The Other EpiphanyPosted: 6 January 2011
Today is the twelfth and final day of Christmas – the Epiphany; the traditional date on which the three Magi from the orient visited the newborn Christ child. This story is well known to us in the West; however there is another, more curious telling which finds its origins in ancient Iran.
This is the story as related by the great traveller Marco Polo.
“In the city of Saveh in Persia there are three magnificently housed sepulchres, each one beside the other. The people of this town no longer remember who lies entombed here, only that they were great kings of old. It is said of Saveh that the noble Magi who rest here are Beltasar, Gaspar and Melchior, and that they were indeed the three who travelled to Bethlehem to worship the Christ child.
The town of Kala Atashparastan lies three days from Saveh. Here the people worship fire, and it is for this reason it is named Town of the Fire-worshippers. They will tell you that a long time ago three kings of this country went to worship a great prophet who had appeared in a distant land. One was from Saveh, the second came from Hawah and the third from Kashan. With them they took three gifts with which to determine the identity of the prophet. If he accepted the gift of gold, he was an earthly king, the sweet frankincense, a god. If he chose the final gift of myrrh, he would reveal himself as a healer.
When the three kings arrived at the place in which the prophet had been born, each sought a sole audience with him. The youngest went first. He was filled with wonder to behold the prophet; not a baby as foretold, but of a similar age and appearance to his own. The second entered who was of middle age; and as the first, beheld a man alike in years to himself. Finally the third, who was the elder, entered and saw the prophet was in age the same as him. All three were amazed and told the others of what he had seen.
As one, the three came before the prophet once more and this time, saw him as he was; barely thirteen days old. Then they worshipped him and offered to him in turn the three gifts they had brought. The baby accepted all three gifts and gave in return a casket. Then the three kings set out to return to their own country.
During their journey they became curious about the gift casket the child prophet had given them, and decided to open it. Within the box they found a stone. They wondered about the meaning of this stone, but did not understand why it had been given to them in return for such costly gifts. They threw the stone into a nearby well, considering it worthless; but as soon as it disappeared from sight a flame descended from heaven and burned within the well.
When the kings saw this they repented of their casting aside of the stone, for now they saw that it had been a great gift indeed. They had given gifts to determine whether the child prophet was an earthly king, a god or a healer; the child had accepted all three, so they believed he was all three. The prophet had known of this belief, so he had given them this stone to signify that they should remain strong in their faith.
The kings took some of the heavenly fire which burned in the well and housed it in one of their great churches, where it is kept with honour to this day. I told you that the people of this land are known as Fire-worshippers, and this is where their belief comes from. The people keep the fire perpetually burning and use it for all their burnt offerings; if it should go out, a journey is made to others of the faith who also worship the fire. This way, the fire never goes out, though the people should travel for ten days to rekindle it.
This was told to Marco Polo by the inhabitants of the town of Kala Atashparastan, and it is all true.”
Derived from the translated Travels of Marco Polo