On Azerbaijan’s Abşeron Peninsula jutting eastward into the Caspian Sea, the ground on a hillside called Yanar Dağ appears to be on fire. At one time that was not uncommon here. Indeed, Azerbaijan may take its name from the words “azer” (fire) and “baydjan” meaning “guardian”. Ancient traders and pilgrims along the Silk Road, including Marco Polo in the 13th Century, marvelled at flames emerging from the ground, and occasionally from water. Strangely enough, there’s even a (very) loose connection to the Christmas story.
Azerbaijan has been both blessed and cursed by the peninsula’s abundance of underground natural gas and oil – blessed culturally and economically, but cursed by blighted landscapes thanks to almost two centuries of rapacious exploitation, from the early 19th Century (Alfred Nobel of Nobel Prize fame made his first fortune there), through the ecological indifference of Soviet days. The Baku oil fields once produced almost half of the world’s oil, but all that pumping gradually diminished the gas pressure feeding the flames. Aside from Yanar Dağ there’s only one reminder of a time when such fires were a spiritually significant natural wonder.
Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian faith. Its priests, called “magi”, were masters of astrology and esoteric arts (thus our word “magician”). They were also keepers of sacred fires. Zoroastrians were not “fire worshippers” as many assume. They were monotheists, but fire was a point of focus when worshipping the true god; symbolizing creation, light, purity, justice, and wisdom, among other things, Although early Zoroastrian practice didn’t include temples, it did evolve to maintaining community “ateshgah” (fire houses) in which magi kept a sacred fire burning continuously. Small wonder, then, that naturally occurring perpetual fires on what was once a northern fringe of the Persian Empire were revered as sacred (and no doubt conveniently low-maintenance).
The Baku Ateshgah
A twenty-minute drive from the centre of Baku is an enigmatic little square, open-sided structure, with flames flickering from a central altar. It’s an ateshgah, originally a site of Zoroastrian worship but later taken over by Hindus from India who probably built the current structure in the 17th or 18th Century. The gas vent fuelling flames in the altar, as well as from the chimneys on each corner, died out in the 1960s, so now it’s fed artificially by a municipal pipeline for the sake of tourists, as well as for pilgrims: Hindu, Sikh and Parsi (Zoroastrians from India). It is said that walking around the flame three times in both directions should bring anything you desire. I tried that, but must have been an unworthy pilgrim or the wrong religion – it didn’t work. But it did get me thinking about guardians of those ancient fires.
Early in January, Christians ended their “twelve days of Christmas” with the feast of Epiphany, celebrating the story of “Three Kings” arriving from the east bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. In fact, the Bible doesn’t specify that there were three, nor does it call them kings. Although usually translated “wise men” or occasionally “astrologers”, the original Greek word is “magoi”, a transliteration of the Persian original and Latinized as “magi”. They would have been Zoroastrian.
Six centuries earlier, Jerusalem had fallen to Babylonian invaders and its leading inhabitants exiled to the imperial capital (a period in Jewish history known as the “Babylonian Exile”). Between 50 and 70 years later, when Persian emperor Cyrus (“the Great”) conquered and occupied Babylon, he not only released the Jewish diaspora to return to Jerusalem, but positively commanded them, in writing no less, to re-build their temple. Jewish scripture (the “Old Testament” to Christians) praises Cyrus as “the Lord’s anointed” even though he was a devout Zoroastrian; the official religion of his empire.(*) Still, not all Jews chose to return. Some remained in Babylon, and that community survived in Iraq well into the 20th Century. There is a long, subtle link between Persian, Mesopotamian and Jewish heritage.
So if, astrological signs convinced magi to follow the westward rotation of the stars to search for an auspicious birth, then Jerusalem would be an obvious place to start. These were no humble pilgrims or casual visitors. This was a diplomatic mission carrying rich gifts, which got immediate access to the notoriously ruthless King Herod. As the story goes, his advisors briefed them on prophesies concerning a little town of Beit Lechem (Bethlehem), just a two-hour camel ride away. So off they trotted and the rest, as they say, is (or at least may be) history.
Nothing suggests that the Biblical magi travelled from Mesopotamia or Persia via the venerable Abşeron Peninsula, but if they did and could have checked Google Maps for the best camel route, this is what they would have found.
(*) If you want to check, references to Cyrus are in the books of 2nd Chronicles 36:22-23, Isaiah 45:1, and the 1st book of Ezra Chapter 1, as well as 3:7, 4:3-4 and 6:3.