The Main Ruins
In the south of Azerbaijan Province is one of the most important archaeological sites of Iran, the Takht-e Soleiman (Throne of Solomon). Sitting in a high, lonely bowl of mountains ringed by 1500-year-old fortress walls, this UNESCO World Heritage Site (8am-sunset) is one of the most memorable sights of western Iran.
Takht-e Soleiman's name is not based on real historical links to Old Testament King Solomon. The site has, of course, nothing to do with the Solomon of scripture; nevertheless, locals throughout the Middle East often name their majestic places after this king who is also respected by Muslims. It was in fact a cunning VII century invention by the temple's Persian guardians in the face of the Arab invasion. Realising Islam's reverence for biblical prophets they entirely fabricated a tale of Solomon's one-time residence to avert the site's certain destruction. The ruse worked, the complex survived and the name stuck. In the ancient Pahlavi language, this great Sassanian religious centre was named 'Ganzak' or 'Ganjeh', while the Romans called it 'Gazka' and the Arabs 'Shiz'.
Folk legend relates that King Solomon used to imprison monsters inside the 100 m deep crater of the nearby Zendan-e Soleyman "Prison of Solomon". Another crater inside the fortification itself is filled with spring water; Solomon is said to have created a flowing pond that still exists today. Nevertheless, Solomon belongs to Semitic legends and therefore, the lore and namesake (Solomon's Throne) should have been formed following Arab conquest of Persia.
In the III century AD the state religion of Sassanian Persia was Zoroastrianism and Takht-e Soleiman (then called Azergoshnasb) was its spiritual centre. The site was perfect. Zoroastrianism had by this stage incorporated many Magi-inspired elements, including the veneration of earth, wind (plenty here), water and fire. Water (albeit undrinkably poisonous) was provided in abundance by the limpidly beautiful 'bottomless' crater lake that still forms the centre of the site. This lake pours forth 90L per second and would have been channelled through an Anahita-style water temple. The fire was provided thanks to a natural volcanic gas channelled through ceramic pipes to sustain an 'eternal flame' in the ateshkadeh (fire temple).
The main Zoroastrian temple was dedicated to Adur Gushnasp, the fire of the king and the warriors, which was one of the three most important fires in Zoroastrianism. This temple housed one of the three "Great Fires" or "Royal Fires" that Sassanid rulers humbled themselves before in order to ascend the throne. The fire at Takht-i Soleiman was called ādur Wishnāsp and was dedicated to the arteshtar or warrior class of the Sasanid.
Tha temple was built in the late V century AD on top of the remains of Parthian buildings which themselves had been constructed on top of older dwellings dating from the I millennium ВС. In Sassanian times a stone wall up to 8m high was built, strengthened by round towers of which 38 remain. The site was a favourite residence of Queen Shirin, the Christian wife of King Khusro II (590-628), for it is said that she kept here the so-called True Cross her husband had captured in 614 from Jerusalem. The decline of the royal shrine started in 624 when it was looted and destroyed by an invading Roman army.
In the later XIII century the site experienced a renaissance when Ilkhan Abaqa (1265-1282) choose it as one of his summer capitals which was called Sughurlukh (meaning 'place abounding with marmots') and ordered a huge palace to be built in the southern part of the site around the lake. Since the Sassanian ruins were also included in the new complex, parts of them like the huge northern iwan were rebuilt. The palace's ruins are the only remains of Ilkhanid courtly architecture kept in Iran. Abaqa's selection of Ganjeh as one of his seasonal capitals was not a hazard, but followed the strategy designed by the powerful brothers Shams od-Din Mohammed Juvaini (died 1284) who was sahib-e diwan (chief minister) and Ata Malek Juvaini (1226-1283), governor of Baghdad and southern Iraq. The belief of the Mongol Ilkhanid rulers and their ministers in the idea of Iranian cultural independence brought Abaqa to choose Ganjeh, where in pre-Islamic times royal coronation ceremonies had taken place, as one of the capitals. The political symbolism of this choice was further enhanced by the fact that the palace's frieze tiles were decorated with quotations taken from Ferdowsi's national epic, the Shahnameh, glorifying the pre-Islamic heroic times. Thus it was implied that the Mongol Ilkhanid rulers were the legitimate successors of the Sassanian shahs and Iran's legendary figures. The site was abandoned in the XVII century.
