A MYSTERIOUS FIRE-TEMPLE HIGH IN THE ZAGROS MOUNTAINS OF IRAN
Archaeologist John Tidmarsh writes about one of his favourite sites in Iran, the little visited fire temple of Takht-i Suleiman
High in the Zagros mountains, that vast limestone range running some 1,600 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 1,000 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 due to the demand for wood and the growing of crops), 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. 8,000–4,000 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—many of which are higher than 4,000 metres—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 yellows, browns, and mauves) we pass through numerous villages (many Kurdish or Turkic speaking) that have changed little through the millennia. On the roofs of their mud-brick houses, tucked within small courtyards protected by high featureless
As we travel through the Zagros today... we pass through numerous villages (many Kurdish or Turkic speaking) that have changed little through the millennia
walls, we see large mounds of chaff drying out for the winter months when it will be used to feed the small herds of snow-bound 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 where 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 Zoroastrianism 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-