The landscape of the Absheron Peninsula, surrounding Baku, is enough to make even George Bush think twice about the environmental disaster that drilling for oil can be. The peninsula is an almost completely barren stretch of small hills covered in mud and dirt. Small towns of brick houses compete for space with the perpetually turning oil wells. The oil wells have seemingly been placed indiscriminately around the peninsula. You find them everywhere, even in people’s backyards. Undoubtedly countless people have been uprooted from their homes in the name of drilling. Oil spills out from the pumps, covering the ground in a thick black film. “Now this,” I thought to myself while driving around the peninsula in my hired taxi, “is what I thought the Caspian would look like.” When I brought it up with the cabbie, he gave me a frank response, “If you think this is bad,” he said, “you should have seen it under the Soviets.” When I pressed him about it more, he hinted that nobody in Azerbaijan seems to mind, simply because oil and gas have been the economic savior of a country struggling to repair itself after war and Soviet rule.
Oddly enough, this peninsula that now looks so repugnant and undesirable has mystified travelers for years and has been the object of veneration by locals and even traders from India. Long ago, the Zoroastrians, whose religion dominated the area before the arrival of Islam, worshipped fire as a metaphor for God, and in the Absheron peninsula they found something that could only have a divine explanation--flames shooting out of the earth. Zoroastrian worshippers soon decided to build temples over these gas jets, creating a monument that contained within it an “eternal flame” long before JFK ever died. One of these still remains today in the outskirts of Baku, the Ateshgah temple.
The date of construction is unsure, but most put it in the 6th century AD, although the structure you see today was likely rebuilt by Indian traders in the 14th century, as is evidenced by the Gurumukhi and Sanskrit inscriptions still found on the doorways. The temple consists of a large courtyard with a small structure in the middle. This structure surrounds the source of the gas leak and channels the gas not only into the center of the temple but up the sides of the wall as well so that flames shoot out of the four corners at the top. Sadly, gas died out in the 1800s and the Indian pilgrims have stopped coming. Today, though, you can still wander the grounds and see the interesting museum that shows some of the rituals Zoroastrian pilgrims would go through. However, if you are having trouble imagining just what flames shooting out of the ground would look like, you can just hop a taxi over to Yanar Dag (Burning Mountain). Don’t be fooled; it’s not a mountain, but rather a small hill, at the base of which natural gas leaks out of the earth, catching on fire when it hits the air. A large stream of fire flows around the base of the mountain, charring the ground around it. Next to the fire there is a small tea house where you can get some tea, grab a chair, and warm yourself next to the flames. The whole thing is admittedly a bit underwhelming. When I first heard about Yanar Dag, I imagined huge towers of flames shooting out of the ground. These measure only a few feet but are still an interesting sight, if only for a few minutes, and it is easy to see why the Zoroastrians would have been so mystified by the mysterious towers of flame shooting out of the ground, especially when you think that there were probably more of them back then, since the gas wasn’t being pumped. Today, however, almost all of them are gone ,and that gas is now heating your home, and who knows; within a few years Yanar Dag itself may disappear as well.