Iran religion moment with a group of priests standing inside the Vank Cathedral of Isfahan.

Iran Religions

A Look at the Multiple Known and Unknown Religions of Iran

Where do humans come from? Where will they go after they die? How should they live? Who made humans and this world? These are the questions that we have thought about at least once in our lives, and ancient people aren’t exceptions. For thousands of years, humans have been searching to find the answers and have found the answers by believing in different religions. Some thought that there are multiple gods and the others thought that there is a one and only God. The ceremonies and buildings left of these people can help us understand how the ancient people answered these questions. Religions in Iran have a wide range and a long history which we might not be able to learn about thoroughly. But, the fire temples, synagogues, and churches can help us track the traces of religions in Iran.

What is Religion Moment?

It might have happened to you that you feel a special connection with a specific monument. You wish you could spend more time at it and learn more about it. But the tour schedules won’t let you. Or you might expect to visit specific places and to do specific activities which the tour you have chosen doesn’t include. That’s what the moments are for! You can choose the moments you would like to add to your Iran private tour. The moments have six sections; People and local life, hospitality, religion, nature, art and architecture, history, and archeology. Furthermore, you can find at least one of each moment in all our Iran tours.

Based on the stereotypes, many think that all the people in Iran are Muslims. What they don’t know is that there have been many known and unknown religions in Iran for thousands of years. The diversity of religions in Iran is so vast that we can introduce only some of the Iran religious sites.

What Is Amazing about Religions in Iran?

Iran is an ancient country in the middle east on the way of the silk road. This single sentence is enough to realize that there has been a wide range of religions in Iran. Keep in mind that most of the prophets, including the first prophet, Zoroaster, were in the Middle East. Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are only the most famous religions. Also, many of the dynasties ruling in Iran before Islam didn’t have strict religious rules. All this gave religions in Iran a chance for growing and spreading.

The peace among religions in Iran

Despite the mainstream portrayal of religions in Iran, there has never been a fight between followers of different religions in Iran. Iran has given shelter to followers of religions that were teased by their empires throughout history. Also, the “Crossroad of Religions” by 30th Tir Street in Tehran is another sign of this friendship. You can see fire temples, synagogues, mosques, and churches on each side of this crossroad. So, if you are seeking to see the peaceful coexistence of religions, Iran religious tours might be what you want.

JorgeTheTraveller, from Portugal, on TripAdvisor

… Secondly, Amir Chakhmak is a hussainiya, i.e., ceremony halls in the Shi’i tradition, and they show how religion is deeply entrenched in the Iranian culture and society. But not only Islamic religion; Iran has also communities of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians (the Towers of Silence are a must-visit in Yazd, best at sunset), amongst others. All of them are accepted and practiced, but most importantly, they constitute and shape life of all Iranians. Moreover, poetry and philosophy also seem to enrich the spiritual connection of Iranians with the world…

Ceremonies of the religions in Iran

Each of the religions in Iran has its specific ceremonies and rituals. These ceremonies can show you what the main ideas and beliefs are in each religion. Some of these rituals date back to hundreds or thousands of years ago. For instance, Mandaeans (Baptists) in Ahvaz (a southwestern city in Iran) have special ceremonies every week and year. They are the followers of John the Baptist, who was the person who baptized Jesus. Thus, their ceremonies always include baptism, and they believe the water in the source of purity. Also, because of their beliefs, they have chosen to live by Karun River in Ahvaz. Attending such ceremonies helps you learn more about the less known and unknown traditions of religions of Persia.

Iran pilgrimage tours

Because of the Pilgrimage sites of different religions in Iran, Iran has become a destination for pilgrimage tours. Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Sunni, and Shia Muslims come to Iran to visit their pilgrimages. Also, some of these sites are important for followers of different religions simultaneously.

Iran’s Religious Sites and Activities

Because of the wide range of religions in Iran, we cannot put all of them in one article. Following, we will explain some of Iran’s religious sites, which are located in one or more destinations of our Iran tours.

Heritage of Zoroastrian religion in Iran

Before the rising of Zoroaster, ancient Persians believed in Mithraism. Mithraism was an Iranian religion with multiple gods in which Mithra (the divinity of sun) was the most important one. After hundreds of years, in the Achaemenes era, Zoroaster, the first prophet, appeared. He managed to persuade Hystaspes, the Achaemenes emperor, to convert into Zoroastrianism and support him. This way, Zoroastrianism became the major religion in Iran.  Zoroaster’s religion has a dualistic cosmology; Good and Evil fight and Good will always win. Furthermore, his main principles are Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds.

