Keeping warm in the Temple of Fire
What a place of wonder Baku on the Caspian must have been to the ancients. Smoke belching from the ground, fire leaping up from fissures in the earth, strange hissing noises all around, pools of water hot enough to cook meals in. While we might associate this with the literature of science fiction, notions of activity on other planets, or some bizarre action film, the basis of all this activity – an explanation unavailable to the enchanted – is found in science. Baku sits on one of the most, if not the most, accessible deposits of black gold in the world. Seized upon by European industrialists before 1900, the oil industry, as we know it, cut its teeth here.
Today the oil and gas industry remains impressive, boasting derricks by the score up and down this stretch of the Caspian. Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon production is no pipsqueak in keeping Europe supplied with energy. During World War Two, in fact, Stalingrad was supposed to be a knock over for the German army on its long drive to these oil fields. The Germans never made it, but yesterday we did. Noting the German’s mistake, we avoided Stalingrad and took the number 184 bus from Baku’s Narimanov Metro Station.
A part of the Temple Caravanserai
Our destination, Surakhani, is really a suburb of Baku. While it is true that the first oil fields appeared here, our particular interest in getting to this place lies in its history. Before the first capitalist was ever inspired to drill into the soil, spiritually guided souls had already claimed it. The region’s natural explosions of gas and burning oil helped give rise to a religion, Zoroastrianism, which survives to this day, albeit in small numbers. An entire Persian civilization rose upon the beliefs and rituals of these fire worshippers. Even today, strong cultural practices emanating from the Zoroastrians stretch from here through Iran and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and India, remaining quite potent.
The Fire Temple that was have come to see served as one center of this old spiritual world. Built over two centuries ago by Indian merchants, the stone fire temple is now a mere tourist site, nestled in the wreckage of some of Baku’s original industrialized oil fields. Framed by a stone caravanserai, the fire temple features a lone gas flame of considerable size. Because modern oil technology long ago depleted the natural sources of fire here, the national gas company generously provides gas to fuel the fire. All around, in caravanserai-fashion, there are small stone rooms with arched doorways, spaces that once housed those inspired by the “divine” spark. Most intriguing are the Sanskrit writings carved into the stone above these doorways. The mystics of India travelled along the Silk Road to this temple–an indication of the power this natural wonder held in centuries past as well as a testimony to the strength of trade and communication along these routes.
The only other visitor
Baku’s stiff breeze washes over us during our visit. Though the sun is bright, away from the temple’s roaring gas fire it is chilly. The last minute thought to throw on Woolx was a good one. We are alone, except for the two or three idle curators who hang back in the shadows along the stone walls, conversing sporadically with one another. In the distance, out of sight, small derricks pump what few barrels of oil remain in fields long churned into mud and waste. The Fire Temple will be busy with tourists come summer. For now, in a place that was once the center of meaning, it is very quiet.