From the provincial market town of Zanjan, a 2,5 hour drive across rolling countryside takes you to the ruins of Takht-e-Soleyman. Situated in Iran’s little-visited Zanjan province, this UNESCO World Heritage site safeguards a precious reminder of Iran’s pre-Islamic history.
On the pimpled road to Dandi
To Iranian standards 2,5 hours is just around the corner, but without your own transport making it halfway, to the small mining town of Dandi, is hard enough.
My attempt to hitchhike from Dandi was quite successful and I made it to the excavation site before noon, unprosperous hamlets and signs of a mining industry pimpling the roadside. A warm father-and-son duo dropped me off right at the turnoff from the main road, from where it was but a short walk to the site of the excavation.
Surviving the Arabs
During the Sassanid empire, the last Persian dynasty before the rise of Islam, Takht-e-Soleyman housed one of the holiest fires of all Persia. Unlike a lot of other pre-Islamic sites in Iran, it survived the Arab conquest of Persia between 640 and 650. The cunning site keepers heard of the invaders destroying other holy places and renamed their site Takht-e-Soleyman: Salomon’s throne.
Knowing Islam respects the Old Testament, they gambled the Arabs would also respect the biblical king Solomon. Their ruse paid off, and now the excavation at Takht-e-Soleyman is one of few surviving Zoroastrian sites in Iran.
A warm crater lake appears
As I approached the site, I passed its mighty fortification walls and entered through a big stone gate, where the cash desk handed out visitor tickets. Inside, I walked slightly uphill straight to the heart of the building complex.
A sparkling blue crater lake forms the heart of the sanctuary. Its water is kept at a constant 21 degrees Celsius due to the remnants of volcanic activity below ground. Artificial channels lead the water to the surrounding fields.
The lake is surrounded by a host of ruins, built over centuries by different rulers. Best preserved is the Mongol hunting palace from medieval times.
Certainly of bigger interest, though, are the Zoroastrian fire temple and the temple of the goddess of water and fertility, Anahita.
Before Islam, Persian religion retained strong links to nature and the 4 elements. Takht-e-Soleyman, with its natural spring and volcanic activity, served as a perfect site for a Zoroastrian fire temple. Water and fire were present, as well as plenty of wind and soil on this high plateau, 2200 meter above sea level.
Solomon’s gas chamber
As I reached the top of the hill, it suddenly dawned on me I was the only visitor here, and I renewed my effort to enjoy the peace and silence of this holy place. Birds of prey spiraled upwards, using the thermals emanating from the lake. The view was splendid.
So smooth did the ruins blend with the surrounding nature, you could easily forget they were man-made.
After soaking up the atmosphere of the well-preserved ruins, I made my way to the other attraction on site. The conic shape of Zendan-e-Soleyman (Solomon’s prison) pointed to more volcanic origins.
It is a 3 kilometres uphill walk. With no cars in sight, I had no choice but to attempt the climb under my own steam, in the blistering midday heat.
It was a steep climb, but well worth the effort. Inside, Zendan-e-Soleyman was shockingly hollow. It used to be a crater lake as its venerable neighbor, but the water disappeared long ago.
Locals said King Solomon imprisoned monsters here, but with a toxic gas streaming out of the earth this must have been more like a death penalty. Behind the rim a cliff drops about 80 m vertically and I felt slightly dizzy gazing downwards. But maybe it was just the gas.
Few people make it as far as Zanjan and the UNESCO World Heritage site. That’s great news for those who do, as Solomon’s throne is definitely a rewarding destination for those interested in ancient history and natural phenomena.
The 2 biggest towns close to the ruins are Takab in the west and Zanjan in the east. Takab is definitely closer, if you are coming with your own transport, but Zanjan is better connected for those on public transport, with frequent buses plying the main road between Tehran and Tabriz.
The most convenient way to get to the site from Zanjan is by taxi, giving you the chance to also stop in some of the adobe villages along the way.
To save money, take a shared taxi to Dandi, wherefrom you can get another taxi to Takht-e-Soleyman, or hitchhike. The shared taxis (safaris) to Dandi start at the intersection west of the train station as soon as 4 passengers have gathered.
Hitchhiking, there is little traffic beyond Dandi, but all cars that do pass will be heading in the right direction. Getting a ride back to Dandi is a matter of hours rather than minutes.
In Zanjan there are lots of cheap hotels around centrally located Enqelab Square. Expect to pay around 10$ for a simple single room with a shared bathroom.
This article was written by Oliver Hein and appeared first in German on his travel blog Was Gestern War.