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|What would you call a place where even the water catches on fire? Hell? Not really. Yanar Bulag, or “burning spring”, is located in Astara, a city in southern Azerbaijan. There is a small pavilion in Astara that houses a standing pipe. Water comes gurgling out of this pipe which, at first glance, is not unusual. But if you touch this water with a lighted match, something very unusual happens. The water bursts into flames! The locals believe this water has remedial properties and they often drink it while it is alight! The water gets its combustible character from a high content of methane. So, where does the methane come from?
Azerbaijan is located on the south-west banks of the Caspian Sea next to Armenia and Georgia. It is among the oldest oil and gas producing countries in the world. Since antiquity, historians and travelers such as Marco Polo in the 13th century have recorded seeing numerous natural fires burning throughout the country. Spontaneous outbursts of fire there are caused by gas seepages and, over time, innumerable observations of this phenomenon have resulted in Azerbaijan being given the moniker “the Land of Fire”.
| A cult of fire worshippers, the Zoroastrians, appeared in this region about 2,000 years ago. They built numerous Zoroastrian fire temples all over the region around the flames. Today, there are still places where you can see these fires. Yanar Bulag, in Astara, is one example. Another is Ateshgah of Baku, the “temple of fire”, near Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku.
There is at least one other place to see the “Land of Fire” in action. This is Yanar Dag, literally “burning mountain”, a natural gas fire which blazes continuously on a hillside also near Baku. Some of the flames stretch into the air about 3 meters from the thin, porous sandstone layer beneath them. The surrounding air is said to smell of gas and the flames never die out.
Today, Azerbaijan has a population of well over 9,000,000 people and the cause of these fires is well understood. The export of oil and gas is a mainstay of the modern economy there. But, human habitat in the region goes back to the stone ages when much more of the terrain was baked in fire. What did these early inhabitants think of the “Land of Fire” then? And what did they call it?