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“This fire has been going on for 4,000 years and has never stopped,” says Aliyeva Rahila. “Even the rain that comes here, the snow, the wind, it never stops burning.”
Ahead of us, tall flames dance incessantly across a 10-meter stretch of hill, making the hot day even hotter.
This is Yanar Dag – meaning “burning mountain” – on the Absheron Peninsula in Azerbaijan, where Rahila works as a tour guide.
A side effect of the country’s abundant natural gas reserves, which sometimes escape to the surface, the Yanar Dag is one of many wildfires that have fascinated and frightened travelers to Azerbaijan over the millennia.
Venetian explorer Marco Polo wrote about the mysterious phenomena when he passed through the country in the 13th century. Other Silk Road merchants brought news of the flames as they traveled to other lands.
This is why the country has earned the nickname “land of fire”.
Such fires were once numerous in Azerbaijan, but because they led to a reduction in gas pressure underground, interfering with commercial gas extraction, most have been extinguished.
Yanar Dag is one of the few remaining examples and perhaps the most impressive.
They once played a key role in the ancient Zoroastrian religion, founded in Iran and flourishing in Azerbaijan in the first millennium BC
For Zoroastrians, fire is a link between humans and the supernatural world and a means through which spiritual insight and wisdom can be gained. It is cleansing, life-sustaining, and a vital part of worship.
Today, most visitors who come to the no-frills Yanar Dag visitor 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 into the air without ever touching the ground, Rahila explains.
Despite the supposed antiquity of the Yanar Dag flames – some argue that this particular fire may have been lit as recently as the 1950s – it requires a long 30-minute drive north from central Baku just to see it. The center offers only a small bar and there isn’t much else in the area.
For a more in-depth look at the history of fire worship in Azerbaijan, visitors should head east of Baku to the Ateshgah Fire Temple.
“Since ancient times, they have thought so [their] God is here,” says our guide, as we enter the pentagonal complex that was built in the 17th and 18th centuries by Indian settlers in Baku.
Fire rituals at this site date back to the 10th century or earlier. The name Ateshgah comes from the Persian for “house of fire,” and the centerpiece of the complex is a domed altar, built over a natural gas vent.
A natural, eternal flame burned here on the central altar until 1969, but nowadays the fire is powered by Baku’s main gas network and is lit only for visitors.
The temple is associated with Zoroastrianism but it is as a place of Hindu worship that its history is best documented.
Merchants and ascetics
Built as a caravanserai-style travelers’ inn, the complex has a walled courtyard surrounded by 24 cells and rooms.
These were variously used by pilgrims, passing merchants (whose donations were a vital source of income), and resident ascetics, some of whom subjected themselves to tests such as lying on caustic quicklime, wearing heavy chains, or holding an arm in one position for years. in the end.
The temple fell into disuse as a place of worship in the late 19th century, at a time when the development of the surrounding oil fields meant that the veneration of Mammon was gaining ever more traction.
The complex became a museum in 1975, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 and today welcomes around 15,000 visitors a year.