In Search of Zarathustra is an uneven book in many respects. It is partly a travel diary of the author's many trips to Iran and Central Asia over a period of some forty years. The primary purpose of the book is to trace the legacy of the ancient Iranian religious leader Zarathustra or Zoroaster. This legacy is indeed fascinating, since it has had a major influence on the development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Unfortunately Kriwaczek sometimes is more enthusiastic than thorough or organized, and the reader is forced to leap back and forth through time and space and can wind up a bit confused about which traditiona and which era is being discussed. Also, Kriwaczek's use of modern slang expressions can sometimes distract.
I enjoyed this book, regardless of the problems I noted above. I found the descriptions of modern day Shia Islam and its probable legacies from Zoroastrianism very illuminating, so that I have a better grasp of the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam. The descriptions of present day Iranians and their pre-Islamic religious traditions are also intriguing. I wish that Kriwaczek had spent more time on Mithraism and the Cathars and Bogomils, but what he did include was fascinating, too. That's the only real reservation I have about this book, it is simply too short to do justice to its subject.
In his journalistic account of the religion of Zarathustra (also known as Zoroaster), author Paul Kriwaczek takes us on a journey back in time from the Iran of the ayatollahs to the ancient days of Persia's pre-Islamic glory. Along the way, we encounter Nietzsche's anti-Zarathustra, the 13th-century crusade against the Cathars, the religion of light preached by the 3rd-century prophet Mani, the mysteries of Mithras in Roman Britain, the Zoroastrian apocalypse and its influence on the Hebrew Bible, and the religion of Ahura Mazda (the ancient Persian name for God) in the days of Cyrus the Great, Darius and Alexander.
There is much to recommend this book, especially to those with little or no prior knowledge of ancient Iran and the nature of its historical influence (even on the West). Kriwaczek is a good storyteller and the book is full of diverting anecdotes of his journey through central Asia in search of the "first prophet". Most rewarding are his discovery of Zoroastrian sun symbols in a mosque in Samarkand -- and the pretended ignorance of local Muslims when asked to explain its presence; his experience of Noruz (Zoroastrian New Year) celebrations in Teheran, including a meeting with a belated follower of Zarathustra who reveals the ironic hidden meaning of the Noruz "haft sin" (seven "S") table; and his account of a sort of Muslim passion play on Ashura, the Shi'ite day of mourning for Muhammad's grandson Hussein, which reveals an ongoing Zoroastrian influence on Shia Islam's conception of an eternal war between good and evil that will only end with the coming of a "messiah", whom they call the Mahdi or "hidden Imam".
The book also contains some wonderful little gems for trivia lovers, such as that the Old Testament figures of Esther and Mordecai are named for Babylonian gods (Ishtar and Marduk, respectively). Also enjoyable is his attention to such ephemera as a 1954 poem written on the occasion of an archaeological find in London that includes a truly delightful play on words ("and the bull dozes").
Unfortunately, Kriwaczek is no scholar and he is given to drawing often fantastic historical conclusions based on nothing more than pure speculation. Furthermore, he is a psychological reductionist who sees religion as nothing more than a psychological comfort and is far too literal-minded in his approach to understand the mythological wealth of the Gnostic tradition (so it is not surprising that he can only refer to their writings as "bewildering"). His chapter on the Cathars is so insensitive to non-materialist interpretive possibilities that I almost stopped reading. Still, I pressed on and would still recommend this book to anyone interested in the origins of the world's three great monotheistic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- for they all owe a great debt to old Zarathustra.