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Ateshgah of Baku

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Ateshgah of Baku
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The Baku Ateshgah (Azerbaijani: Atəşgah from Persian: آتشگاه Atashgāh) or "Fire Temple" is a castle-like religious structure in Surakhani, a suburb of greater Baku, Azerbaijan.

The pentagonal complex, which has a courtyard surrounded by cells for monks and a tetrapillar-altar in the middle, was built during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was abandoned after 1883 when oil and gas plants were established in the vicinity. The complex was turned into a museum in 1975 and now receives 15,000 visitors a year. It was nominated for World Heritage Site status in 1998 and was declared a state historical-architectural reserve by decree of the Azeri President on 19 December 2007.


The toponym Ateshgah/Atashgah (Persian and Azerbaijani pronunciation) or Ateshgyakh/Atashgyakh (Russian pronunciation) literally means "home of fire." The Persian-origin term atesh (آتش) means fire, and is present in several languages as a Persian loan-word including in Azerbaijani and Hindustani. Gah (گاہ) derives from Middle Persian and means "throne" or "bed". The name refers to the fact that the site is situated atop a now-exhausted natural gas field, which once caused natural fires to spontaneously burn there as the gas emerged from seven natural surface vents. Today, the fires in the complex are fed by gas piped in from Baku, and are only turned on for the benefit of visitors.

Local legend associates the temple at Surakhany with the Fire temples of Zoroastrianism, but this is presumably based on the general identification of any "home of fire" (the common meaning of atashgah) as a Zoroastrian place of worship. While the word exists in Zoroastrian vocabulary, it denotes the altar-like repository for a sacred wood-fire or the sanctum sanctorum where the fire altar stands, but not the greater building around it.

Surakhani, the name of the town where the Ateshgah is located, likely means "a region of holes" (سراخ/suraakh is Persian for hole), but might perhaps be a reference to the fire glow as well (سرخ/sorkh/surkh is Persian for red). A historic alternative name for Azerbaijan as a whole has been Odlar Yurdu, Azeri for land of fires.


, the second venerates the holy fire (जवालाजी, Jwala Ji) and dates the inscription to Samvat 1802 (संवत १८०२, or 1745-46 CE). The Persian quatrain below is the sole Persian inscription on the temple and, though ungrammatical, also refers to the fire (آتش) and dates it to 1158 (١١٥٨) Hijri, which is also 1745 CE.]] in Sanskrit at the Ateshgah.]]

Surakhani is located on the Absheron peninsula, which is famous for oil oozing out of the ground naturally, as well as for natural oil fires. Zoroastrianism has a long history in Azerbaijan and the lands of Absheron were held to be sacred by Zoroastrians due to these natural fires.

Hindu or Zoroastrian?

Some scholars have speculated that the Ateshgah may have been an ancient Zoroastrian shrine that was decimated by invading Islamic armies during the Muslim conquest of Persia and its neighboring regions. It has also been asserted that, "according to historical sources, before the construction of the Indian Temple of Fire (Atashgah) in Surakhani at the end of the 17th century, the local people also worshiped at this site because of the 'seven holes with burning flame'."

Fire is considered extremely sacred in both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism (as Agni and Atar respectively), and there has been debate on whether the Atashgah was originally a Hindu structure or a Zoroastrian one. The trident mounted atop the structure is usually a distinctly Hindu sacred symbol (as the Trishul, which is commonly mounted on temples) and has been cited by Zoroastrian scholars as a specific reason for considering the Atashgah as a Hindu site. However, an Azeri presentation on the history of Baku, which calls the shrine a "Hindu temple", identifies the trident as a Zoroastrian symbol of "good thoughts, good words and good deeds".

One early European commentator, Jonas Hanway, bucketed Zoroastrians and Hindus together with respect to their religious beliefs: "These opinions, with a few alterations, are still maintained by some of the posterity of the ancient Indians and Persians, who are called Gebers or Gaurs, and are very zealous in preserving the religion of their ancestors; particularly in regard to their veneration for the element of fire." Geber is a Persian term for Zoroastrians, while Gaurs are a priestly Hindu caste. A later scholar, A. V. Williams Jackson, drew a distinction between the two groups. While stating that "the typical features which Hanway mentions are distinctly Indian, not Zoroastrian" based on the worshipers' attires and tilaks, their strictly vegetarian diets and open veneration for cows, he left open the possibility that a few "actual Gabrs (i.e. Zoroastrians, or Parsis)" may also have been present at the shrine alongside larger Hindu groups.

Indian local residents and pilgrims

In the late Middle Ages, there were significant Indian communities throughout Central Asia. In Baku, Indian merchants from the Multan region of Punjab controlled much of the commercial economy, along with the Armenians. Much of the woodwork for ships on the Caspian was also done by Indian craftsmen. Some commentators have theorized that Baku's Indian community may have been responsible for the construction or renovation of the Ateshgah.

As European academics and explorers began arriving in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, they documented encounters with dozens of Hindus at the shrine as well as Hindu pilgrims en-route in the regions between North India and Baku.

Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin's Reise durch Russland (1771) is cited in Karl Eduard von Eichwald's Reise in den Caucasus (Stuttgart, 1834) where the naturalist Gmelin is said to have observed Yogi austerities being performed by devotees. Geologist Eichwald restricts himself to a mention of the worship of Rama, Krishna, Hanuman and Agni. In the 1784 account of George Forster of the Bengal Civil Service, the square structure was about 30 yards across, surrounded by a low wall and containing many apartments. Each of these had a small jet of sulphurous fire issuing from a funnel "constructed in the shape of a Hindu altar." The fire was used for worship, cooking and warmth, and would be regularly extinguished.

