Just imagine being Marco Polo visiting strange and wonderful lands all along the Silk Road. The amazing things he saw surely shocked the average European and left many people skeptical of his writings. His first glimpse of Azerbaijan’s Fire Mountain had to be quite the sight for him; it’s one of those places you have to see to believe. Even then, you may not believe your eyes. This hillside is indeed on fire and it’s been burning for a long time, although the fire is not as large as it used to be. Still, it has been burning for centuries. Because of this and other fires fueled by abundant natural gas stores, Azerbaijan is known as the “Land of Fire.” When Marco Polo showed up and Baku was in what was then Persian territory, he made note of mysterious flames all over the Abseron Peninsula. There are still enormous natural gas reserves underground fueling fires all around the country. Many have gone out over the centuries, but the fires at Yanar Dag (Burning Mountain) remain very impressive. There are even streams in the area that can be ignited on the surface with just the flick of a match. The natural gas seeps right through the porous sandstone and up to the surface. Makes me nervous when people light a cigarette.
The presence of the seemingly eternal flames dovetails nicely with the Zorastrian religion. The Zorastrians, followers of the ancient religion having originated in Persia around 700-800 BCE, have a real affinity for fire. It’s a strong component of Zorastrianism; the believers revere fire as a sacred element and believe that it purifies and heals. Yanar Dag is actually an important pilgrimage site for the followers of Zorastrianism. They go there to seek a closer relationship with the divine. Along with fire, Zorastrians also consider holy the elements of water, earth, and air.
The Baku Fire Temple at Ateshgah, which means “Home of Fire,” is not far from Yanar Dag. It was built between the late 17th century and early 18th century over a natural gas vent so that the fire would burn eternally. There is actually evidence to suggest that, before the current temple was constructed, there was another temple in the same location, possibly in the seventeenth century, if not earlier. There is reason to believe that the Zorastrians have considered the site sacred since the sixth century. A debate continues as to whether the temple was constructed by the Hindus or by the Zorastrians since the architecture employs elements of both religions. There are inscriptions in the current temple to Hindu gods as well as inscriptions dedicated by Sikhs. Oddly enough, there is only one Zoroastrian inscription at the temple, but it is clear that the temple was shared by the three different religions.
The Indian population of Azerbaijan declined around the end of the nineteenth century and the temple was abandoned, possibly due to this decrease in the number of Indians in the area. Still, other faithful continued to make the pilgrimage. However, the site slowly became more of a tourist attraction to Europeans than pilgrimage site and by 1975, it was converted to a museum. In 1969, during extensive renovations, the eternal flame went out because of heavy natural gas exploitation in the area during the Soviet rule from the early 1920s to the early 1990s. Now the eternal flame is kept alive thanks to a main gas line from the Baku gas company and it’s only eternal during business hours. I’ll admit that it loses some of its mysticism when that cat gets out of the bag, but it is still a nicely preserved, impressive temple.