Autumn 1998 (6.3)
- Land of
and Legends Associated With Fire
by Maharram Gasimli
in Yanardagh outside Baku. Photo: Blair.
Today, we usually think of fire as being dangerous. Parents warn
their children, "Don't play with matches." We install
smoke detectors in buildings to detect the first signs of smoke
or heat. Shouting "Fire!" makes people panic and run
away. There's even an occupation for people who put out fires.
Ancient peoples thought about fire differently. They valued it
for light, warmth, comfort and safety. Cave dwellers gathered
around stone hearths to protect themselves from the cold, to
cook their food and to scare away wild animals. Because fire
was essential for survival, the ancient Azerbaijanis had the
highest respect for it. They considered it as life-giver and
Religion Based on Fire
Zoroastrianism, a religion based on the worship of fire, was
once practiced in Azerbaijan before the Arabs invaded the land
in the 7th century and forced everyone to accept the Islamic
religion. In fact, you can still find a fire-worshipper's temple
not far from Baku. In Zoroastrianism, the human breath was thought
to be unclean. Priests serving at these temples used to put a
cloth over their mouth and nose so that they wouldn't breath
on the fire which they considered sacred. Even though this religion
is no longer practiced in Azerbaijan, some people in certain
regions still practice the custom of never blowing out a fire
or extinguishing the flames in their oil lamps.
at Fire Worshipper's Temple, now a Museum, outside Baku. Photo:
Blessings and Curses
In Azerbaijan, there are many customs and legends related to
fire. Fire is associated with success so there are several blessings
and curses related to it. If people say, "May you never
lack fire," that means they wish you a comfortable life.
If they want to curse you, they may say, "May your fire
be quenched forever."
Fire has been used in Azeri weddings from ancient times to symbolize
a wish for the health and comfort of the newlyweds. Some of these
traditions are still practiced today in the countryside. Sometimes,
when a bride leaves her father's home, she walks around a fire
three times and then she takes a lamp lit in her father's home
and carries it to the new home where she will live with her husband.
Probably the most striking fire-related customs occur during
the spring celebration called Noruz (March 20-21). This Festival,
celebrating the first day of Spring, dates back to the Zoroastrian
religion. On the Wednesday before Noruz, boys build bonfires
in the streets and fields and leap over the flames. They have
to watch out not to fall in the fire and get burned. Tradition
says that by jumping over the fire, the goodness of the New Year
will come and the bad things of the past year will go away. People
often wear red clothing at Noruz and decorate their homes in
In Azerbaijan, it's possible to visit places where the land is
actually "on fire." In this region where so much oil
is buried deep in the ground, gas emissions seep to the surface
of the earth and catch fire. There are many stories about mountains
and hillsides associated with such fires. For instance, there's
a legend about Yanardagh (pronounced yah-NAR-dag) which means
"Burning Mountain." People say that the fire coming
out of the mountain rose from a young man deeply in love.
At Chiraglidagh (chee-RAHG-lee-dag) which means "Mountain
with Light" near Gobustan, a brave young man turned into
a burning fire so he could rescue 40 young women.
Another story associated with
this place says that the flames on the mountain protected the
people living in a village nearby. When enemies tried to attack
at night, the people didn't know what to do. An old man prayed
to God, asking Him to show them a way to escape. Soon afterwards,
a light began to shine out of the mountain rocks nearby. The
people followed that path and climbed over the mountain to the
other side. When their enemies tried to chase them, the light
turned into a flaming fire and blocked their path.
The legend of Yanarsu (yah-NAR-su) which means "Burning
Water" is about a mother who couldn't find her lost son
though she wandered all over the plains of Mughan. Exhausted,
she sat down and cried so much that her tears formed a small
river. Legend says that she herself was turned into a tree that
rooted itself there by the edge of the river. A few years later,
the grief from the mother's heart caused the river to catch fire.
The local people say that they have seen the flames shimmering
on the river at night. Some people believe that sick people will
be cured if they see these flames.
Not far from Baku on the Absheron Peninsula between the villages
of Mahammadli and Diguah, there's a hillside on fire. It always
is on fire, even the rains don't quench the flames. This fire
has been burning for as long as anyone can remember. There's
a restaurant nearby and if you go there at nighttime, you'll
see a spectacular sight - one that's hard to forget. The dancing
flames aren't much higher than two or three feet tall, yet like
any gas-fed fire, they throw off a tremendous heat, making it
impossible to stand very close by. Places like these are exactly
the reason why ancient travelers called Azerbaijan "the
Land of Fire."
Maharram Gasimli is Deputy Director
of the Nizami Institute of Literature at Azerbaijan's Academy
of Sciences. Jean Patterson also contributed to this article.
From Azerbaijan International (6.3) Autumn 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
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