"The Ateshgyakh Temple looks not unlike a regular town caravansary - a kind of inn with a large central court, where caravans stopped for the night. As distinct from caravansaries, however, the temple has the altar in its center with tiny cells for the temple's attendants - Indian ascetics who devoted themselves to the cult of fire - and for pilgrims lining the walls."

Inscriptions and likely period of construction

There are several inscriptions on the Ateshgah. They are all in either Sanskrit or Punjabi, with the exception of one Persian inscription that occurs below an accompanying Sanskrit invocation to Lord Ganesh and Jwala Ji. Although the Persian inscription contains grammatical errors, both the inscriptions contain the same year date of 1745 Common Era (Samvat/संवत 1802/१८०२ and Hijri 1158/١١٥٨). Taken as a set, the dates on the inscriptions range from Samvat 1725 to Samvat 1873, which corresponds to the period from 1668 CE to 1816 CE. This, coupled with the assessment that the structure looks relatively new, has led some scholars to postulate the seventeenth century as its likely period of construction. One press report asserts that local records exist that state that the structure was built by the Baku Hindu traders community around the time of the fall of the Shirvanshah dynasty and annexation by the Russian Empire following the Russo-Persian War (1722–1723).

The inscriptions in the temple in Sanskrit (in Nagari Devanagari script) and Punjabi (in Gurmukhi script) identify the site as a place of Hindu and Sikh worship, and state it was built and consecrated for Jwala Ji, the modern Hindu fire deity. Jwala (जवाला/ज्वाला) means flame in Sanskrit (c.f. Indo-European cognates: proto-Indo-European guelh, English: glow, Lithuanian: zvilti) and Ji is an honorific used in the Indian subcontinent. There is a famed shrine to Jwala Ji in the Himalayas, in the settlement of Jawalamukhi, in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India to which the Atashgah bears strong resemblance and on which some scholars (such as A. V. Williams Jackson) suggested the current structure may have been modeled. However, other scholars have stated that some Jwala Ji devotees used to refer to the Kangra shrine as the 'smaller Jwala Ji' and the Baku shrine as the 'greater Jwala Ji'. Other deities mentioned in the inscriptions include Ganesh and Shiva. The Punjabi language inscriptions are quotations from the Adi Granth, while some of the Sanskrit ones are drawn from the Sat Sri Ganesaya namah text.

Examination by Zoroastrian priests

In 1876, James Bryce visited Azerbaijan and found that "the most remarkable mineral product is naphtha, which bursts forth in many places, but most profusely near Baku, on the coast of the Caspian, in strong springs, some of which are said to always be burning." Without referencing the Atashgah by name, he mentioned of the Zoroastrians that "after they were extirpated from Persia by the Mohammedans, who hate them bitterly, some few occasionally slunk here on pilgrimage" and that "under the more tolerant sway of the Czar, a solitary priest of fire is maintained by the Parsee community of Bombay, who inhabits a small temple built over one of the springs".

The temple was examined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by Parsi dasturs, some of whom had also visited the Jwala Ji at Kangra in the Himalayas. Based on the inscriptions and the structure, their assessment was that the temple was a Hindu shrine. In 1925, a Zoroastrian priest and academic Jivanji Jamshedji Modi traveled to Baku to determine if the temple had indeed been once a Zoroastrian place of worship. Until then (and again today), the site was visited by Zoroastrian pilgrims from India. In his Travels Outside Bombay, Modi observed that "not just me but any Parsee who is a little familiar with our Hindu brethren's religion, their temples and their customs, after examining this building with its inscriptions, architecture, etc., would conclude that this is not a [Zoroastrian] Atash Kadeh but is a Hindu Temple, whose Brahmins (priests) used to worship fire (Sanskrit: Agni)."

Besides the physical evidence indicating that the complex was a Hindu place of worship, the existing structural features are not consistent with those for any other Zoroastrian place of worship (for instance, cells for ascetics, fireplace open to all sides, ossuary pit and no water source. It cannot be ruled out that the site may once have been a Zoroastrian place of worship, but there is no evidence to suggest that this was the case.

Claimed visit by Czar Alexander III

There were local claims made to a visiting Zoroastrian dastur in the early twentieth century that the Russian czar Alexander III had also witnessed Hindu fire prayer rituals at this location.

Exhaustion of the natural gas

The fire was once fed by a vent from a subterranean natural gas field located directly beneath the complex, but heavy exploitation of the natural gas reserves in the area during Soviet rule resulted in the flame going out in 1969. Today, the museum's fire is fed by mains gas piped in from Baku city.

Public recognition

An illustration of the Baku Fire Temple was included on two denominations of Azerbaijan's first issue of postage stamps, released in 1919. Five oil derricks appear in the background.

By a presidential order issued in December 2007, the shrine complex, which had hitherto been officially associated with the "Shirvanshah Palace Complex State Historical and Architectural Museum-Reserve" (Государственного историко-архитектурного музея-заповедника «Комплекс Дворца Ширваншахов») was declared as a distinct reserve by the Azeri government (the "Ateshgah Temple State Historical Architectural Reserve, Государственным историко-архитектурным заповедником «Храм Атешгях»).

In July 2009, the Azeri President, Ilham Aliyev, announced a grant of AZN 1 million for the upkeep of the shrine.

See also

  • Khinalyg
  • Gobustan
  • Yanar Dag
  • Zoroastrianism in Azerbaijan
  • Hinduism in Azerbaijan

External links and photographs

References and further reading


Ateshgah of Baku

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Explore Azerbaijan 3 September 2013
The temple of fire worshipers - an ancient religious structure built on the site of release of natural gas. It was rebuilt in the 18th century.
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