Takht-e Soleyman doesn’t look like much. Not these days anyway. It’s mostly just rubble, the barely recognisable foundations of an ancient city, set high in the mountains, in West Azerbaijan Province in northern Iran. For a thousand years or more though it was one of the holiest and most important sanctuaries of Zoroastrianism. Its fire temple contained Ādur Gušnasp, one of the three great fires of Zoroastrianism, thought to have existed since the start of time.
No fire here now, just the ruined remnants of the city. Somewhere, somehow, it all went wrong for the Zoroastrians.
Nowadays people tend to think of Zoroastrianism as a minority religion. And in terms of numbers (there are only 190,000 hereditary adherents left) they are right. But in its day it was the most powerful religion in the world. It was the religion of the Achaemenid kings of Persia (as detailed in the inscriptions at Bisotun), and it remained in favour in Persia for the next thousand years, through till the end of the Sasanian empire. At its zenith it had tens of millions of followers.
It was also the first major religion to believe there was just a single god (all the earlier large-scale religions believed in a pantheon of gods), and much of its structure, subject matter, and basic principles were incorporated into Judaism and the other Abrahamic religions (i.e. Christianity and Islam) – although followers of these faiths obviously refute such claims.
A little on Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrians pray at fire temples. It’s one of the few things the general public knows about the religion and it has led to the widespread misunderstanding that Zoroastrians are fire worshippers. They aren’t.
Zoroastrians follow the words of the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), who delivered the wisdoms of their god, Ahura Mazda. Zoroaster describes Ahura Mazda as the beginning and the end, the creator of everything that can and cannot be seen, the Eternal, the Pure and the only Truth. Sound familiar?
Zoroastrians think fire is a representation of God. They call it the original light of God, and view it as a medium through which spiritual enlightenment is achieved. This is why they build fire temples, and it’s why each temple maintains a permanent flame.
The foremost axiom of Zoroastrianism is good thoughts, good words, good deeds; the idea being that those who lead good lives will be happy and complete.
In terms of influencing the Abrahamic religions, Zoroastrianism was the first major religion to come up with the notion of a heaven and hell scenario. It was the first to propose the idea of there being a devil who is evil incarnate. It was also the first to proclaim that a messiah would show up one day and save all the faithful. And it was the first to declare there would be a final battle between good and evil just before the world ends (i.e. judgement day).
They also widely popularised the use of temples as a place of worship, and wore caps on their heads at all times – a practice that is thought to have subsequently found its way into Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam.
The Zoroastrian sanctuary of Takht-e Soleyman
The royal sanctuary of Takht-e Soleyman is built upon a huge, round, naturally-elevated platform (about 500 metres by 300 metres in size). At the centre of the platform is a lake, whose still, dark waters are fed by a fast-flowing aquifer – it pumps out an even 90 litres per second. The lake is unquestionably what drew people here in the first place; unfortunately it is loaded with minerals and unfit for human consumption.
The site has been a Zoroastrian temple since the times of the Achaemenid Empire, but the royal sanctuary (the remains of which can be seen at the site today, and which once included multiple temple complexes, ceremonial halls and chambers, and the royal quarters) wasn’t built until the Sasanian Empire (224 to 651 CE).
The royal sanctuary was enclosed by 13 metre high walls. Atop the walls were 38 defensive bastions, and there were only two entrance gates. But it wasn’t enough to stop the Byzantine army who attacked, conquered, and destroyed the city in 627 CE.
The name Takht-e Soleyman, which means Throne of Solomon, does not relate to Zoroastrianism. It’s a title that was given to the site following the Arab conquest of Iran in the mid 7th Century CE. Prior to this the sanctuary was known as Azar Goshnasp, meaning Fire of the Warrior Kings.
Three kilometres from Takht-e Soleyman is a small volcano known as Zendan-e Soleyman (Prison of Soleyman – legend has it the Hebrew king, Solomon, imprisoned demons inside its crater). On the upper slopes of Zendan-e Soleyman are the remains of several temples that precede Zoroastrianism, some of which date back to the 1st Millennium BCE.
Zoroastrianism wasn’t the first religion to be practised at Takht-e Soleyman. And while it was the first major monotheistic religion, that doesn’t mean it was entirely original either. It too borrowed from earlier religions, including the religions of ancient Babylonia, Akkadia, and Sumeria.
Zoroastrianism was an extremely successful and powerful religion for a thousand years or more; it was a religion of tolerance that respected the existence of alternate religions, and it didn’t evangelise. The religions that came after it weren’t so tolerant, and preaching to and converting the great unwashed (by force if necessary) was one of their core objectives. Zoroastrianism never stood a chance.
Practical information for reaching Takht-e Soleyman:
Takht-e Soleyman is 140 kilometres from the city of Zanjan (Zanjan is 340 kilometres northwest of Tehran). It takes about 2.5 hours to drive between Zanjan and Takht-e Soleyman.
It isn’t possible to get to the site via public transport. Catching a bus to Zanjan, then hiring a car (and driver) for the day is the most practical way to get there.
Read more on Takht-e Soleyman in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.