The unspoilt expanse of Western Iran is desolate. Its people simple. Barren red mountains stretch as far as the eye can see, in sharp contrast with the clear blue skies above. Decade old cars of forgotten makes and models plough highways punctuated with police checkpoints at rapid regularity. I’m on my way to Takht-e Soleiman, the spiritual center of Zoroastrianism, and on to Takab for the night, a miniscule town less than a hundred miles from the Iraqi border.
Takht-e Soleiman, the center of Zoroastrianism during the Sassanid period (224 AD – 638 AD), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most memorable experiences in Western Iran. Circled by 1,000 year old Ilkhanid fortress walls, the complex is set in a bowl of mountains. The site was perfect for the Sassanid State religion which venerated earth, wind, water and fire. The fire was provided by a natural volcanic gas vent which sustained an ‘eternal flame’ in the fire temple. Water was provided by the crater lake which forms the center of the site.
Zoroastrianism was the main religion in Iran until the Arab conquest brought Islam to the forefront. Initiated by Zoroaster, who was probably born about 550 BC in present day Afghanistan, it was the first religion to put forward an omnipotent, invisible god, which is represented as an eternally burning flame in Zoroastrian temples. The primary principles of the religion are the concepts of dualism, i.e. good and bad, and the subsequent ‘free will’ to choose.
Zoroastrian symbolism is still very much a part of Iran everywhere. The Iranian New Year, No Ruz, Iran’s main festival, is celebrated on the spring equinox and traces itself back to the 2,500-year-old Zoroastrian new year.
Sites like Takht-e Soleiman feel just that bit closer to God, the sun-kissed ruins resonating with timeless sacredness.
The nearby Zendan-e Soleiman or Solomon’s Prison, is a conical peak 100 meters high. Once it too had a fortified magical crater lake 80 meters deep, till one side of the cone collapsed. I can never understand why I do certain things. I have an innate fear of heights, but it was such a high to clamber up the steep rocks to reach the volcanic edge smelling dizzily of the sulphurs inside the crater’s depths. I was sure I was going to die whilst climbing up, gripping the edge of the cone, climbing down. And in the end, doubly glad to be alive.
With one of the archaeologists
Takht-e Soleiman, the holiest Zoroastrian site in Iran, is a World Heritage Site and dates back to the 3rd Century AD
The dead volcano overlooking Zendan-e Soleiman, Prison of Solomon, has a 100-meter deep crater where legend has it that King Solomon used to imprison monsters
There is not much to do or see in Takab, my final destination for the day. Yet it was special. I met a lot of the local people, had full length sign language conversations with beaming chadored women, young men posing against walls, and old men smiling quietly as they trudged along. Out of the blue, I found myself dragged into a little boutique selling glamorous halter necked wedding dresses and immediately, thereafter, pushed into a beauty parlor for ‘enhancement’. I turned down both the eager offers and ended up with a pair of ten-year old best friends in a side street who wanted me to take countless pictures of both of them celebrating their friendship with funny faces and mock fights.
It had been an interesting day in the heart of Iran’s remote, wild west. I felt I had befriended everything in life in the space of a single day–nature, humanity, God, and myself.
It is late in the night and the whole town is now asleep. My room in the only hotel in town is like a little nunnery cell. It is tiny, windowless, bare, and clean. The TV does not work, and neither does the phone. The shower is less than a trickle. In life, after a while, you reach the ‘basic essentials’ stage and realize that much of life is simply trappings, and that a day lived richly is all that is required for a good night’s sleep. I guess the hotelier had come upon this revelation as well.