A City on a Hill

UNESCO World Heritage Site Monument

The great wonder of wander in the world is stumbling into the physical wonders themselves. The idea of taking a sojourn to see the marvellous creations of civilization is a relatively new thing on this planet.  People didn’t rush out in droves to see the Pyramids or Ephesus until very recently. For instance, the people living around the great cliff buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan (destroyed by the Taliban), went there centuries ago for religious reasons, not to look up at them as monuments of human activity. The popular desire to see artifacts of significance has come with modernity.  In this sense the need to catalogue, protect, and make available to the world certain sites is also very recent. Our travels through Central Asia, and in particular Iran, enlightened us as to not just the sites of interest, but the global reach of UNESCO and the work it does through its World Heritage Program since its inception in 1972.  One site, Takht-e Soleyman, is an splendid example of this.

Crater Spring inside Takht-e Soleyman

One of the benefits of travel in Central Asia (I place Iran in this region) is the general lack of crowds at special sites.  Takht-e Soleyman, located quite some distance from any significant town, proved no exception. The ancient ruins lie on a flat top hill – much like a mesa in the American west (“Takht” translates as “board” or “flat surface”), surrounded by more hills and mountains. On this spring day the ordinarily dry hillsides were everywhere green. The natural feature of this hilltop, a natural spring emanating from a deep and  long dormant volcano, gave reason for the fortress city. Though significantly reduced by time, the ancient seat of power looked quite impressive in the late afternoon sun. Outside the city gate, UNESCO had placed a large information board explaining its history. Inside the gate it is easy to grasp the magnitude of Takht-e Soleyman and what it might have been like at its peak. Several Iranian visitors immediately gravitated to us, curious as to where we were from – and delighted to discover we were Americans.  Using my Persian, we conversed without too much difficulty.

“New York?” they said, amazed. “We are happy to meet you! New York is the best city!”

“No,” I responded. “Tehran is the best city!” And we laughed, and talked, and took photographs of each other.

No Monsters Here

No Monsters Here

In the cooling late afternoon sun, wrapped in Woolx, we wandered through old walls, down into underground alleyways, along the clear, cold pond around which the fortress city had built itself. Wiki will tell you monsters were kept in the underground caverns by King Solomon (Soleyman). We had hopes, but found none. With or without monsters, UNESCO chose well. Takht-e Soleyman, alone in the vast Iranian high plains, offers no trinkets, no postcards, no food. What it does offer is a chance to imagine the past without the close attachment of modernity. Hurrah for that.