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Azerbaijan is also known as the ‘Land of Fire’. Around the capital Baku it is easy to see why: the oil and gas fields in the regions are enormous. Flames shoot up from the ground at Absheron, the peninsula in the Caspian Sea where Baku is located.
Oil has been traded here as early as the 3rd century A.D. Natural gas leaks were ignited and worshipped in religious ceremonies. Serious exploration of these natural treasures only began in the 19th century. Locals however were quick to take advantage of their resources. Industrial gas and oil exploration had already begun in Baku in 1848, more than 10 years before the first oil wells were discovered in the United States. That is why this region is also regarded as the birthplace of the oil industry.
Just north of Baku the monotonous rugged landscape of the peninsula is interrupted by a curious natural phenomenon: a hill ablaze with fire. The gas flowing from the hills has been on fire since time immemorial. The reservoirs are so huge that they may continue to burn for centuries. The first descriptions about this location, Yanar Dag (which means ‘burning mountain’), were found in the 13th century manuscripts of explorer Marco Polo. It is worth getting up early to watch this phenomenon: just before sunrise the orange flames contrast beautifully against the blue of the sky.
Although mud and fire rarely go together, there is such a thing as an explosive mud volcano. This unusual geological phenomenon occurs in just a few places around the world, but never as frequently as here, along the Caspian coast of Azerbaijan. You will find several just outside of Baku. A mud volcano is created when an underground bubble of gas and mud finds a way through a weak spot in the earth’s crust. Sometimes this is accompanied by an enormous explosion. In 2001 an Azerbaijani mud volcano suddenly spewed out a 300-metre-high flame.
You will find more flames in the fire temple of Atashgah, located near the train station in the suburb of Suraxani. For centuries, the omnipresent fire has been worshipped by the Zoroastrians, followers of one of the oldest religions in the world. The temple only fell into disuse in 1883, when the development of modern gas exploration in the region disrupted the natural flow of gas to the temple. Today this is a national monument.