No one knows when and where Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) lived. Most scholars, however, believe that he was born in Central Asia sometime between 2000 BC to 1000 BC. This makes him one of the first religious leaders. It is said that when Zarathushtra was thirty, he saw a vision and decided to guide the people to Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord. But the priests of the old religion didn't like his ideas. They tried to kill the Prophet and his family.
So Zarathushtra had to flee his village. Eventually he found protection under King Vishtaspa, an early Iranian king, who accepted Zarathushtra's religion and let him spread his ideas.
The Aryan tribes came to Iran from Central Asia sometime around 1000 BC. These newcomers spoke a language related to the European languages and were nomads and warriors with many horses and chariots. Soon they settled in the valleys of the Zagros Mountains in the western Iran. They called their new land Iran or "land of Aryans."
This bronze pin from 1000 BC shows the "master of animals," killing a monster with his two hands. Some believe that the pin represents Sraosha, an ancient Persian god of the afterlife whose symbol was the rooster.
Around 600 BC, the Magi (the ancient Zoroastrian priests) helped the spread of Zoroastrianism in Western Iran. This golden plaque from the 5th century BC shows a man who may have been a magus (a Zoroastrian priest). The barsom in his hands are the twigs used in religious rituals.
Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, was a Zoroastrian.
Cyrus captured Babylon in 539 BC and established the first World Empire. Cyrus the Great was a kind and tolerant king who freed the captive Jews from Babylon. He respected the subject peoples' gods and never destroyed their temples.
This picture shows Cyrus's Cylinder in which he grants peace and freedom to subject people. Liberty and freedom are two very important concepts in the Zoroastrian religion.
In 330 BCE, Alexander III, a young Macedonian king, invaded Iran and overthrew the Achaemenid dynasty. It is said that when Alexander burned the palace and its library at Persepolis, he destroyed a complete copy of the Avesta written in gold on twelve thousands goatskins.
Shortly after his victories, however, Alexander became ill and died in Babylon. His vast empire then was divided among his generals. One, Seleucus, became the ruler of Iran and found the Seleucid dynasty. Seleucid rulers were not Zoroastrians. They worshipped Greek gods and goddesses.
The Parthians were an Iranian tribe from Central Asia. They defeated the Greek Seleucids and established the Parthian Empire in 141 BC. The Parthians were Zoroastrians, but they were very tolerant of other religions.
So, Iran became home to many Christians, Jews, and Buddhists. Some Parthians worshipped the Greek gods. The above statue from 148 BC shows Heracles, the Greek god of war, who was popular among the Parthians.
According to the Christian story, three Magi (the ancient Zoroastrian priests) foresaw the coming of Christ and followed a star to Bethlehem to find him.
This 14th century painting by Bartolo di Fredi shows the three Magi offering gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and gold to baby Jesus.
If you like to see more paintings of the three Magi, check the Web Gallery of Art.
Tiridates I was the king of Armenia who established the Arsacid dynasty of Armenia.
Tiridates was also a Zoroastrian priest who went to Rome in 66 AD along with several Magi. This trip might have inspired the story of the Three Magi. Some historians believe that Tiridates’s trip to Rome influenced the development of Mithraism in Rome.
An Shigao was a Parthian prince and a Zoroastrian who became Buddhist and went to China. He translated many Buddhist Indian texts to Chinese.
Mani was born in 216 AD in Babylon (in today's Iraq). When he was twenty, he saw a vision and declared himself a prophet. He then traveled all over Persia talking about his ideas, which were a mixture of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism.
Soon he found many followers. Even the Sasanian king, Hormazd I (272-273) supported Mani. But after the King's death, his successor, Bahram I, was alarmed by Mani's popularity. So, he ordered the execution of Mani and his followers. Many of his followers fled to Europe, spreading Mani's ideas in Sicily and Spain.
The religion founded by Mani was called "Manicheanism." One of Mani's followers was St. Augustine of Hippo, a famous theologian (someone who studies religion). St. Augustine (on the right) later became Christian and wrote many important books on Christianity.