But what percent of Iran is Zoroastrian? Nowadays, Zoroastrians are a religious minority in Iran. Their population in Iran is almost three hundred thousand people. This means about one percent of the Iranians are Zoroastrian. Most of them live in Yazd and Kerman provinces.

Fire temples were the places of worship in the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrians perform their most sacred prayers in front of the fire.

  • Tehran Fire Temple: Tehran or Adrian fire temple is the only fire temple in Tehran. Zoroastrian priests brought fire from Yazd fire temple to begin Adrian fire temple’s fire. In Zoroastrian religion, fires have three grades each having different values. The fire in Tehran fire temple is Atash Behram which is the highest grade of fires. Furthermore, this fire should never die because it belongs to all the people.
  • Yazd Atash Behram: The fire in Yazd Atash Behram (Yazd fire temple) has been burning for almost 1500 years. Through all these years, Zoroastrians have been transferring this fire to different villages and cities to save it.
  • Zoroastrian Tower of Silence in Yazd: Zoroastrians didn’t want burry the corpses of the dead people in the ground to avoid defiling the soil. Instead, they put them on towers of silence so the birds and wild animals could eat them. Then, they collected the bones in a pit in the middle of these towers. Zoroastrians don’t use these towers anymore. One of the famous towers of silence is near the city of Yazd and dates back to the Sassanid era.
  • Zoroastrians History and Culture Museum near Yazd: This museum is part of the Markar complex near the Yazd Fire Temple. You can see the clothing, food, and ceremonies of Zoroastrian people in the exhibits of the museum.
  • Fire Temple of Isfahan: This fire is on a 100 meters high hill on the west of Isfahan and dates back to the Sassanid era. The ruins beside the temple used to be the place where Zoroastrian priests lived. Furthermore, this temple is the only fire temple that survived in Isfahan after the attack of Muslims. Perhaps, its location on the hill made it hard for the attackers to reach it.
Tourists visiting Yazd Atash Behram Zorostrian fire temple.

Zoroastrians have one of the most ancient religions in the world.

Phillip8789, from Australia, on TripAdvisor

This Temple was used as a Hindu, Sikh and Zoroastrian place of worship. Its central focus is the eternal flame that burns in the central part of the Temple, which. apparently was extinguished in 1969 and is now lit by gas piped from the nearby city. Whilst at the Temple we visited 4 of the surrounding cells (similar to caravansaries), but were, as I have researched, cells for monks. The “rooms” offered well-documented historical information, accompanied by life-size models and provided information in English.

  • Shah Varharaam Izad Temple in Tehran: This temple dates back to the Qajar era and is the place where Zoroastrians say prayers for victory. The importance of this temple is because of the Zoroastrian ceremony prayer in Nowruz (the Persian new year). So, the temple is precious for both Muslims and Zoroastrians.

Persian jews

For over 3000 years, Jewish people have been living inside Iran. This makes Judaism one of the oldest religions of Persia. In each era of Persian history, they have experienced both good times and hardships. Their first presence in Iran was as slaves of Babylonian kings. According to a story, Cyrus the great, the Achaemenes king took over Babylon and set the slave Jews free. This way, some of them were able to go back to Jerusalem. Some of the Jews stayed in Iran, and this is how Judaism became one of the major religions in Iran. They could have a peaceful life in Iran for hundreds of years after Islam. But, the Safavid era was the time of torturing and forcing Iranian Jews to convert to Islam. Also, such hardships repeated during the Qajar era. Finally, the social situation of the Jews got better during the Pahlavi era and they managed to have normal lives.

