Fire has been central to culture in Azerbaijan for hundreds of years, and there’s no better place to experience this than the mesmerizing Ateshgah temple on the edge of Baku
Azerbaijan is known as the Land of Fire – even its name translates as such (azer meaning fire). This is because of the country’s abundant reserves of natural gas, which can create dazzling displays of flames where it seeps out of the earth. Yanar Dag, or Fire Mountain, not far from Baku, is one such spectacle: eternal flames leap and dance from the side of a hill via tiny vents in the rock face, appearing as if by magic.
OK, but where does the temple fit into all this?
It was a temple used for Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion that regards fire as a purifying element and one that represents God’s light, warmth and energy. It was the dominant religion of the region for thousands of years; it still has a small number of adherents. You can make a pilgrimage to the temple – in the quiet town of Surakhani on the Absheron peninsula, about 15km or so from Baku – just as the Indian and Persian Zoroastrians once did, though probably by hire car rather than camel.
So Zoroastrians worshipped fire?
No, they didn’t – that’s a common misconception. But it was integral to all of their religious rituals. A naturally occurring gas vent in the ground once fueled the fire that burns and glows from Ateshgah’s central temple, but the gas is now artificially piped in, since the natural supply here ran out in 1969. This square temple with its open archways dates back to 1713 and is the oldest part of the stonewalled complex, which also includes a caravanserai and other temples.
What happens at the temple these days?
Well, first and foremost, it’s a popular tourist attraction with guides and literature available. The whole complex of buildings including the temple has been a museum since the mid-1970s, and in 1998 it was nominated as a Unesco World Heritage site. And, to bring you right up to date, in April this year President Ilham Aliyev captured the official flame of the Baku 2015 European Games during a special ceremony at Ateshgah, from where it started its journey around the country.
Photography courtesy Baku Magazine
This story appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Baku magazine.