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Takht-i Suleiman: a mysterious Fire-Temple high in the Zagros Mountains of Iran
Published by: Dr John Tidmarsh | Aug 24th, 2018
High in the Zagros mountains, that vast limestone range running some 1600 km from north-west to south-east, essentially separating Iran from Iraq, lies one of the most remarkable (and little known) sites of ancient Persia. Concealed by some of the highest mountains in the Zagros Range and thus hidden from the European world for some 1000 years or more, Takht-i Suleiman was only “rediscovered” in 1819 by the inveterate Scottish traveller (as well as author, artist and diplomat) Sir Robert Ker Porter.
With its plentiful and permanent supply of water, fertile valleys, oak and pistachio forests (which to the south are still extensive despite the deforestation), wild wheat and barley, and once-abundant game it is not surprising that the Zagros range was home both to Early Man (Neanderthals) and some of the first villages of the Neolithic Period (c. 8000–4000 BCE)—the era when permanent settlements first evolved as a result of the beginnings of domestication of plants and animals. As we travel through the Zagros today (especially picturesque in early spring with its serrated mountain peaks still covered with snow and its valleys full of new green shoots and thick stands of red anemones, or in autumn when green foliage gives way to a wonderful variety of yellow, browns, and mauves) we pass through numerous villages that have changed little through the millennia. On the roofs of their mud-brick houses, we see large mounds of chaff drying out for the winter months when they will be used to feed the snow-bound herds of sheep and goats. During these cold, bleak months many of the houses still rely on heat from burning the cakes of animal dung that lie in orderly piles within the courtyards. Each village usually has a rudimentary mosque, often situated next to a small cemetery whose simple earth mounds cover the remains of generations of villagers who have rarely travelled far from the place of their birth.
Originally known as Ganzak (Middle Persian) or Shiz (Arabic), Takht-i Suleiman (“throne of Solomon”) was given its current (Biblical/Quranic) name after the Arab conquest—probably in Safavid times— as happened to many pre-Islamic sites.
Although probably an important religious centre in earlier times, for traces of Achaemenid (pottery, arrowheads, beads) and Parthian (fortification remains) occupation are present, Takht-i Suleiman reached its apogee during the Sasanian period (c. 224–650 CE) when Zorastrianism had become the state religion. By late Sasanian times it was home to the important Fire Temple of the King and Warriors as is demonstrated by the recovery during archaeological excavations of clay bullae or seals bearing this title (Atur Gushnasp). The temple with its now collapsed dome supported by four arches (chahar taq), low altar, and side chamber where the eternal fire that was such an important feature of Zoroastrian ritual may have been tended, forms the central core of the religious structures in the northern part of the complex.
Today Takht-i Suleiman is still defended on its flat-topped hill by an impressive buttressed wall with its well-cut stone masonry in header-and-stretcher technique preserved to a height of over five metres. The wall encircles not only the Sasanian religious complex but also, in the southern sector, the Ilkhanid (descendants of the Mongols) hunting lodge that succeeded it in the 13th century (see below).
As well as the Atur Gushnasp, within the Sasanian religious complex that is enclosed on three sides by a rectangular casemate (hollow on the interior) wall are numerous rubble-and-mortar structures (many of obscure function) including a large columnar hall—probably part of the palace of the Sasanian king—entering into a small fire temple (possibly a private place of worship for the royal family), as well as a large shrine of well-cut ashlar masonry supporting eight brick arches (hasht taq) commonly attributed to the Zoroastrian deity Anahita, goddess of water. That Anahita should have a temple here in the middle of the Zagros Range may seem unusual but not when we note the “bottomless” lake (now shown to be at least 120 metres deep) that, framed by four iwans, forms the centre of this remarkable complex. This astonishing natural feature, which no doubt is what attracted the first visitors to the site, has a continuous flow of warm water that empties via stone channels down the hillsides into the fields below. The water itself is highly mineralised, accounting for the build-up of deposits on the lake’s edge thus forming a natural basin.
During Sasanian times Takht-i Sukeiman was always an important place of Zoroastrian pilgrimage; in fact it is said that after the coronation of a new Sasanian ruler at Ctesiphon (the Sasanian capital now in modern-day Iraq), the newly crowned king was required to perform a pilgrimage (on foot!) into the Zagros to worship there.
As a result of the fierce and debilitating wars between Sasanians and Byzantines during the earlier 7th century (being one of the main factors that led to the Arab conquest), much of Takht-i Suleiman was looted and destroyed by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. Although following its sack, the site now only occupied by squatters, seems to have continued to attract sporadic pilgrims, its great days as a religious centre were over.
Astonishingly however, it was resurrected during the 13th century as an Ilkhanid minor palace. Known then as Sugurluk (“place abounding in marmots”) it also served as a hunting lodge for these animals (highly prized for their fur) for the Ilkhanid aristocracy. Fortunately for lovers of Antiquity, most of the Ilkhanid remains, including an audience hall (now the site museum) and impressive eight-and twelve-sided rooms (imitating Mongol tents or gers?) were constructed to the south of the complex, thus sparing the Sasanian remains.
However, to the north, within the Sasanian structures, we see the remains of a pottery workshop and kilns (although some scholars would interpret them as the surviving parts of a hammam) reminding us that at least some of the lavish tile decoration that, along with richly painted plaster, covered the Ilkhanid walls were manufactured at Takht-i Suleiman itself. Many of these tiles are in a lustre-ware technique of the highest quality with often a combination of Mongol (dragons, phoenixes) and Persian (hunting scenes and quotations from the Shahnameh, Persia’s national epic) motifs. Sadly, most of the tiles from Takht-i Suleiman have long since been removed, finding their way into private and museum collections. A small selection, however, can be seen in the former Ilkhanid audience hall, now converted to an on-site museum.
For the Ilkhanid elite, Sugurluk /Takht-i Suleiman with its breathtaking mountain amphitheatre, lush pastures and temperate summer climate must have formed a splendid backdrop to days of hunting and nights of song and feasting. These halcyon days, however, were ephemeral for by the end of the fourteenth century when the Ilkhanids had been replaced by Timurid rule, the site once again lay abandoned and largely forgotten.
Today, the flame that once burned at Takht-i Suleiman has been dimmed for eternity. Its ruins stand as a beacon in the landscape of the Zagros Mountains, discovered by only the most intrepid travellers.
Dr John Tidmarsh
Dr John Tidmarsh is an archaeologist who has conducted excavations in Syria, Jordan, Greece, and Cyprus. He is currently Co-Director of the University of Sydney excavations at Pella in Jordan and also Co-Director of the Australian Mission to Jebel Khalid, Syria. He is an Honorary Associate, Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney and was previously Senior Investigator of the University of Sydney excavations in Torone, Greece and Associate Director of the University of Sydney excavations at Paphos, Cyprus. He has travelled widely in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East and since the 1980s has led numerous tours to Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Oman, and Greece.