The “Land of Fire” has been burning for 4,000 years.

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(CNN) – “This fire has been burning for 4,000 years and has never stopped,” says Rakhila Aliyeva. “Even the rain, snow, wind coming here, it will never stop burning.”

Ahead, tall flames dance restlessly on a 10-meter hillside, making a hot day even hotter.

This is Yanar-Dag, which means “burning mountainside.” Azerbaijanon the Absheron peninsula, where Rahila works as a guide.

A side effect of the country’s abundant natural gas that sometimes seeps to the surface, Yanardag is one of several wildfires that have both fascinated and frightened travelers to Azerbaijan for millennia.

Venetian explorer Marco Polo wrote about the mysterious phenomena as he traveled the country in the 13th century. Other Silk Road merchants brought news of the fires the way they wanted. travell to other lands.

That is why the country has earned the nickname “Land of Fire”.

ancient religion

There were once many such fires in Azerbaijan, but due to the fact that they led to a decrease in gas pressure underground, which prevented commercial gas production, most of them were extinguished.

Yanar Dag is one of the few surviving examples, and perhaps the most impressive.

At one time, they played a key role in the ancient Zoroastrian religion, which was founded in Iran and flourished in Azerbaijan in the first millennium BC.

For Zoroastrians, fire is a link between humans and the supernatural world, and a vehicle through which spiritual understanding and wisdom can be gained. It is a cleansing, life-sustaining and vital part of worship.

Today, most visitors to the modest Yanar Dag visitor center come for spectacle, not religious satisfaction.

The experience is most impressive at night or in winter. When snow falls, the flakes dissolve into the air without touching the ground, says Rahila.

Despite the claimed antiquity of the Yanardag flame (some argue that this particular fire could only have originated in the 1950s), it takes 30 minutes to drive north from the center of Baku to see it. There is only a small cafe in the center and there are not many more in the area.

Fire Temple Ateshgah

For a deeper understanding of the history of fire worship in Azerbaijan, visitors should head east of Baku to the Ateshgah fire temple.

Since ancient times it has been thought that [their] God is here,” our guide says as we enter the pentagonal complex built in the 17th and 18th centuries by Indian settlers in Baku.

Fire rituals at the site date back to the 10th century or earlier. The name Ateshgah comes from the Persian for “house of fire” and the centerpiece of the complex is a domed altar built on a natural gas vent.

Until 1969, a natural eternal fire burned here on the central altar, but today the fire is powered by Baku’s main gas supply and is lit only for visitors.

The temple is associated with Zoroastrianism, but its history as a Hindu place of worship is better documented.

Merchants and ascetics

Built as a hotel for travelers in the caravanserai style, the complex has a walled courtyard surrounded by 24 cells and rooms.

They were used in various ways by pilgrims, passing merchants (whose offerings were a vital source of income) and local ascetics, some of whom subjected themselves to such ordeals as lying on caustic quicklime, wearing heavy chains, or holding the hand in one position for years. . at the end.

The temple ceased to be used as a place of worship in the late 19th century, at a time when the development of the surrounding oil fields meant that the veneration of Mammon was gaining momentum.

In 1975, the complex became a museum, in 1998 it was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and today it is visited by about 15,000 visitors a year.