mesopotamia and developed in and around Palestine, it is also evident that Judaism acquired much of its classical character during its Babylonian captivity, and that much of the influence that the Judeans succumbed to was Persian.

Lapis Lazuli
The finest lapis lazuli is mined in the mountains of Afghanistan.

It has long been recognized that Zoroaster, the “Persian Prophet”, was no Persian. He was surely an Iranian, but there are no traditions or evidence placing Zarathustra in or near the ancient province of Pars.

It was once commonly thought that he may have been a Mede, but modern scholars have abandoned that hypothesis as well, and have established a consensus that Zarathustra lived far from Media and Pars.

Today, the suggested homelands of Zarathustra range from Sakastan (greater Sistan), in what is today Afghanistan and far eastern Iran, to the Oxus Delta, in modern Uzbekistan. The Avestan language is considered to be a northeast Iranian language, more closely related to Scythian and Pashto than Persian.

Most modern scholars appear to agree on Bactria or Margiana as the cradle of Zoroastrianism:

  • Frye: Bactria and Chorasmia [1]
  • Khlopin: the Tejen Delta in Margiana [2]
  • Sarianidi: Bactria and Margiana [3]

This modern school of thought is not without its classical antecedents, though the antecedents are of dubious authenticity. A half-dozen early Christian scholars, apparently beginning with Justin, believed that Zoroaster was a Bactrian king who fought the Assyrians. [4,5,8]

Eusebius of Caesarea appears to have thought that Zoroaster predated Abraham:

Ninus the Assyrian, who is said to have been the first ruler of all Asia except India: after him was named the city Ninus, which among the Hebrews is called Nineve; and in his time Zoroastres the Magian reigned over the Bactrians. And the wife of Ninus and his successor in the kingdom was Semiramis; so Abraham was contemporary with these.

Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, Book X, Capter 9

It’s unlikely that Zoroaster ever fought—or even heard of—the Assyrians, yet it is curious how many ancient accounts refer to him as a Bactrian. Perhaps those accounts originate in stories that traveled west after Alexander’s conquest of Bactria.

The World of the Avesta

As researchers have striven to identify that countries mentioned in the Zoroastrian holy book, the Avesta, they have found that:

… almost all identified countries are situated beyond the present borders of Iran, to the east and northeast. The only exception is Sistán, and only for its westernmost part. [6]

It turns out that if any modern country can be called the birthplace of Iranian religion, it is Afghanistan, with the world of the Avesta spilling into neighboring Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Indeed, this very region may have been the cradle of Indian religion as well—the land of the Vedas.

Western Expansion

When and how did Zoroastrianism find its way to Persia? It may have made its way into the Empire of the Medes after 625 B.C.E., when the Medes conquered—or appropriated—Bactria. The Medes may well have had a particular interest in Bactria, as the lapis lazuli trade had existed between Media and Bactria into the remote past, possibly even before the Iranians arrived in the region. The route, known as the Great Khorasan Road and the High Road, later became a major segment of the Silk Road. It is possible that trade may even have brought Zoroastrianism into Media before there was a Median Empire. The religion may then have spread from Media to Pars, the land of King Cyrus, who famously liberated the Judeans, and thereby earned the title “messiah”.


  1. Frye, Richard N. (1992), “Zoroastrians in Central Asia in Ancient Times”, Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 58: 6–10
  2. Khlopin, I.N. (1992), “Zoroastrianism – Location and Time of its Origin”, Iranica Antiqua 27: 96–116
  3. Sarianidi, V. (1987), “South-West Asia: Migrations, the Aryans and Zoroastrians”, International Association for the Study of Cultures of Central Asia Information Bulletin 13: 44–56
  4. Nigosian, S.A. (1993), “The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition & Modern Research”: 17
  5. Gnoli, Gherardo (1980), “Zoroaster’s Time and Homeland”, Seminario di Studi Asiatici, Series Minor, vol. 7. Naples: Instituto Universitario Orientale: 91–127
  6. Curtis & Stewart (2005), “Birth of the Persian Empire: The Idea of Iran”: 30–
  7. Druncker, Max (), “The History of Antiquity”, : 69–