Today only relatively fragmentary ruins remain and you shouldn't expect Persepolis-style carvings. Nonetheless, the sheer age and magnificent setting here are attractions enough. Entry to the ruins is through the southern gate built by the Mongols; the second main entry, that of the Sassanians, was in the north. Archaeologists found here numerous tiles decorated with mythical animals popular in China such as dragons and phoenixes, which highlight the artistic influence from China during the Ilkhanid Dynasty (1256-1335).
Passing through the northern iwan, one enters the Sassanian part of Takht-e Soleiman. Following the central axis from south to north, the visitor passes first the coronation gallery, then the cruciform Adur Gushnasp fire temple ending in a courtyard. In this context, it has to be stressed that the Zoroastrians did not venerate the fire as such but those dimensions it symbolized: goodness, purity and purifying energy.
Adjacent to the eastern side of the temple the everlasting fire was kept in another cruciform room, as it is described in the Avesta. To the north of this room stood the shrine dedicated to Anahita, the composite ancient Iranian deity of domestic animals, fertility and water. When the Achaemenian king Xerxes I (486-465 BC) forbade the veneration of Babylonian deities, several aspects of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar were transferred to Anahita whereby she also became the goddess of love and war.
While the central and eastern parts of the Sassanian complex had religious functions, the western part served profane purposes. Here we find going from south to north and then westwards the royal dining hall, the hypostyle hall, the festivity hall and finally the reception hall.
In spite of its dilapidated state, Takht-e Soleiman is very much worth a visit. The 15 minutes climb of a hill to the southeast of the site offers a fantastic view of Takht-e Soleiman as well as Zendan-e Soleiman in the background.
A guide is often available at the site gate and can help you make sense of all the piles of stone if you share enough language. Alternatively, navigate yourself using a glossy bilingual Farsi/English map/brochure, which are sold at the ticket booth but not displayed.
Takht-e Soleiman is 2km from Nosratabad at an altitude of 2070m above sea level. Archaeologists believe that beneath that mud-and-haystack village is the site of Shiz, once a Nestorian-Christian centre of Graeco-Persian learning. Nosratabad has a minuscule kabab window, but the nearest accommodation is 42km away in Takab.
Just 3 km (2 miles) to the north-west of Ganjeh another 110m high conical mountain also formed out of calcareous sinter rises into the sky. This dramatic 97m conical peak dominates the valley landscape for miles around. Named Zendan-e Soleiman (Prison of Solomon), its crater has a diameter of 70m and is more than 100m deep. Though it's now bare of all construction, the cone was once enclosed by fortified walls and topped by a religious sanctuary that archaeologists suggest dated back to 900 ВС. Peering gingerly into its dizzying void can be suffocating enough. Assuming you are reasonably fit, climbing to the crater's edge should take under 15 minutes. The path is muddy but obvious, zig-zagging up from the Takab road about 4km south of the main Takht-e Soleiman ruins.
Not far from Takht-e Soleiman are the remains of the quite dilapidated Sassanian fortress called "Fort of Bilquis", the legendary queen of Sheba who supposedly visited King Solomon.
Getting There & Away
A great way to visit Takht-e Soleiman is by chartering a taxi for a day from Zanjan (full day with stops) travelling on afterwards via Takab to be dropped off in Bijar. The route passes some fabulously timeless villages, particularly once you have passed the unexotic mining town of Dandy. Shikhlar, 20km west of Dandy is dramatically backed by the pyramidal peak of Tozludagh (Dusty Mountain). Qaravolkhana, 20km further (10km before Takht-e Soleiman), has particularly picturesque mud-block homes rising between spindly trees and a lurid, metallic-green igloo-shaped mini-shrine at its southern end. Bucolic meadowland behind offers great hikes and the possible ascent of Mt Belqeis, topped by fragmentary ruins of a Sassanid line-of-sight fortress.
If you take the daily Zanjan-Dandy minibus (around 9am), use Dandy's taxi stand to charter a ride for the last 50km to Takht-e Soleiman. Unless you charter a ride from Zanjan or Dandy, the approach is from Takab. Savaris and minibuses only run to Nosratabad once or twice a day and leave you 2km short of Takht-e Soleiman. Traffic is often very thin making hitchhiking awkward.