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Masjid-e Solaiman


Masjid-e Solaiman ("Solomon's Mosque"): ancient town in southwestern Iran.

Frankly, I do not know what the monumental terrace at Masjid-e Solaiman is. On the site, you can see several walls of piled up stones ("cyclopean walls"), which are dated before the ancient Persians started to build more regular walls, like the Tall-i Takht at Pasargadae.

Because Pasargadae was founded by the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great (559-530), it seems reasonable to date the terrace of Masjid-e Solaiman in the first half of the sixth century, but this is just a guess. There's a local tradition that says that this is the place where Cyrus was born as the son of a local ruler named Cambyses; but this tradition can be a later invention.

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Statue of Heracles with a lion. Archaeological museum of Susa (Iran). Photo Marco Prins.
Anyhow, the terrace is usually interpreted as a religious monument, but we should be honest: when archaeologists don't know what they have discovered, they always say that it has religious connotations. On the other hand, near Masjid-e Solaiman are large oil wells and it is not a wild idea that the ancients venerated a place where natural gases seeped from the soil. Delphi and the Chimaera are obvious parallels.

Besides, at a later stage in history, there were temples indeed. The remains of a Parthian sanctuary have been identified in the center of the platform. On a nearby hill, a Hellenistic temple with several rooms was discovered; there was also a statue of Heracles with a lion.

This may be a Greek interpretation of a local cult, because this type of representation is well-known from the ancient Near East. For example, similar reliefs have been excavated at Khorsabad, one of the capitals of ancient Assyria. It is sometimes identified with the legendary hero Gilgameš of Uruk, but may have represented any other Near-Eastern dragon-slayer. 

All this leads one to the conclusion that Masjid-e Solaiman is a sanctuary, built by a legendary Achaemenid ruler like Cambyses, Ariaramnes, or Arsames. It is interesting to note that "Solaiman names" were usually given to Zoroastrian religious buildings after the Arabian conquest of Iran, which may or may not corroborate the identification of the site as a sanctuary.

On the other hand, the terrace walls are very strong and there seem to have been towers or bastions. This would of cours suggest a primarily military function. Another argument for this interpretation is that it is likely that Alexander the Great, when he wanted to attack the Persian gate in the winter of 331/330, had to besiege a large citadel before he could proceed. This may have been Masjid-e Solaiman.

The picture to the left shows the remains of one of the towers.

Near the terrace is a very steep, defensible hill. All this suggests that Masjid-e Solaiman was a fort. More excavations are no longer possible, because a part of the terrace is now used as a cemetery.

But why does a fort have a majestic flight of stairs like the one on the photo to the left? It is not the only staircase. Or are these stairs a later addition? We don't know and Masjid-e Solaiman is still a mystery. A case can be made for a religious interpretation, but the towers remain puzzling. We will probably only find the solution when similar, early platforms are discovered.

For the time being, the platform has been put to a good use by the boys from the nearby school, who use the terrace to play soccer.

Finally, some bits and pieces from the Parthian age. To the left, two column bases. (The second figure resembles the Greek warrior goddess Athena.) The third picture shows a lovely capital of a column. All these finds, plus the Heracles-with-lion above, are  now at the Archaeological Museum of Susa

To the right, finally, a figurine from the British Museum, discovered in Masjid-e Solaiman and almost certainly representing the Heracles-like hero we already encountered.

To the left, a photo of the landscape.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2005
Revision: 30 June 2009
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