For thousands of years, residents of Azerbaijan’s Absheron Peninsula have lived normal lives, despite the ground constantly threatening to explode beneath their feet.
Living in a land of fireAt the historical heart of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city, an Azeri woman cooks naan, a round flatbread, in a tandoori oven. She’s in her restaurant, hard at work to keep a boisterous room of diners happy and well fed. The fragrant aroma of fresh bread mixes with that of burning charcoal, filling the place with a homely vibe. The bread she bakes will likely be paired with lamb and goat kebabs, or accompanied with roasted vegetables.
Eating out is a routine in the many restaurants of Baku’s Icheri Sheher neighbourhood. Customers aren’t fazed by the fact that, that at any minute, everything could go up in flames. (Credit: Kit Yeng Chan)
An odd natural phenomenonWithout warning, underground pockets of methane gas explode through soft spots in the earth across the Absheron Peninsula, where Baku is located. This creates an odd natural phenomenon called ‘mud volcanoes’. Jutting out of eastern Azerbaijan into the Caspian Sea, the Absheron Peninsula has 400 of the world’s 1,000-odd mud volcanoes – the most on the planet. These bubbly and flatulent mounds are mostly dormant, but do explode at random. (Credit: Kit Yeng Chan)
Dangerous and unpredictableEruptions are dangerous and unpredictable. In 2001, the Lokbatan volcano, located 15km south of Baku, shot flames hundreds of metres into the air, filling the sky with mud and smoke for three days. The most recent eruption was on 6 February 2017, when the Otman Bozdag volcano in the suburbs of Baku flared a 350m-high blaze into the sky. Luckily, no one was injured. (Credit: Kit Yeng Chan)
Defying the oddsDespite the landscape’s explosive volatility, people have called the Absheron Peninsula home for millennia. The Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, a Unesco World Heritage Site, sits 64km southwest of capital Baku in the basin of the Jeyrankechmaz River ‒ and just a 30-minute drive from Azerbaijan’s main cluster of mud volcanoes. More than 6,000 rock engravings, which date to between 5,000 and 40,000 years ago, have been found on this mountain, testifying that humankind has long survived in this land of fire, despite the odds. (Credit: Kit Yeng Chan)
Worshiping fireAlmost 2,000 years ago, the eternal fires that burst from the ground helped foster Zoroastrianism in the region. One of the oldest monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism is based on the belief that elements are pure and that fire represents God’s light.
The flames even gave the country its name ‒ ‘Azer’, in fact, means ‘fire’. This fiery legacy is still evident in Baku’s Ateshgah Fire Temple, known as the Temple of Eternal Fire. Even if the eternal flame here is not the original, the temple’s structure looks as it did when it was constructed several hundred years ago. This is where, centuries ago, merchants and adventurers of Zoroastrian and Hindu faiths would share quarters and stories of their respective travels to Europe and South and Central Asia. (Credit: Kit Yeng Chan)
Fuelling tourismToday, the Absheron Peninsula’s combustible landscape has fuelled tourism to the region – especially since Azerbaijan relaxed its visa policy this year. The burning Yanar Dag hill (pictured) is one of the region’s most popular sites: the hill ignited by chance 70 years ago when a shepherd tossed his cigarette butt on the ground, and a 10m patch of land has continued to burn ever since. (Credit: Kit Yeng Chan)
A source of wealthMeanwhile, Azerbaijan continues to prosper from the fuels found beneath its surface. Flammable natural gas has been the country’s constant threat, but also its main source of wealth. Azerbaijan has also been extracting oil since 1846, regardless of its location on top of one of nature’s biggest pressure cookers. Locals believe that as long as they build their homes away from mud volcanoes and oil drills, they’ll stay safe. (Credit: Kit Yeng Chan)
Honouring past and presentProfits from gas and oil resources have helped transform Baku into a futuristic city where old and new blend seamlessly. The Fire Towers ‒ a complex of three skyscrapers built in the shape of flames ‒ soar over Baku’s skyline as a grand celebration of Azerbaijan’s present. Below them, centuries-old structures stand as a testament to those who built a civilisation in a land of fire. (Credit: Kit Yeng Chan)