This month we explore Baku’s ‘Fire Temple’, a religious hub which has been revered by Zoroastrians, Hindus and tourists alike
For time immemorial, Azerbaijan has been known as the ‘land of sacred fire’, and it is easy to see why: the nation boasts a myriad natural gas mountain blazes and the term ‘Azer’ itself translates to ‘fire’. Azerbaijan has even made it into legend, for, according to the Greek myth, Prometheus’ punishment for stealing this element from the Gods was to be chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains for eternity.
It is unsurprising, then, that fire has played a prominent role in Azerbaijan’s history. Most famous of all is the Baku Ateshgah, more commonly known as the ‘Fire Temple’. Built in the 18th century by Baku’s Hindu community, it was dedicated to their goddess Jwala Ji (whose physical manifestation is, you guessed, it, flames). However, the natural gas vent on which it stands had already been sacred to Zoroastrians for centuries.
The walls of this complex are pentagonal, encircling an inner courtyard surrounded by what used to be monks’ cells. There are decorative castellations (parapets), a striking entryway and – in the centre of the quad – a flaming stone temple/altar, which once spat natural fire from an oil vent below. Nowadays, this hearth is fuelled by Baku’s main gas supply, yet the mystical appeal of this seemingly inextinguishable fire still stands.
Russian architect Anna Kreneva, who took this evocative snapshot, explains that her job (she specializes in urban planning) was a major reason for deciding to visit the site. “I wanted to learn more about how cities like Baku have developed,” she says. “I am interested in how and why their religious monuments attracted people”. The Baku Ateshgah interested her in particular, as she found its “multi-religious element and unusual natural phenomenon fascinating.”
For Kreneva, this photograph immediately jumped out at her when she scrolled back through her camera reel. “The perspective of the archway and the stark contrast between the dark tunnel and undying flame is mesmerising,” she says. “I think it really brings out the spirit of the country, particularly Azerbaijani passion and the temper of its winds.”
Photography by Anna Kreneva
Words by Henry Ludlam-Steinke