Awe-inspiring ancient sites of wild western Iran
Leave the bright lights and tourist delights of Esfahan and Shiraz far behind to track down astonishing millennia-old relics among the dusty wilds of ancient Persia. From snow-tipped northern crags to scorching southern deserts, you’ll traverse eroded volcanic plateaus, explore ancient river valleys and pass under the mournful gaze of long-abandoned castles on this intrepid quest for these far-flung treasures (many of which are Unesco listed). An Indiana Jones-inspired hat is optional.
Achingly remote, this atmospheric collection of 1500-year-old ruins lie scattered across a volcanic rim on the desolate badlands west of Zanjan, near the small town of Takab. Once an important Zoroastrian fire temple, Solomon’s Throne was so-named as a local ruse to protect the site from 7th-century Arab invaders. The grounds include a large thermal pond, more evidence of the area’s volcanism, as well as random stone structures in various stages of restoration. The nearby spiky Zendan-e Soleiman (Solomon’s Prison) rewards climbers with a view of a sulphurous crater, and a handful of tiny hot pools simmer in the vicinity.
St Thaddeus and St Bartholomew are thought to have brought Christianity to Armenia and northern Persia in the 1st century AD, and their legacy is three exquisite and remote churches spread across the wild mountainous borderlands of what is now western Iran. Dating from AD 700, these still-important pilgrimage sites have survived earthquakes, wars, capricious dictators and dodgy renovations. The most approachable, St Stephanos, sits in a crumbling red canyon high above the Aras River. While the ornate stone cupolas, exterior engravings and attached cloisters have been restored, the main interior is still a work in progress.
The oldest church, Qareh Kalisa, is also the most complete, and it lies alone on a windswept knoll near the historic battle plain of Chaldoran. Twin turrets tower over intricately carved stonework depicting saints and religious icons, and a summer festival is held here once a year. The intrepid will relish the trip to unearth the third church, tiny Dzor Dzor Chapel, relocated above rising waters of the dammed Zangmar River, some 40 middle-of-nowhere switch-backed kilometres from the fortress town of Maku. Bring a good guide.