Azerbaijan is home to some of the world’s most interesting natural phenomenons such as the eternal flames that have earned it its moniker. It is popularly believed that the name of this beautiful nation was derived from the Persian words “Azer” and “Baydjan” meaning fire and guardian respectively, nodding at historical evidence of an ancient religion called Zoroastrianism.
The Eternal Flames
Without the availability of the internet or the advancement of technology, it is no wonder that the origins of these supposed mysterious fires are often found in legends and lores. As silly as these claims may seem now, they make for great stories. In Greek mythology, it was believed that as punishment for stealing their fire, the Gods imprisoned Prometheus in the Caucasus Mountains. On the other (more merciful) end of the spectrum, some believe that the fires were a gift from the Heavens and symbolize Holy light and wisdom.
The Science Behind The Magic
Azerbaijan finds itself sitting on vast reserves of oil and subterranean natural gas. Roman records suggest that the extraction of these resources dates back to about 2500 years ago. Due to high pressure, these natural gases seep out to the surface through cracks and fissures in the ground. When these gases get ignited, the flame caused would continue to burn due to the seemingly endless supply of fuel. Rampant extractions of the nation’s natural resources in the early 20th century have caused most of these mystical fires to extinguish.
Which came first, Eternal Fire or Man?
Ancient Azerbaijan was believed to be the home of some of the first Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that centres itself around ceremonial fires as they believe it to be the light of God’s wisdom. After the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th Century, most Zoroastrians converted into Islam while some fled the nation to escape persecution.
This, however, has not extinguished the spirit of the Azerbaijani people. With its recent rise in popularity among tourists, the “Eternal Fire” within the proud people of Azerbaijan shows itself through their friendliness and hospitality. The culture of the Azerbaijanis are built very firmly around respect.
Historically the Azerbaijanis have displayed their deepest respects, especially, towards women. In 1919, a law was passed by the country’s parliament to grant voting rights to women. This makes Azerbaijan one of the first few nations to have done so. Today, Azerbaijani women are still highly regarded and respected. It is not rare to see a man open doors or offer his seat to a female stranger on a public bus.
With many thanks to the versatile climate of the Southern Caucasus region and proximity to the Caspian Sea, dishes seen in Azerbaijani cuisine are known for its freshness and richness. To describe the flavours of the cuisine, imagine the perfect amalgamation of Middle Eastern and Eastern European flavours.
One dish that finds itself in almost every corner of the country would be Plov. Plov is saffron-covered rice, that is cooked with onions, prunes, dry fruits, eggs and fresh herbs. It is often accompanied by a type of meat, usually beef or lamb.
If you find yourself craving something sweet, make sure you also book a trip to Sheki or Quba while you’re there. These two cities are renowned in the nation for their sweets, so why not treat yourselves by stuffing your faces with halvas and pakhlavas (internationally known as baklava).
What To Do There?
This rapidly-developing nation epitomizes “old meets new” in the form of its capital city, Baku. While the Land of Fire is home to some cultural sites that have been recognized and are under protection by UNESCO, it is also home to beautiful, modern architecture and skyscrapers.
Ateshgah Fire Temple
Zoroastrian or Hindu? The origins of this temple is still unclear as evidence of both religious cultures are seen etched in the very structure of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its name is derived from the Persian words “Atesh” and “Gah”, meaning fire and bed respectively.
This sacred ground is found on top of a now-emptied natural gas reserve. In the past, fires flickered naturally and continuously for the temple’s worshippers. Today, the fires are fueled by gas fed through a pipeline from Baku for tourists from all around the world.
Since its completion in 2012, the skyline of Baku has been dominated by this magnificent trio of towers that resemble a flickering flame. The towers are not only beautiful to look at but they also symbolize Azerbaijan’s development as a country while staying true to its roots. While two of the towers are used as a residence and an office building, the third and final tower is the home to Fairmont Baku, a contemporary 5-star hotel.
If you’re not looking to live it up and book a few nights in the hotel, make sure you ask around for the best viewpoint of the towers to enjoy the light show displays! But wherever you stand, we promise, it’s almost impossible to miss these iconic towers.
Gobustan National Park
With craters filled with cold, oozing mud scattered on a field of cracked, dry earth, this national park screams “perfect dystopian movie scene”. Azerbaijan is home to more than 40% of the Mud Volcanoes in the world, and most of these landforms can be seen right here in Gobustan.
If you’re not interested in seeing cold mud explode out of little domes, you may visit the Gobustan National Historical-Artistic Preserve to learn more about ancient Azerbaijanis by studying stone-etched petroglyphs that have survived the sands of time.
Located at the heart of the capital city, the Old Town (also known as Inner City) is said to be where Ancient Baku was once founded. Today, you can find many traditional carpet weavers, bars and restaurants. The town is also home to the mysterious Maiden Tower that easily looks out to the Caspian Sea. Due to its cultural and historical importance, Icheri Sheher has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
It goes without saying that a trip to this charming little town is a definite must-do. However, we do recommend hiring a guide to ensure you don’t get lost as you go back a few centuries while you stroll along the winding maze-like paths.
If you’re looking to understand why or how Azerbaijan earned its name as The Land of Fire, look no further. Located on the side of a hill, you’ll find one of the remaining “Eternal Flames” still flickering. It’s believed that in the 1950s, a careless shepherd accidentally ignited the flame when he tossed his cigarette and the resulting fire has been burning ever since.
While the fire is admittedly (and thankfully) not as big as the Australian Bushfires, it still is a sight to behold when you realize it’s been burning for about 70 years now. Whether you’re going close to the flames for a quick snap for the ‘Gram’ or you’re enjoying the beautiful view at night as you lounge at a nearby teahouse, a trip to visit this “wall of flame” is very much worth it.
Visiting The Land of Fire
Before you rush to book your flights, we’ve prepared some additional information that you might not want to miss!
Getting There: As there are no direct flights into Azerbaijan from Singapore, the best way is to have a layover in Dubai. Look for the perfect flight on flights.google.com!
Travel Visa: Singaporeans require an e-Visa to enter Azerbaijan for up to 30 days. Click here to read up on Azerbaijan’s Visa Policy.
Currency: Azerbaijan Manat (AZN) is the preferred currency for Azerbaijan. (S$100 = US$ 72.06 = ₼122.50 AZN)
Spoken Languages: Outside of Baku, fluent English speakers are pretty rare. While the use of Modern Turkish and Russian is pretty common, we do recommend picking up a few phrases in Azerbaijani so you could see their faces light up as you speak!