At the heart of Osh stands Sulaiman-Too, or Solomon’s Throne. It is the biggest of 5 mounds of weathered, barren limestone. The many caves, grottoes, canopies and platforms carved out of the rock over time are an invitation to the spiritually inclined to address the heavens… or the underworld. Whatever their religion: for millennia, people have worshipped this mountain.
If you have read some other pages on Caravanistan, you may have noticed that occasionally, we like to use a big word. This is another one of those moments, and the fancy word in question is palimpsest.
Canadian Geographic says: “While palimpsest often refers to a writing material on which the original script has been erased (though not completely) and written over again, in geography, the word means a place or landscape in which something new is superimposed over traces of something preceding it.”
Scratch a Russian and you find a Tartar, Napoleon allegedly said. Well, scratch Sulaiman-Too and you will find the whole history of religious beliefs in Kyrgyzstan.
About 2000 years ago, the Greek geographer Ptolemy wrote about a Stone Tower that marked the mid-point on the Silk Road. It was the most important landmark on this route, where caravans stopped to take on provision, rest, and trade goods before moving on. 5 likely places have been identified: Tashkent, Daroot-Korgon, Tashkurgan and Irkeshtam. And of course, Sulaiman-Too.
By that time, people had already been carving petroglyphs into the rock for more than 1000 years: suns, labyrinths and hunting objects. It seems likely these first believers worshipped Mithra, a Zoroastrian God.
By the time of Ptolemy, horse petroglyphs started being added. At this time, Ferghana Valley was part of the Dayuan Kingdom, where the Chinese imported their famous blood-sweating Heavenly Horses from. Horses were worshipped here; the etchings are evidence of an elaborate cult of the horse.
Interestingly enough, nowhere on Sulaiman-Too is there any evidence of Buddhism, popular throughout the region until the arrival of Islam.
Once Islam did arrive, the mountain was successfully absorbed into the new religion. Various legends about the Quranic prophet Solomon praying or being buried here started popping up, and mosques and mausoleums were built.
Today, pilgrims to Sulaiman-Too display the charming syncretic religion much of Central Asia still follows, despite reformist trends from abroad: a mix of pagan nature worship, shamanism and Islam.
Sacred places and rituals
Rock drawings of Sulaiman-Too cover the period from around 1500 BCE until the 5th century CE. It is not the best petroglyph site in Central Asia: places like Langar, Tamgaly or Sarmysh are much better. Nonetheless, if you care to have a look, you can find them, mostly on the northern side.
Labyrinths, solar signs, geometrical figures of rectangulars and squares, birds and human-like figures are the oldest carvings. Images of Davan horses came later. Petroglyphs at Saimaly-Tash are close analogies to some images at Sulaiman-Too.
Writings at Ak Baur grotto (East Kazakhstan) also demonstrate some similarities to Sulaiman-Too petroglyphs.
Before Soviet times, more mosques were present near Sulaiman-Too, but not all of them survived. At the foot of the mountain, the 16th-century Ravat Abdullakhan mosque and the Asaf ibn Burchiya Mausoleum have survived (after restoration).
At the top of the mountain stands Babur’s House. In 1497, 14-year-old Zahiruddin Babur, newly crowned king of Fergana, and future founder of the Indian Moghul dynasty, built a shelter for his chilla – a 40-day retreat of silent meditation for sufis with just bread and water to eat.
The shelter has been rebuilt twice, first after an earthquake in 1853 and most recently in the 1990s, after it was destroyed in 1961 by an explosion, which locals blame on the vigorous Soviet anti- superstition campaign.
All manner of cures are requested from the holy mountain from pilgrims, but fertility is the main ask (arguably a barren womb is the biggest possible disaster for a Central Asian family) .
It would take you a full day to explore the cave-wombs (where couples sometimes stay overnight), slide the polished gutters and rub each holy rock. If you stick around long enough, you will start noticing the rituals (shamanistic, Sufi or plain superstitious) that pilgrims perform.
The easiest one to witness is on the smooth rock just behind the shrine. Sliding down it is very healthy, especially for young couples with fertility problems.
Ancestor worship is also strong in Central Asia, and prayers for ancestors and the deceased are another typical cause for pilgrimage. For a small donation, professionals offer a prayer for you or help with certain rituals.
Shamans and those preparing to become shamans come on Thursdays to perform their special rites and often stay
overnight till Friday morning. Their rites are strongly influenced by Islam.
An older guidebook states that “the rock is bedecked with ‘handkerchief’ trees; tying a piece of cloth to a tree or bush is believed to bring good luck.”
Tying trees with cloth is an ancient Tengrianist symbol, but on our last visit we did not find so many. Did we not look properly, or is it because of the growing influence of Wahhabism (Salafism is not the correct term according to Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad)?
The Soviets did not succeed in grinding down the mountain completely for the local cement factory as the plan had it, but they did blast an enormous hole into Sulaiman-Too to make a museum out of it. The exhibition is absolutely forgettable, but it is located inside a mountain cave, so it does have that going for it.
Open 9-13 and 14-18, closed on Monday. Entrance: 150 som.
How to visit
Sunset is the best time to visit. Babur’s house offers an excellent vantage point to watch the sun go down over the city, and in summertime, the heat will be a little less oppressive.
The cash desk asks a 20 som entrance fee. It seems the gates do not close so you can leave your visit as late as you want.
The pilgrim’s path around the hill has been upgraded, but it can still be tricky in places for visitors who are not in shape. The area at the top is not wheelchair accessible.