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  • Jerome Kocher

69. Azerbaijan - Land of Fire

I am flying over the Caspian Sea, the largest lake in the world, larger than any of the Great Lakes. It’s called a sea because it’s saline like the Dead Sea in the Middle East or Salton Sea in California, all landlocked lakes that once were part of ancient oceans. 

After traveling through the steppes and mountainous areas of the “Stans” I now arrive at the Land of Fire. A literal translation is that Azer means “flame" and Baijan means “keeper.” The port of Baku is its capital.

This simplistic image of fire helps explain Baku as an ancient center of Zoroastrianism as well as a modern giant of oil and gas production. In fact, in 1901 Azerbaijan produced half of the world’s supply of petroleum. The first oil tanker in the world was in the Caspain Sea replacing the wooden barrel which is still used today as a stock exchange term to value the cost of oil. 


Nicknamed Chicago, Baku is also a windy city just off a lake stretching to infinity. The first day I couldn’t see the sky. Fog or smog? I was told that sandstorms from the “stan” steppes were blowing westward. Through the haze emerged buildings sculpted as art. But it's not like Dubai with the biggest this or most opulent that. The architecture here was art. It had a purpose. 

The Flame Towers of Baku, icon of gas and oil wealth. Cultural Center and Downtown.

I walked along the beautiful waterfront promenade of Bulver Park.

But when I wanted to cross the boulevard, I saw no crosswalks. Instead, many of the streets had underground passages with marble that shone brighter than those above ground. A security guard tapped me on the shoulder. No photos. Specific infrastructures of high value like the subway had photo restrictions, not because of paranoia like dictatorial Turkmenistan. Azerbaijan has real concerns - a century old conflict with Armenia. In fact Azerbaijanis are not allowed to leave their country by land borders because of neighboring conflicts. This is not imposed by those other countries, but by the Azerbaijan government. Although they can of course fly anywhere in the world. Well, not Armenia.

To understand this better, just look at their currency. It's one of the few nations that have an outline of their country on their paper money. Notice it is cut in two by a southern corridor from its adversary, Armenia. This dates back to  the Soviet era  when it controlled its Republics by sowing seeds of conflict along their borders. If another country in the Soviet Union created problems with Moscow, the USSR would just leverage these tensions to control the people. Even walking into a Mall here one has to go through a TSA like scanner for a security check. A current peace treaty is on the table with Armenia. But no signature yet.

But back to fire. On a mountain outside Baku they have their own version of an eternal flame - fire continually coming out of a crack in the earth, not quite as dramatic as Turkmenistan’s Darvaza Crater. Here its’s a local attraction with the comfort of ice cream to appreciate nature’s mystery. But over 2000 years ago in the second century B.C. Zoroastrians had cultivated a major Fire Temple here for the same reason. Natural gas leaking out through fissures in the earth became natural centers for their fire temple. 

Zoroaster founded the first monotheistic religion.  It went beyond a nature worship of multiple deities to an expression of a unified divinity within all. This was not fire worship. Fire was a manifestation of light and warmth, imaginatively a spark of the sun, the source of life itself. But it doesn’t stop there. The fire reminds us of the spark of the divine within each of us. The Light, the Wisdom to overcome the Shadows. It was a giant leap in human self consciousness of our relation to the Cosmos. We were not imprisoned in a fractured existence of competing gods. We were one. This divine unity was represented as Ahura Mazda, a winged angel, the very embodiment of Light.

Before you write this off as ancient lore consider the Japanese auto maker Mazda whose logo is a winged gesture in a sunlike circle. Or remember the world's first oil tanker here in the Caspian Sea. It was named, you guessed it, Zoroaster. Zoroastrian communities still exist today, most dominantly in Mumbai, India but also in the U.S. 

Just like most of you, before this trip I had never heard of Azerbaijan, let alone its capital Baku. I would have guessed it was in Africa, like Timbuktu. But Baku has become the highlight of my trip, a refreshing celebration of human creativity. In the “stans” there is such a rich history of the Silk Road with its iconic architecture of Mosques, Mausoleums and Madrasas harkening back to the Golden Age of Islam in the 9-11th century. But here, the architecture mirrors the future. They are not looking backwards. They even have an Olympic stadium when the Olympics were never held. They’re ready for what comes next! Expectation is everything.

Mall versus Mausoleum? I'll take the living over the dead. Going down the escalator in the mall I noticed the huge inner courtyard space in the middle, a common mall motif, came to a point in front of me. I turned around and sure enough the other end was rectangular. They not only designed it in the shape of a boat but the direction was coming from the Caspian Sea towards shore. Art in architecture. Baku has it. But people and art is the next post.

Before I leave Baku Part I, let me also mention the “Not Fire.” The mud volcanoes. At a distance outside the city, these natural phenomena are percolating mud mounds. To our surprise the mud is ice cold. Tastes like my favorite Ayran fermented milk drink, but with more minerals and grit. Yes, the bubbling mud is being pushed up by geothermal natural gas deeper down, but because the mud reservoirs are closer to the surface they are in a state of deep cold refrigeration. No Zoroastrian Temple here! Just the shadow side of Ahura Mazda. A natural balance. Zoroaster wouldn't have it any other way!

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