My colleague Gibet and I decided that we wanted to see some of Baku so we arranged a car and driver for a day and headed out to the Ateshgyakh – the “Fire Worshippers’ Temple” of Baku. Azerbaijan is famous for its oil and gas reserves. Long before they were exploited for commercial purposes, the fires played important roles in religious ceremonies.
Zoroastrianism is a religion with deep roots in this part of the world, particularly in Persia (modern day Iran). They believed in the four elements – fire, air, earth and water – and fire placed a central part in many of their rituals. The Apsheron Penninsula, where Baku is located, had flaming torches of gas escaping from under the ground and burning in many places, so it was considered to be a very holy place. Pilgrims came from all over to worship at temples in the area. Fire worshipers prayed to fire in the belief that it would protect them, bring prosperity, and do away with their sins.
There is some debate as the origins of Ateshgyakh. The consensus seems to be that it was built by Indian fire worshippers in the 17th-18th Century. It is built much like a caravanserai wherein there is a large open central courtyard and ‘cells’ around the perimeter where people could stay. In the centre of the courtyard stood the temple itself, which is a square building. The ‘eternal’ fire burned in the centre of the temple, and at each corner flames were vented out through the roof representing the four elements. Adjacent to it was a pit where bones of the dead were burned.
It was regularly visited by Indian traders and caravans, until the mid-19th century when the fire went out. Probably in part because of the commercial exploitation of the gas fields in the area. The entire natural gas reserves in the area were depleted so in 1969 the flame went out for good – at least until it was connected to the Baku main gas supply which feeds it today.
We hired a guide to escort us the complex and she led us around through the different cells which had been built by different pilgrims. Some of them had inscriptions in Farsi and Sanskrit above the doors, as did the temple itself.
The temple was used by Hindu/Sikhs and they had a number of displays, complete with life sized mannequins showing the different types of rituals. These were pained very, very dark brown and I pointed out to Gibet that the Brahman priests were often as fair as we are. One fellow was wearing some 20 kg of chains and the guide explained that these were used to accelerate your death: they considered it fortuitous to die in such a holy place.
It was fascinating to see the paintings and drawings by early visitors, with the temple ceremonies under way, although by the time of photography in the mid-19th century it was obvious that the place had seen much better days. I found the skyline from those early photographs quite interesting: today all one sees is a horizon of buildings and oil rigs.
As we finished our tour I asked our guide if she could suggest a friend who could take us on a tour of the Old City. She walked over to the proprietor of the gift shop and after brief negotiations we had our new guide. We waited while he closed up the shop and then headed out to look at a “Castle of Abserhon”.
During the 12th/13th centuries the locals built a large number of sandstone defensive structures across the peninsula, to protect their saffron, oil, salt, and other resources from foreign invaders. Most were small castles with round towers, but some were more substantial with square towers. We visited one of the latter in Markadan village.
Finding the castle was a challenge. We could see it from afar, but the narrow roads and dead end streets resulted in quite a few mis-turns, in spite of asking the locals for directions. It was worth the effort as once we entered the yard there was the impressive structure looming above us. The fellow in charge of the mosque opened it up and we went in for a visit.
Around the base of the tower there were large pits which were used to store victuals during summer and winter. The main building itself was surprisingly small, and although there were some 5 floors, it would not have held a lot of people.
Originally, there were no stairs, just a temporary ladder which would be retracted in the event of an attack. However, stairs had been cut into the walls and we made our way up. Not only were they very steep, but it was PITCH black. We could only see in places thanks to the light from people’s cell phones and the small LED torch of our guide.
Once we reached the top were rewarded with a great view heading off to the Caspian sea in the distance. We could see another tower near us and the guide later showed us where an underground tunnel had been built so that people could escape between the two towers.
We then went for relatively long drive to ‘Fire Mountain’. I was thinking that this was a bit of a waste of time but I’m glad I didn’t voice my concerns as it was absolutely amazing. On the way we passed the typical Baku countryside: oil pipelines lying across the land with many oil pumps and old equipment as far as the eye can see.
It is called ‘Fire Mountain’ because (a) it is a hill and (b) there is fire that comes out of the ground. I can see why the ancients called this the land of fire and could worship it. There is nothing stranger than seeing flames coming out of the ground and burning continuously.
It was so hot that we could not get closer than about 2 metres. I couldn’t stand there one moment longer when the photo below was take …. However, a cat was nestled near the steps enjoying the heat, much as our cats do in winter in New Zealand with our fireplace!
So Azerbaijan really is the land of fire … Gibet and I resolved to return for a winter picnic to this site. It really is one of the most unique things I have even seen.