What more natural religion can there be than one which has at its centre the worship of elemental forces? What more elemental force can there be than fire? What to make of a land where fire erupts continually from the ground? Surely, it is miraculous? Surely it is holy? So thought the 13th century Zoroastrians or Hindu worshipers who built the first temple at Ateshgar.
Natural gas venting through the stony ground of the Absheron peninsula, accidentally ignited in prehistoric times may have been the prosaic beginning of fire worship in Azerbaijan but it was in 18th Century that Indian merchants built the current impressive fire temple at Ateshgar just outside of Baku.
Unsurprisingly, just beyond the temple precincts lie some of the world’s first commercial oil wells, dug in the 1860’s. Surrounding this atmospheric site lies a wasteland of oil fields, nodding-donkeys and all the detritus of an ex-soviet industrial landscape. Fortunately, the temple is surrounded by a high precinct wall, preserving the spiritual atmosphere of the site. Within, are numerous cells were where worshippers slept, prayed or convalesced during their stay.
Even today on the Vernal equinox [21st March], you will find devotees of Zoroastrianism crowding the temple, performing ritual purification and giving thanks; or so said our enthusiastic guide who lectured us on every aspect of the religion. She brought us to order by demanding “your attention is required” if we tried to take a photograph or look at something other than the object under scrutiny.
It is an amazing sight, even if the last Priest was forced to sell the rights to oil and gas lying beneath the temple in 1879 to the Baku Oil Company, who considered burning off the gas for religious purposes an “uneconomic waste of resources”… By 1881, the flares at the temple were exhausted and the flames we see today are thanks to gas, piped in for the benefit of tourists like ourselves.
We decided to find out what Ateshgar might have looked life before the first temple was built, so drove several kilometers to the East where outside the village of Mammedli, you will find the very basic Yaner Dag teahouse. Behind it rises a hillside, wreathed in flame. Fire appears to come straight out of the limestone crags that rises several meters before giving way to the rough pasture beyond.
It was here in 1958 that a local shepherd discarded the cigarette that ignited gas seeping through the rock and ever since, it has leaked and burned, creating an image worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.
We sat on a bench by the flames for half-an-hour, drinking green tea, eating home preserved cherries, thinking what a wild place this would be for an after-dark party.
Oh yes, I forgot the mention that for a brief time [according to orientalist Essad Bey], the Ateshgar site was home to a weird pantheist religion, in which reverence to mother earth was symbolised by kissing the breasts of naked female devotees. I feel a religious revival coming on…
All photos by Steve Hollier, 2010