It soon becomes clear to me why Azerbaijan means “Land of Fire”. The country is endowed with an abundance of natural gas and oil – so much so that the stuff oozes out of the ground. In the modern age, that’s a blessing, but before the Industrial age and the insatiable thirst for mineral fuel, all that oily goo was a nuisance.
Not for nothing was Azerbaijan the supplier of more than half the global oil supply in the early part of the twentieth century. The first mechanical oil well in the world was sunk in Azerbaijan. Oil barons became fabulously wealthy – including the Nobel Brothers, one of whom, Alfred Nobel, lives on for the prestigious prizes that bear his name.
Oil & Fire
Oil derricks and wells litter the countryside for as far as the eye can see, in the country of the Absheron peninsula where much of the oil is located. The aspect is indeed bleak, being barren and largely shorn of vegetation, but what it lacks in natural beauty, it more than makes up for in mineral wealth. Oil and natural gas are so abundant that a town is named after an oily swamp where camels get bogged down in. Early travellers noted that it could be dangerously easy to ignite a long-burning fire in this land from natural gas seepage.
On a hillside on the outskirts of Baku, there is a natural gas fire that has been burning for as long as anyone can remember. Called Yanar Dag, it continues to burn today with undiminished gusto from natural gas emanations from the hillside. Up close, the smell of gas is evident. Fire, as a motif, has more than one meaning in Azerbaijan – early religions practiced fire worship. This becomes quickly apparent in the Atashgah Temple, a castle-like complex outside Baku. Restored and declared a State Historical-Architectural Reserve by the government, the complex was a temple and a retreat for hermits and holy men. Fires, ignited by natural gas flows, were the spiritual life of the complex.
Inscriptions on stone tablets in Sanskrit and Persian script testify to its importance to both Hindus and Zoroastrians in centuries past. A series of rooms surrounds the outer courtyard of the complex, with fire altars in the middle, and the remnants of a Hindu cremation site in the courtyard. Today, visitors to the complex witness fires lit by a piped supply of gas. The rooms carry exhibits reimagining the life of those times: of hermits and religious ceremonies centered on the holy flame. A Hindu Ganesh statue, looking totally out of place in Azerbaijan, graces one of the rooms, while the symbols of Zoroastrianism, the world’s oldest living monotheistic religion, can be seen in numerous displays.
Azerbaijan is an ancient land, settled by people millennia ago. The climate was very different then. Being warmer and wetter, the vegetation was lush and the country was fertile and rich with wildlife. An hour away from Baku, is the UNESCO Heritage listed Gobustan site, where there is stark and remarkable evidence of human activity and habitation. Here, amidst a tumble of rocks and boulders, are ravines and caves where humans took shelter thousands of years ago, leaving their imprint for scholars to study in the 20th century.
Thousands of petroglyphs or rock carvings bear testimony to thriving communities over an astonishing span of 40,000 years. Simple human figures, and scenes of hunting, fishing, domestic life and animals decorate the rocks – evidence of sustained human activity over an extended period. There are also artefacts of daily life, such as shallow pools with overflow channels cut into the rock to collect rainwater. It is difficult to imagine that there was a thriving community of people living in this complex of ravines, boulders and caves, for the site is now barren.
Baku, the capital of Azerbijan, is something of an exception with abundance and lushness in the country. The name which roughly means “windy”, is testimony to the strong winds in the city. Baku is sited on the bay of the Caspian Sea, the largest body of enclosed water in the world. The elevation of the city is low, and Baku sits approximately 100 meters below sea level.
It is a modern oasis: manicured lawns, smooth-top multilane highways, avenues lined by trees, and modern, showy architecture, flaunting the wealth brought by being in the right location, above natural gas and oil reserves. Reinforcing the country’s association with fire, the most striking landmark in the city is the Three Flames skyscraper, a magnificent, if somewhat flamboyant piece of architecture with three towers resembling tongues of flame reaching into the sky. Currently, these are the tallest structures in the city and dominate the city skyline.
There are other architectural showpieces – swooping, daring flourishes such as the Heydar Aliyev Center designed by the famed architect Zaha Hadid. Baku also boasts parks and promenades, such as the waterfront project. Nestled within the glittering, modern, city is the old city of Baku, a traditional walled one that dates back an estimated thousand years. With its narrow lanes and small, sometimes whimsical buildings constructed in a traditional style, it is a marked contrast to modern Baku, which prospers outside its walls. Baku was once on a major trade route between East and West, and there are a couple of caravenserais in the city, one of them now operating as a restaurant. At an open square are the artefacts of its past: stone tablets and blocks from various periods in its history.
The most outstanding feature of the old city is also a landmark and an emblem of Baku. This is the graceful, enigmatic Maiden Tower. A massive stone structure with an extension wall, the Maiden Tower once stood by the sea when the ancient shoreline was much higher than it is today. The tower has two portions, the upper portion dating to the 12th century, while the lower portion is thought to once have been a Zoroastrian temple, dating back to the sixth century.
The other striking feature of the Old City is the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a 15th century palace that is one of the top draws of Baku for tourists. With its graceful, sprawling architecture, the palace was once home to wealthy family. Today it is a museum with grand architecture, spacious rooms and elaborate wall decorations that provide a glimpse into royal life centuries ago.
This article is written by Lee Yu Kit.