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 Soleyman, the spiritual center of Zoroastrianism, and on to Takab for the night, a minuscule town less than a hundred miles from the Iraqi border.
Takht-e Soleyman, the center of Zoroastrianism during the Sassanid period (224 AD – 638 AD), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most unforgettable 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 Soleyman seem to feel just that bit closer to God; the sun-kissed ruins resonating with timeless sacredness. The nearby Zendan-e Soleyman 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 walls of the cone. And in the end, doubly glad to be alive. ❤
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,” as my assailant called it. 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 west. I felt I had befriended everything in life in the space of a single day—nature, humanity, God, and myself.
It is now late in the night and the whole town is asleep. My room in the only hotel in Takab is like a little nunnery cell. 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.
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Note: I travelled to Iran in October 2007 for two weeks. Iran has been one of my most memorable travels to date. I am republishing the series comprising 10 posts till this mid-June. Refreshing my personal memories. This is the third post in the series—on Takht-e Soleyman, the epicentre of Zoroastrianism, and Takab, a small town near the Iraqi border. Hope you enjoy the read. 🙂