Ateshgahs and Zoroastrians: Good thoughts, good words, good deeds

BakuAteshgah

The Baku Ateshgah (Atəşgah) or  Fire Temple of Baku in Surakhany (Suraxanı), Azerbaijan – just outside of Baku in the “suburbs.” Both Zoroastrian and Hindis have worshiped at this natural gas spring.

After a doozy of a flight, a full day in transit, and two connections in Shanghai and Moscow, it was pleasing to reach solid ground. I jotted down a hodge-podge of observations on my way to Japan, I sadly left these behind. While I’m a bit of a gadget geek, there is something about the portability, automatic saving, and infinite battery life of a little, paper notebook that the competition just can’t rival. I assumed I could find something suitable at the airport, but I left Shanghai without a scrap to scribble on. In Moscow, the stores were alive and the customers flowing; duty-free booze and cigarettes as far as the eye could see and not one notebook adrift in the stream of commuters. Much is lost to the jumble of memories sloshing about. Luckily, a random “defterxana” (literally “notebook house”) on the Neftchilar Prospekti in Baku had a notebook (go figure) and, I quickly threw up what I could recall. Hopefully in the coming days I’ll write up some posts from  my notes and fill in the blanks. Until then, enjoy this slab of knowledge on fire temples.

A fellow patron of the Caspian Hostel (the cheapest night’s rest in Baku city, save for Couchsurfing), a German backpacker passing through the Caucasus, told me she would like to see the ‘”Baku fire temple.” I began to give directions only to find out (from the brother of the Caspian Hostel owner) that I had mistaken Martyrs’ Lane for the fire temple. Though I had read about such a place in both Trailblazer’s Azerbaijan, 4th edition and Lonely Planet: Georgia Armenia and Azerbaijan - assuming I’d already visited the temple – I passed it over. The Baku Ateshgah (ateshgah being a Persian word meaning “fire temple” or more literally “home of fire”) is actually located about 20 -25 km (~12-15 miles) east of the Baku city center in Surakhani. After she received better information from our host, we parted ways, and I decided that before leaving Baku I would set foot on the ancient hollowed grounds.

While, most associate the temple with Zoroastrians, this is disputed (though not hotly). Others contend that it is actually a Hindi place of worship, or more likely, that it has served both faiths. It is true that Azerbaijan has ancient ties to the followers of Zoroaster, but the birthplace of this religion is in present-day Iran, where it then spread toward India and later to the Caucasus, where “natural fire” from the petroleum deposits was commonplace. Many people (particularly early Western travelers) inaccurately label Zoroastrians “fire worshipers,” although fire was symbolic of God’s purity and power. Zoroastrians are considered one of the predecessors of monotheism, rather than a close relative of the animistic religions.

In Zoroastrianism, the omniscient god, Ahura Mazda created everything out of nothing, and is pure goodness – a familiar story (in the Avestan language, Ahura means “light” or “lord” and Mazda means “wisdom,” and doesn’t really enlighten the fact that there is a car named after the god of a practicing religion. Imagine a car company named “Jehovah” or an SUV named “Jesus?”) The prophet, Zoroaster (or a slightly different name, as in the case of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra) received the good word from God (at around 1500 BCE) and wrote it down in the “Avesta.”  The central maxim of Zoroastrianism is: Good thoughts, good words, good deeds. Like the other monotheistic world religions, there is a heaven and hell, “Satan” and an “Armageddon.”  Several scholars have written on the commonalities of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam and, later, Christianity, for instance: In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia to Find the World’s First Prophet

Despite the strong link between the Abrahamic religions (which I knew reasonably well growing up), four years ago was the first time I encountered Zoroastrianism. I later discovered that there are still followers today, making it one of the oldest living religions. In a 2006 New York Times article about those “keeping the faith” in the Midwest, the author estimated that there were 190,000 practicing Zoroastrians, while the priest in the article estimated as many as 50 million adherents at the height of the Persian Empire. An article published in the 2001 Iran & the Caucasus provides strong evidence that Zoroastrians still resided in Azerbaijan into the 19th century, however besides a Wikipedia entry (without a proper citation), I am unable to find evidence of a Zoroastrian population in Azerbaijan today. For further reading on modern Zoroastrians, I highly recommend the New York Times article: Zoroastrians Keeping the Faith, and Keep Dwindling.

Jumping the Ateshgah fire. Surakhani, Azerbaijan

Me jumping the Ateshgah fire. During Novruz Bayrami people will circle the the pit three times, and make a wish before hurdling the flames – leaving their cares behind in the licks of fire. Surakhani, Azerbaijan

To get to the Baku Ateshgah take the metro to Koroglu station (formerly Ezizbeyov). A fleet of cabs will greet you (the cab cost is about 15 AZN with four people, but there is room for haggling). The drive takes you on the same path to Heydar Aliyev International Airport for about 3 km (~1.8 miles), before veering off to the right (southeast) onto Saltar Behlul-Zadeh Kuchesi (at the turn off, there is a clock tower to the right of the highway) – my recollection gets a bit hazy after that. Google Maps tells me that the car took a brief left turn at Zigh Prospekti and then a left onto Balandin. This road took us straight to the door of the Temple (on the right. Entrance fee: 2 AZN and was open on Sunday before 6pm).

Soon the Azerbaijani government will be reconstructing this ateshgah, which raises many questions over the “ownership” or “purpose” of such a cultural artifact. The backdrop was a nice, dusty, suburban town, vast oil fields (as is the case with much of the Absheron Peninsula) and children playing soccer at the dead end of Balandin road.  The entrance could be missed if you are moving to quickly and not sure what to look for,  and the homes were built snug against the walls. As a tourist, I found the, somewhat, inconspicuous temple much more appealing than many “tourist attractions” in the States. The place gave off a sense of authenticity, without the facade of overly verbose signage, grandiose presentation and concession stands. Rather than a sphere of sterile environment to hedge the ancient walls, “real” life was going on all around it. The living culture of modern Azerbaijan engulfed and interwoven with the curious link to the past.