Less than a week ago I landed back at “home” in the United States from my whirlwind two week trip to The Land of Fire– Azerbaijan. I was selected along with nine other American students as a winner of a national essay contest sponsored by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Youth and Sport and received a twelve day, all expenses paid trip to Azerbaijan. I would like to share my wonderful good fortune and help those who have not yet visited the incredible country to understand life there little bit better, but as there are already a few posts on the subject, I will refer you to “Impressions of an American High School student in Baku” by Matthew Miller and “An Azerbaijani American in Baku” by Farzin Farzad for an overview on the subject. Instead, in this short series I will share with you a few stories from my trip that I think offer some insight into the untamed mystery and boundless intrigue that I experienced over the past two weeks in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan- Land of Fire, right? The epithet is frequently used in tourism ad campaigns and YouTube videos, but many people are unfamiliar with its roots. The name Azerbaijan is thought to be derived from ancient Persian meaning guardian/protector of fire. Fire has long held a central place in Azerbaijan’s culture due to the naturally occurring flames in some areas caused by powerful underground gas vents. The ancient people of Greater Iran followed the Zoroastrian faith and worshipped the natural fires of Azerbaijan going back as far as the first millennium BC. Zoroastrianism is a fascinating practice, and Azerbaijan is often quickly associated with it in light conversation, but I really did not know much about the religion and its ties to the country until I visited Ateshgah Fire Temple in Baku. The temple itself has been mostly rebuilt as a replica of the original, a slightly disappointing trend I saw in a large number of exhibits in the country, but was still an imposing structure. It had lots of open spaces, arches, and walls like fortifications. Mannequins of ancient fire worshipping pilgrims (unsettling, to be honest) were set up in some of the rooms built into the temple’s walls. Manmade gas-lit fires were also laid out where natural fires once burned in order to give visitors a picture of the temple when it was active.
What really struck me about the temple was that it was abandoned so recently, in 1883, after an earthquake snuffed the natural fires which the Zoroastrians took as a sign that their god’s favor had turned against the spot. While America was fighting its Civil War, fire was being worshipped as a divine revelation on the oh-so-remote Absheron Peninsula. The word “ancient” always seems to be used in discussions of Zoroastrianism in Azerbaijan, but in fact the traditions there died out not so long ago. Another interesting fact I learned is that Zoroastrians were vegetarians! Instead of sacrificing animals they sacrificed fruits, with the pomegranate being the most holy as its deep red and spiked crown are reminiscent of flame.
A few of us took the opportunity to create a little Nowruz celebration. Nowruz is an extremely popular holiday in Azerbaijan that is derived from Zoroastrian traditions. The holiday celebrates the coming of spring and traditionally, as a recognition of Nowruz’ fire-worshipping past, every Tuesday for four weeks prior to the holiday children jump over small bonfires and candles are lit. So we picked the biggest bonfire, blazing in the center of the temple, joined hands, and, channeling through us the centuries of tradition and faith in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Baku, and this very temple, leaped over the flames.