6 AM. A large parking lot by the Baku Bay. Our homebulance sways uncontrollably in powerful gusts of wind.
It is still not too bad today. The wind reaches “only” 70 km per hour. Two days earlier, it was over 100. No wonder Baku is called “The Windy City”.
We finish our coffee before it splashes out from the cups. Soon we are ready to set off on tour around Azerbaijan.
The first stop – mud volcano. Mud volcanoes – called by the locals “grey mountains” – are the slimy gold of the country. Of the 800 existing around the globe, as many as 350 are in Azerbaijan. The whole bay is teeming with underwater volcanos. However, we aim for the easier one – those above ground and located only on the outskirts of Baku.
We leave the European elegance of the capital city in the rear-view mirror. Beyond Baku, the landscape changes drastically. Cubes of family houses connected in groups of estates replace neoclassical magnificence of Baku city centre. They are simple and modest with a larger or smaller garden, utterly bare during the winter. Instead of glistening modern buildings, we pass a swarm of tiny shops. The vast majority of them are slaughterhouses. Sheep and goats tied to the stairs in front of the shops wait hopelessly to meet their fate. In front of their and our eyes, the butchers kill and skin animals. Stray dogs traipse between slaughterers, waiting for a scrap of meat. The whole process takes place directly over a dusty road.
The landscape turns into squares of suburban factories. A red dot on our navigation settles just next to one of them. We almost reached the destination. Just a short climb up the hill and we’re there.
The large area covered with rubbish stretches at the top. Their odour combines with suffocating smell of sticky mud. We wade through it up to ankles, persistently looking for the promised volcano. Suddenly a gentleman appears, clearly surprised seeing us.
“Damn! You scared the living light out of me!” shouts out the man, unsuccessfully pushing away a spotted stray dog.
“Oh, so sorry! We are just looking for the mud volcano. The map says it should be somewhere here.”
“You are two years too late. It dried out. And these maps of yours are s**t. This month, you are probably dozenth people these stupid things led here.”
A spotted dog, oblivious to our fiasco, joyfully walks us back to the car. As a reward for a company, it gets a handful of dry food. We carry it in the homebulance in case of similar meetings. In the beginning, the stray has no idea what to do with it. However, before we leave, it is already at the stage of nibbling distrustfully at beef-flavoured dry cubes.
Straight from the place of our defeat, we head to the “Burning Mountain” – Yanar Dag.
Azerbaijan is called the “Land of Fire”. It owes its name to the location in an area with high natural gas concentration. For thousands of years, they have been oozing through the porous structure of the Absheron Peninsula sandstones.
Yanar Dag is quite new. Its discovery in the 1950s is attributed to a shepherd who accidentally started a fire near a rock. Since then, tongues of flame have continuously been licking the surface of that stone. Even rivers near Yanar Dag are soaked with gas. The locals made them destinations of medicinal baths. All this, however, while maintaining the highest degree of fire safety. One careless spark can set the whole river on fire.
The wind, which was raging in the morning, calmed down a bit while we searched for a mud volcano. Now, however, it again tugs at our jackets and blows the hoods off heads. It forces golden-orange flames crawling out of the rock to a crazy dance. Sometimes it shoots them high up, scalding the faces of those gathered around them. Sometimes, with a fierce impetus, it crushes the flames to the ground. When it seems that the element finally destroyed the eternal fire, the new flames appear in the further nooks of the rock.
We watch the phenomenon as hypnotized. We know all the physics behind it. Natural gas seeping from the ground and feeding the fire. We know it all. And yet the spectacle is magical—golden flames licking sooty black rocks. We stare at them until the heat of the fire reaches our faces. Until it squeezes out tears. The more we stare, the more science and physics disappear. They are consumed by eternal fire, leaving only the feeling of awe and admiration at the pureness of the element.
Probably this is how the Zoroastrians felt. Centuries ago, they worshipped fire as a personification of the god Ahura Mazda. It is said that religion dating back to the first century BC is truly ecological. According to its beliefs, the highest respect is due to each of the elements. Zoroastrians followed it to the letter and did not bury the dead in the ground, as not to contaminate it. Instead, they left bodies on high towers, called the Towers of Silence, where birds of prey tore them. This way, the deceased, even after death, contributed to the survival of other species, and fulfilling their last good deed, returned to the creator.
Other aspects of Zoroastrianism – including one god who created the world; doing, speaking and thinking about good; final judgment, and resurrection – gave the foundations for some religions that we know today. That is why historians cannot agree to which of them attribute the Ateshgah (“Fire Temple”) located in the suburban town of Surakhani. It is now assumed that its builders could have been Hindus, Sikhs or Zoroastrians. Reliable facts support each of the theories, such as ancient inscriptions somewhat identifying builders and historically documented migrations of Hindus, Sikhs and Zoroastrians in the region of the Absheron Peninsula at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The one thing sure, however, is that the temple complex is impressive. Its massive stone structures call for admiration. Eight enormous walls enclose a vast yard and tiny cells where centuries ago people prayed and meditated; and guarded, day and night, the holly fire burning in the temple.
However, their efforts proved to be a failure in collision with civilization. Drilling, oil and gas production on a large scale in the temple area led to extinguishing naturally burning fire in 1969. Since then it burns only thanks to the artificial, soulless gas pipeline from Baku.
In a melancholic mood, we leave the walls of Ateshgah sincerely hoping that a similar fate will not befall the burning rock of Yanar Dag. Meanwhile, we direct the homebulance towards other unusual stones. We go to Qobustan, where prehistoric petroglyphs cover channels of caves.