Azerbaijan: Ateshgar Fire Temple and the Yaner Dag Burning Hillside

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. 

Ateshgar Fire Temple

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.

The sacred flames

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. 

Modern Industrial wastleland near the Fire temple

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.

Roadside fruit seller on the way to Yanar Dag

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.

Sandra at the Yanar Dag teahouse

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.

Firey Hillside at Yanar Dag

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. 

I couldn't resist snapping this old soviet era car we saw on our way to Baku

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…

Representation of the Fire Temple during its glory days

 All photos by Steve Hollier, 2010

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About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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9 Responses to Azerbaijan: Ateshgar Fire Temple and the Yaner Dag Burning Hillside

  1. Great article and photos, Steve!

  2. Rauf says:

    welcome to Azerbaijan)))

  3. Pingback: A Salute To Steve Hollier | Azerbaijan Days

  4. Pingback: Our salute to Steve Hollier « Hugh Paxton's Blog

  5. Ahmed says:

    Dear Steve,

    Thank you for such a nice publication about one of the miracles of Azerbaijan !!

  6. Shannon says:

    I love what you guys are up too. This kind of clever work
    and coverage! Keep up the superb works guys I’ve added you
    guys to blogroll.

  7. Pingback: Travel to Azerbaijan - Episode 382 - Amateur Traveler Travel Podcast

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