The “Land of Fire” has been burning for 4,000 years

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(CNN) — “This fire has burned for 4,000 years and never stopped,” says Aliyeva Rahila. “Even the rain that comes here, snow, wind — it never stops burning.”

In front of us, great flames dance restlessly over a 10 meter long slope, making a hot day even hotter.

Here Yanar Dag – meaning “burning mountainside” – is on Azerbaijan‘s Absheron Peninsula, where Rahila works as a tour guide.

A side effect of the country’s abundant natural gas reserves, which sometimes surface, Yanar Dag is one of several spontaneously occurring fires that have fascinated and terrified travelers to Azerbaijan over the millennia.

Venetian explorer Marco Polo wrote about the mysterious phenomena while traveling the country in the 13th century. Other Silk Road traders brought news of the flames as they wished travell to other countries.

That is why the country has earned the nickname “Land of Fire”.

ancient religion

Such fires were once plentiful in Azerbaijan, but because they reduced underground gas pressure and disrupted commercial gas production, 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 dating back to the first millennium BC. in Azerbaijan flourished.

For Zoroastrians, fire is a link between humans and the supernatural world and a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom can be gained. It is cleansing, life-sustaining, and an essential part of worship.

Today, most visitors who visit the no-frills Yanar Dag Visitor Center come for the spectacle rather than the religious fulfillment.

The experience is most impressive at night or in winter. When snow falls, the flakes dissipate into the air without ever touching the ground, Rahila says.

Despite the claimed age of the Yanar Dag flames — some argue this particular fire may have been lit as late as the 1950s — it’s a long 30-minute drive north of central Baku just to see it. The center only offers a small café and otherwise there is not much in the area.

Ateshgah Fire Temple

For a deeper insight into Azerbaijan’s history of fire worship, visitors should head east of Baku to the Ateshgah Fire Temple.

“They have thought so since ancient times [their] God is here,” says our guide as we enter the pentagonal complex built by Indian settlers in Baku in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Fire rituals at this site date back to the 10th century or earlier. The name Ateshgah comes from Persian and means “home of fire”. The centerpiece of the complex is a domed altar shrine built on top of a natural gas well.

A natural, eternal flame burned here on the central altar until 1969, but nowadays the fire is fed by Baku’s main gas supply and lit for visitors only.

The temple is associated with Zoroastrianism, but as a Hindu place of worship, its history is better documented.

merchants and ascetics

Built like a traveller, in the caravanserai style, the complex features a walled courtyard surrounded by 24 cells and rooms.

These were used in various ways by pilgrims, passing merchants (whose donations were an important source of income) and resident ascetics, some of whom subjected themselves to torture, e.g. B. lying on caustic quicklime, wearing heavy chains or holding one arm in one position for years at 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 worship of Mammon was increasing.

The complex became a museum in 1975, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 and now welcomes around 15,000 visitors annually. The “Land of Fire” has been burning for 4,000 years

Chris Estrada

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