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Soltaniyeh

Soltaniyeh, located some 240 kilometres to the north-west of Tehran, used to be the capital of Mongol Ilkhanid rulers of Persia in the 14th century. Soltaniyeh ('Town of the Sultans') was purpose-built by the Ilkhanid Mongols as their Persian capital from 1302. But less than a century later in 1384 it was largely destroyed by Tamerlane. Fortunately three fine monuments survived. Today Soltaniyeh is a small village. In 2005, UNESCO listed Soltaniyeh as one of the World Heritage Sites. 

By far the most dramatic of the three monuments is the magnificent mausoleum built for Mongol sultan Il-khan Öljeitü also known as Muhammad Khodabandeh, traditionally known as the Dome of Soltaniyeh.

Oljeitu Mausoleum

In 1306, Sultan Oljeitu (1304-1316) - who had originally been baptized as Nicolas by the Nestorian Patriarch Mar Yahballaha III, before turning to Buddhism, Sunni Islam and finally around 1309/10 Shiism - began the construction of his new city, Soltaniyeh, to replace Tabriz as the imperial capital of the Ilkhans. It would appear that the building of his own mausoleum started at around the same time. Having converted to Shiism, Oljeitu decided to alter the building so that it could house the bodies of the Imams Ali and Hosein, buried in Kerbala and Najaf, in Iraq. But both towns refused to part with the Imams, and the mausoleum was used for the sultan himself. Traces of other buildings linked to the mausoleum have been found recently as well as the base of the walls with semi-circular bastions, now partly restored, that surrounded it. These are made from the green stone from Tash Kasan, where there is also a famous carved Buddhist dragon.

The mausoleum is an octagonal domed construction, built of brick. Almost 25m in diameter and 48m high it's the world's tallest brick dome. This spectacular construction became for centuries the prototype for princely Mongol tombs, down to the Taj Mahal in India. In shape it is more reminiscent of certain mausoleums in Central Asia, such as the tomb of Sultan Sanjar at Merv (1157), than of buildings in nearby Azerbaijan. When the decision was made to turn it into a mausoleum for the Imams, a mehrab was added to the south-western side and a funerary chapel to the north-west. This gives the impression from the outside that the building was either left unfinished or has been partly destroyed. A vaulted gallery runs around the top of the building and opens into a series of triple arcades; above this is a muqamas cornice. The remains of eight minarets are visible around the dome, one at each corner. The latter, completely covered in turquoise glazed tiles, is 52 metres tall and very elegant with its rather pointed shape. The minarets and the dome were originally decorated in blue and black tiles, while the vaults of the gallery still bear the very fine painted mouldings executed during the period after Oljeitu's conversion to Shiism (the gallery is now open to the public). The decorative design on the walls and vaults of the galleries are strikingly similar to contemporary book illuminations. The latter acted most likely as a source of inspiration for the former. In the galleries one also find so-called cloud collars, four- or eight-lobed patterns, which motif stems from China and was probably derived from Central Asian or Mongolian costumes. Beneath the gallery, the brick of the exterior walls was left plain except on the southwest side, facing towards Mecca, where there are still traces of glazed decoration. The interior of the mausoleum was also originally richly decorated in tilework, which was plastered over at a later date, either when Oljeitu decided to turn the building into his own mausoleum or as part of Safavid restoration work.

The structure, erected from 1302 to 1312 AD, has the oldest double-shell dome in Iran. This erroneous view of the construction was made by Dieulafoy but is totally disputed by Andre Godard. In Godard's view it is a normal, if spectacularly large dome, with a thin skin on top for the faience and is in no way a double dome. Its importance in the Muslim world may be compared to that of Brunelleschi's cupola for Christian architecture. It is one of the largest brick domes in the world, just at the theoretical engineering limit for a brick dome and the third largest dome in the world after the domes of Florence Cathedral and Hagia Sophia. The Dome of Soltaniyeh paved the way for more daring Iranian-style cupola constructions in the Muslim world, such as the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasavi and the Taj Mahal. Much of its exterior decoration has been lost, but the interior retains superb mosaics, faience, and murals. People have described the architecture of the building as “anticipating the Taj Mahal.” The estimated 200 ton dome stands 49 meters tall from its base, and is currently undergoing extensive renovation.

Other Buildings

The mausoleum approach crosses partly rebuilt stubs of Soltaniyeh's citadel wall and some archaeological excavations (admission free) of the Mongol-era townscape.

Khanegah Dervish MonasterySome 500m southwest of the main complex, the 1330 Khanegah Dervish Monastery (Hamadan Hwy; admission free; 8am-5pm) has restored cells around a courtyard leading to the Boqeh Chelabi-oglu Mausoleum behind the mihrab of a shattered-sided former mosque. The Dervish practice a mystical form of Islam that includes the belief that it is possible to become close to God during life. The whirling dances associated with this sect were performed in a special room in this monastery which is currently undergoing renovation to be opened as a museum.

From the Oljeitu Mausoleum's upper terrace, it's easy to spot the lonely blue-domed Mullah Hasan Kashi tomb (admission free) in semi-desert, 1.5km south towards the mountain skyline. It was built by Safavid Shah Tahmasp to honour Hasan Kashi, a XIV century mystic whose recasting of Islam's historical sagas as Persian-language poetic epics unwittingly had a vast influence over Shia Islam's future direction.

On the outskirts of Soltaniyeh, the Ilkhanid mausoleum for the Sufi master Baraq Baba built in 1310, the adjacent hospice for Sufis, dating from 1333, and the Safavid mausoleum for Mullah Hasan Kashi, dating from 1595, are all worth a visit.

Getting There & Away
Soltaniyeh is 5km south of the old Zanjan-Qazvin road, but not accessible from the parallel motorway. By public transport it's easiest to visit as a day trip from Zanjan. Direct savaris (30 minutes) and very irregular minibuses (50 minutes) from Zanjan's Honarestan Sq drop you an obvious 10-minute walk north of the mausoleum.

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