Zoroastrian prayer, the Ashem Vohu, found in China
This manuscript comes not from India or Iran, the lands associated today with the Zoroastrian religion, but from Dunhuang in Central China, and is written in Sogdian, a medieval Iranian language.
It contains a short text concerning the prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster in Greek sources) and a phonetic transcription into the Sogdian script of the holy ‘Ashem Vohu’ prayer, composed originally in Avestan, a more ancient Iranian language. Probably dating from the ninth century, this manuscript is some 400 years older than any other surviving Zoroastrian scripture.
Originating in Central Asia, 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 to those of the evil spirit, Angra Mainyu. The oldest scriptures, referred to as the Avesta or Zend, were, however, not written down until around the sixth century AD, many centuries after their composition.
From Central Asia, Zoroastrianism spread southwest to Iran where it was the religion of the Achaemenid kings (550–330 BCE) and their successors until the Arab conquest in the mid-seventh century. Subsequently, Zoroastrian refugees from Iran settled in Gujarat in India, where they are known as Parsis, i.e. ‘Persians’. Today, in addition to the Zoroastrians of Iran and India, there are Parsi communities worldwide.
In Central Asia, Sogdian traders, whose homeland was the area of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan, carried their religion eastwards to China where it survived for many centuries alongside Buddhism, Manichaeism and Christianity. 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, in which this text was written, died out some time after the 10th century, but a related dialect, Yagnobi, still survives as a minority language spoken in the Yagnob valley north of Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
How was the manuscript discovered?
This manuscript was one of 40,000 or so manuscript scrolls and fragments 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. This manuscript was acquired by the archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein in 1907 during his second expedition to Central Asia.
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.