  • Yusef Abad Synagogue in Tehran: Sukkot Shalom is the original name of this synagogue. Because of its location in Yusef Abad neighborhood, it’s also famous as Yusef Abad Synagogue. Furthermore, after the Islamic revolution, it became the first synagogue that an Iranian president has visited.
  • Ezra Yaghoub Synagogue in Tehran: During the Qajar era, according to Ezra Yaghoub (a Jewish merchant)’s will, his wife built this synagogue. Furthermore, it became home to the Polish Jew refugees who had escaped to Iran during the second world war.
  • Mullah Jacob Synagogue in Isfahan: The location of this synagogue is in Joubareh, the oldest district in Isfahan.  Joubareh is a historic neighborhood in Iran where Iranian Jews have been living since the Achaemenes era. According to the stories about this neighborhood, Cyrus the Great placed the Jews here after setting them free.
  • Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan: Esther was an orphan Jewish girl, so her uncle raised and took care of her. His uncle, Mordecai, was one of the courtiers of King Xerxes. King Xerxes chose Esther to be his wife and she had a lot of influence on the king. There was a plot by other courtiers to kill the Jews in the court of the king. So, Esther managed to persuade the king not to kill the Jews and saved them. Esther and Mordecai’s tomb in Hamedan is one of the main destinations of Iran pilgrimage tours.
  • Tomb of the Four Prophets in Qazvin: This tomb is one of the Iran religious sites from the Safavid era in Qazvin. According to the documents, it’s the tomb of four Jewish prophets. Their names are Sahuli, Salam, Alqia, and Saloum. Furthermore, these prophets were trying to take the news of Christ’s birth from Jerusalem to the eastern countries.
Esther and Mordechai tomb with its surrounding trees in Hamadan.

Many people love to visit the beautiful Jewish heritage still left in Iran.

Christianity, the largest minority of religions in Iran

The history of the Christianity religion in Iran has two separate sides. There are two large groups of Christian minorities in Iran; Armenians and Assyrians. The history of the presence of Assyrians in Iran is unknown. According to the documents, the Assyrian ethnic has merged with the Iranian population after the fall of the Mesopotamian Empire.

On the other hand, we know the history of Armenians in Iran much better. In a fight between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, Shah Abbas ordered the people of Armenia to leave their houses. They escaped with the Safavid army while being followed by the Ottoman army. Unfortunately, many of the Armenians died during this escape but the rest arrived at Isfahan and stayed there. Nowadays, you can find the Armenians in different cities of Iran.

Are there any catholic churches in Iran? Yes, you can find many catholic and protestant churches in Iran. On the list below, we will point out some of these centers of Christianity in Iran.

  • Saint Mary Church in Isfahan: This complex has two churches; Hakoup church and St. Mary church. Hakoup church is the oldest, and St. Mary church is the second oldest church in Isfahan. Both of these churches are in the Jolfa quarter, where Shah Abbas placed the Armenian after fleeing the Ottoman army. So, this quarter has stayed a Christian center ever since.
  • Vank Cathedral in Isfahan: After Shah Abbas forced the Armenians to settle in the Jolfa quarter, Armenians felt the need for a cathedral. This way, they could both pray and gather for social events in the cathedral. Thousands of Armenians gathered for building this cathedral, and it took almost 60 years to finish it.
  • Bedkhem Church in Isfahan: Khaje Petros, a merchant from the Safavid era, has built this church, and his tomb is at its graveyard. Also, it has paintings from stories in the holy bible on its interior walls. Daily Telegraph Newspaper chose this church as one of the 23 most beautiful churches in the world.  This church shows us a mixture of catholic churches and Islamic architecture.

Brunofree, from India, on TripAdvisor

In this Armenian complex, you have this church, with its totally unexpected frescoes, but also a very interesting Armenian museum with so many shreds of evidence of the genocide perpetrated by the Turkish regime of the time during ww1. See also a very surprising document signed by President Wilson of the United States, who delimited the borders of the newly created Armenian state. Unexpected again …

  • Saint Thaddeus Church in Tehran: During the time this church was under construction, Christians would bury the bodies of every Europian in Tehran in its graveyard. Moreover, this church belongs to the 18th century A.D. and is the first church in Tehran.
  • St. Mary Armenian Church in Tehran: The number of Armenians in Tehran was increasing after the Armenian genocide in the 1920s. The Armenian residents of Tehran began to feel the need for a new church. So, they asked Nikolai Lauri, an architect, to sketch a plan for a new church. Unfortunately, Lauri didn’t stay alive to see the building of the church.
  • Saint Mary Church of Tabriz: This church is the oldest church in Tabriz and belongs to the 12th century A.D. Also, Marco Polo refers to this church in his writings when he was on his way to China.  Armenians perform the national religious ceremonies which only Armenians can attend in this church.
  • Armenian Church of Shiraz: The only sign on its outside that shows this building in Shiraz is a church is a huge cross.  Almost 500 years ago, there used to be a small church with Armenian houses around it instead of this church. Because of its great importance, many Italian visitors have traveled to Shiraz to visit it.

