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Surakhani Temple Of Fire

Baku, Azerbaijan

In early history Azerbaijan was called the “land of the sacred fire”. Although the “everlasting fire” mentioned by early travelers such as Alexandre Dumas was due to the gas and oil deposits erupting from the earth, it became surrounded by legend and mystery. Some 2,600 years ago, Zarathustra was formulating Zoroastrianism, one of the first major monotheistic religions. His idea to use fire as a metaphor for the mysteries of God probably came from witnessing the spontaneous flames that rise so eerily from Azerbaijan's Absheron Peninsula. Today some such fires still burn. Most notable is Yanar Dagh near Mammedli, where a small hillside is constantly and naturally aflame.

On Absheron there were many temples of Fire as well. From their variety the most famous is the well-preserved temple Ateshgah ("the Fire Place") in Surakhany, located 20 kilometers east of the town center. The temple was built over a pocket of natural gas that fuelled a vent providing an 'eternal' fire. This kind of use of fire in Zoroastrian temples led to the followers of Zoroaster (Zarathustra).

Historians, archaeologists, and theologians have argued over the construction date of the temple. Some defend that there was a Zoroastrian temple in Surakhany since the 6th century, others delay that event for another seven centuries. As the introduction of Islam to the region to the area resulted in the destruction of almost every Zoroastrian temple and documents, this claims are hard to assess. After Azerbaijan was Islamised some Zoroastrians escaped to India. But trade links with India in later centuries, led to renewed contacts with the fire-worshippers, who had migrated from to Northern India. During 17th and 18th Century, the site was rebuilt by Indian merchants and masons, who had established in Baku their settlement. More photogenic is a fortified 18th century stone fire temple built on the site of original at Surakhany Ateshgah. This fire temple, with a mixture of Indian and Azerbaijani architectural styles, is a surviving proof of age old relationship between the two countries. The pentagon shaped building is surrounded by a wall with a guest room over the gate ('balakhane'). There are still some wall inscriptions in Sanskrit and Gurumukhi, including poems. Cells for pilgrims line the wall inside and surround the the main altar in the center of the temple - a quadrangular pavilion with the fire on the altar inside.

Surakhany remained a popular destination for Indian pilgrims until the end of XIX century. The natural gas vent has been exhausted and in 1880 the last pilgrim returned to India.

The temple was last restored in 1975. Today low, dark cells for monks and pilgrims in the Ateshgah Temple at Surakhany house is an interesting museum, intended to introduce the rudiments of Zoroastrianism to the uninitiated.

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