That Burning Feeling

Ask anyone that knows me well and I am sure they will tell you that they don’t really find me the religious type, but I do try to have a sincere respect for anyone and everyone’s beliefs, and I try to keep my mind open. I truly feel that we should let people be as they wish and do as they will, within reason, of course, and as long as they don’t come knocking on my door asking for donations, my first-born or blood. This does not mean I agree with everything, and there is a fairly strong aversion within me towards fanaticism no matter what religion it comes from. But when it comes down to it, who really is to judge? I am more than a little sure that most people would not see eye to eye with me on many of my ideas either.

In my travels, I have visited the churches and temples of many a god, saint, spirit, prophet and even the occasional fruitcake (Read about St Simeon in Syria for that one. He sat atop a 60-foot pillar for something like 35 years and let maggots munch away at his self-inflicted open wounds. He may have preached a good message, but he was a loony, I tell ya!). Some of these buildings of worship can be quite austere, plain and simple, and some are just way over-the-top and gaudy. Being in Azerbaijan brought me round to another sample of the way folks look to something “higher” for a meaning in their life, but this time, the fire elements played a part.

After leading groups round the fringe regions of the once great Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism, a religion based on the constant struggle between light and dark, good and evil, has recently worked its way into my meanderings, and just outside of Baku in Surakhani is a somewhat interesting site called Atashgah that is believed to be tied to his religion and was used as a pilgrimage centre and monastery. I say “somewhat interesting” because, to be honest, the site itself is not that spectacular in its overall appearance, but the ideology of the place and its natural wonders are (or were, should I say), and I definitely find humour in the punchline of what has transpired here in relatively recent years.

The complex of Atashgah, which literally means something like “home of fire”, is roughly pentagonal-shaped and, in its present form, is thought to have been built in the 17th and 18th century. It looks more of a small castle or fortress than a monastery, but this concept is not so unusual as many religious sects around the globe have not been too popular with their surrounding dwellers, leading many of the faithful to build up a defence system to keep the more aggressive unbelievers at bay. Supposedly constructed on an ancient site of worship that people made holy due to seven holes in the ground that at one time burned constantly from natural oil and gas leaking to the surface, Atashgah eventually became a congregation point for the followers of Zoroastrianism, or possibly Hinduism, as they both have a deep veneration of fire. Scholars really haven’t figured out exactly which religion it is definitely tied to, but pilgrims from both branches made their way out here up until the last century.

As previously mentioned, there are a few natural fissures within the complex that at one time issued forth miraculous flames on a constant basis, the central altar being the largest of said burning holes (I think I had a case of that once, but a nice cream helped). These were all still spouting their internal fossil fuels up until 1969 when the natural supply eventually ran dry due to heavy exploitation from the Soviets during their time in control here. But here’s the punchline: In oil rich Azerbaijan along the Caspian Sea, what do you do when a fairly popular tourist and pilgrimage site whose draw is based on eternal fires looses its main point of interest? Really, who would want to come and see a Zoroastrian Fire Temple with no fire? Well, that’s when you get the state owned gas company to install a pipeline from their main processing plant to give the place back its spark, so to speak. Makes you wonder, though. Does the present-day temple-turned-museum get subsidised gas, or do they have one hell of a bill at the end of every month? Whatever the case, this modern upgrade still takes away from the magic and mysticism of the place when you know that after business hours are over and the last punter has left, some bloke just goes over and switches the mains valve to the off position to cut costs. I guess in the end, though, they are conserving resources!