How Islam became the major religion in Iran

After Prophet Mohammad’s death in the 7th century A.D., Abu Bakr replaced him. Abu Bakr ordered the start of attacking at the borders of Iran. Although these attacks took more than 10 years, they finally took over Persia and overthrew the last Sassanid king, Yazdegerd III. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Iranians were mostly Zoroastrian at that time. Although Muslims took over the country, the process in which people converted to Islam was gradual. It took almost 400 hundred years for the Iranians to convert into Islam. They started to coexist with other religions in Iran peacefully. Over time, Islam became the dominant religion in Iran. Arabic language mixed with the Persian language and changed the Iranian culture. Nowadays, 95 percent of Iranians are Muslims.

Islam has two major branches which are Shia and Sunni. Furthermore, Shia Muslims believe in 12 Imams, but Sunnis don’t. The majority of Iranian Muslims are Shia Muslims. Therefore, there are too many Islamic sites and mosques in Iran and we can only point out a few of them. So, following, we have mentioned only a selection of these sites which are on the way of our Iran tours.

  • Shah Mosque in Tehran: It’s a major mosque in the Grand Bazaar of Tehran. Because of the importance of religion among the marketers in Bazaar, this mosque has become very valuable for them. Since the marketers gather in the mosque for prayer, it has become a center for political gatherings as well. For almost two hundred years, this mosque has seen major political gatherings and events. Furthermore, since the Qajar era until the Islamic revolution, this mosque has been the place of Friday prayer. The Friday prayer is a prayer that Muslims gather and hold every Friday.
  • Agha Bozorg Mosque in Kashan: Agha Bozorg includes a mosque and a school in Kashan from the 18th century. The reason for building this mosque was for Mulla Mohammad Naraqi to teach Islamic lessons. The other reason for building it was for turning it to the place of holding Friday prayer.
  • Shah Cheragh in Shiraz: This mosque in Shiraz has the tombs of the 8th Shia Imam, Ali al-Ridha’s brothers in it. The mother of King Aboo Eshagh-e Injoo, one of the Ilkhanid kings, performed many ceremonies in this mosque. In his memories, Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan explorer, says this place was where travelers would get free food. Also, he mentions that the king’s mother would go to this mosque on Mondays. All the clerics would gather there on Mondays and they would read the Quran together.

Mickeywonder13, from Greece, on TripAdvisor

The Shāh Chérāgh (‘King of Light’) mausoleum is a funerary monument and mosque in Shiraz, Iran, housing the tombs of two martyred brothers of Ali Reza, the 8th Shia Imam who took refuge in the city during the Abbasid persecution of Shia Muslims. It was built during the Zengid dynasty era (~1130s AD).

The Shāh Chérāgh (‘King of Light’) mausoleum is the most important place of pilgrimage within the city of Shiraz. It features intricate blue tile work and a dazzling mirrored interior, making it one of the prettiest mosques in Shiraz. It cannot be missed! If not a Muslim, one could have difficulty getting in; perhaps, a local guide could be helpful in getting you in, like in our case.

  • Jameh Mosque of Yazd: It’s a Shia Mosque in Yazd, which has the tallest minarets in the world. The mosque is on a ground that used to be a fire temple in the Sassanid era.
  • Shah Mosque in Isfahan: Shah Abbas wanted to move the Friday prayer from Jameh Mosque of Isfahan to the Shah Mosque. That’s why he insisted on the Shah Mosque to have better features than the Jameh Mosque. Also, this is why he ordered the Shah Mosque to have the largest dome among the mosques in Isfahan. Furthermore, there are two religious’ schools on each side of it.
  • Blue Mosque in Tabriz: Dating back to the 14th century, this mosque is the Sunni mosque where Shia Muslims won’t enter. Jahan Shah, the Kara Koyunlu ruler, began building this mosque and put two graves in it for himself and his wife. Yet, he never could finish the mosque because the Ak Koyunlus took over Tabriz. Although it never finished, the Safavid kings in the 16th century used it as their mosque.  

Good To Know

Learn more