Baku: How the combination of wind and fire led to the nation’s advancement

The city of winds in the Land of Fire

By Anjaly Thomas

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Published: Thu 28 Dec 2023, 9:10 PM

The cold winds coming from the Caspian Sea make me shiver. But I persist. No way am I going to let my early morning stroll through Baku’s Icherisheher (Old City) be ruined by the winds. I draw my jacket closer and soldier on. But it is futile. Darkness and silence cling to the old stone buildings and the labyrinthine alleyways are deserted. Somewhere beyond the Old City, Baku’s iconic Flame Towers continues its colourful display of lights — but whoever said that pre-sunrise was the perfect time to witness the glories of Baku had a great sense of humour. It is simply too cold to see or feel anything.

There is a valid reason why Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city is called the City of Winds. At the precise moment when debating between returning to my hotel or plodding on, a gust of cold wind blows in. I suppose it is the city’s location on the southern tip of Absheron Peninsula that makes it susceptible to constant, bone-chilling winds. In Persian language, Baku translates to pounding winds.

Icherisheher – Baku’s cultural heart

I return to Icherisheher when the sun is firmly in the sky. The main entry gate is marked with the city’s shield — the head of Ox protected by lion heads, sun and moon symbolising 24-hour protection — at once falling in love with the cobbled streets and tightly packed stone houses, many of which continue to house residents. The Fortress Wall has twenty-five towers and five gates ­— so wishing myself good luck navigating through it all, I march forward.

I soon begin to see why Icherisheher is deemed to be the cultural heart of an otherwise modern Baku.

It is as pretty as claimed, despite the several renovations following wars and natural calamities over the centuries. Between the 12th and 15th century, it housed pretty much everyone in Baku. The Fortress Walls protected the city from battles until the 16th century. First constructed in the 12th century, the walls were destroyed several times. In the 16th century, the walls were upgraded and a second, lower fortress wall was added and between the two, a water-filled moat was made.

I walk past restaurants and cafes, relishing the smells from the kitchens. Arthouses are slow to open, it is still chilly — but a cup of tea takes care of that. Served in traditional Armudu glasses, the tea is strong and bracing. Soon I arrive at the door of a museum housing the world’s tiniest books, rightly named Baku Museum of Miniature Books.

A recent addition to the city’s ever growing ‘must-see’ list, this museum contains collection of books published post-revolutionary Russia. The notable miniature in this collection is a 17th century copy of the Holy Quran published in Saudi Arabia in the year 1672 and other rare ancient religious books.

Following this, I head to the 15th century Palace of Shirvanshahs to explore its burial vaults and mosque but not before snapping the Instagram-worthy picture of Old Shah’s Mosque and super-modern Flaming towers in one frame. The contrast is stark. But it explains the country’s progress in one frame.

I stumble through the Old City, deliberately seeking narrow lanes to avoid the crowds and wind and for a chance to peer through windows into homes for a glimpse of life within.

Finally, I arrive at the Maiden Tower, a Unesco World Heritage Site and the city’s pride. It is familiar because I’ve seen it on the Azeri currency too. The Zoroastrians are accredited with having built this mysterious tower — ‘mysterious’ because of the many myths and legends surrounding it. The most popular being that of a princess with flaming red hair who thwarted the invading army and charmed the tyrant king into protecting her people holed up in the tower!

From the outside, this 30m tall stone tower looks untouched, however, to reach the top, a staircase has been added and every landing is equipped with a museum showcasing Baku’s history. I did stop to learn Baku’s history for two reasons — first, for a real interest in history and secondly to catch my breath before making it to the roof. The 360-degree view from the roof is mesmerising. The all-encompassing views include alleys and minarets of the Old City, Baku Boulevard, the wide vista of Baku Bay, De Gaulle House and of course the Flaming Towers. And the ever-present wind makes everything lively.

I descend slowly and after a long look at the tower, retire to a caravanserai for some bracing tea. I see no traces of the Silk Route days, but my imagination fills the gaps. The cobbled streets are bursting with antique-sellers, and I give in to my temptation and secure a cobalt-blue bowl claimed to come from the erstwhile Soviet Union.

It is unusually chilly. However, the brutal winds of Baku are a crucial part of the city’s identity and have contributed to the nation’s history.

Yanar Dag – a mountain that burns

The next morning, I head out of the city to see why Azerbaijan is called the Land of Fire. I am told that the exceptional mix of wind and fire is what has made Azerbaijan one of the world’s oldest and most advanced civilisations.

The fires are burning relentlessly across a 10m stretch when I arrive at the Burning Mountain or Yanar Dag. This fire has been burning for 4,000 years through sun, wind, rain and snow. Fascinating as it is to watch the dance of the flames, the rapid depletion of natural gas, I am told, doesn’t guarantee many years for this natural occurrence. Once upon a time, the fire covered the entire mountain but Soviet exploitation in the 20th century caused most natural fires to die.

Azerbaijan’s unique physical geology that includes rugged limestone mountain ridges, peaking crests, towering rocks and vast, almost barren 1,000m tall plateaus hides vast reserves of oil and natural gas. High pressure pushes the gas out through these fissures, which ignites when in contact with air. The flames continue to burn as long as the fuel flows — which sort of explains the mystery of the burning mountains and temple fires (of Ateshgah), my next destination.

The Fire Temple of Baku

The Fire Temple (Ateshgah) is playing host to curious visitors when I arrive. A wide courtyard leads me to the cupola-topped central altar, where a tall fire is burning steadily, its flames dancing in the ever-present wind. However, the current fire is gas-fueled (the natural fire died down a few years ago) but that hasn’t diminished its importance.

Recently renovated, Ateshgah Temple (in Persian, it means Home of Fire) built around 200 AD, was one of the most important Zoroastrian temples and served as an important point for traders, merchants and pilgrims travelling the Silk Route from China and India. For the Zoroastrians, fire was an important element as it represented ‘light of wisdom’. Due to the naturally occurring fire at Ateshgah, early inhabitants settled in the area, both as a convenience and manifestation of beliefs.

The pentagonal complex is believed to have been built in the 17th and 18th century by Indian settlers in Baku, although the fire rituals here date back to the 10th century or earlier. The central altar is surrounded by small ‘cells’ in which are representations of life of yore and small places of worship.

In some ways, I understand how the combination of wind and fire led to the nation’s advancement. I return to Baku ­— the city of winds thriving in the land of fire to wind down for the day.

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