Azerbaijan: The Land of Eternal Fire

Come rain, come snow, the fire keeps burning. For over 4,000 years it has never stopped burning. Across a 10-meter stretch of hillside, tall flames dance restlessly make a hot day even hotter.

Rahila worked as a tour guide, she says “This is Yanar Dag — meaning “burning mountainside” — on Azerbaijan’s Absheron Peninsula,”

The flames are a result of the country’s plentiful natural gas reserves, which sometimes leaks to the surface. Yanar Dag is one of several spontaneously occurring fires to have fascinated and frightened travelers to Azerbaijan over the millennia.

Marco Polo the Venetian explorer wrote about the mysterious phenomena when he passed through the country in the 13th century. Other silk road merchants talked about news of the flames as they traveled to other lands.

This led to the country earning the moniker the ‘land of fire’.

Ancient Religion

Fires such as this were once plentiful in Azerbaijan, because they led to a reduction of pressure underground, interfering with commercial gas extraction, most have been snuffed out.

Yanar Dag is one of the few remaining examples, and so far the most impressive.

At one time they played a key role in the ancient Zoroastrian religion. It was founded in Iran and flourished in Azerbaijan in the first millennium BCE.

For Zoroastrians, it serves as a link between humans and the supernatural world, also a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom are gained. It is purifying and a sustaining and vital part of worship.

Most visitors today who arrive at the no-frills Yanar Dag visitors’ center come for the spectacle rather than religious fulfillment. The experience is most impressive at night, or in winter. When snow falls, the flakes dissolve in the air without ever touching the ground, says Rahila.

For a visitor who may wish to visit the fire temple to get a deeper insight into Azerbaijan’s history of worship. Visitors to the land of fire must head east of Baku to Ateshgah Fire Temple.

“Since ancient times, they think that [their] god is here,” says our guide, as we enter the pentagonal complex which was built in the 17th and 18th centuries by Indian settlers in Baku.

The temple fell out of use as a place of worship in the late 19th century. A time when the development of the surrounding oil fields meant that veneration of Mammon was gaining a stronger hold. The complex became a museum in 1975, was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, and today welcomes around 15,000 visitors a year.

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