Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Land of Fire

On Thursday, May 21, we learned the reasoning behind Azerbaijan’s pseudonym: the Land of Fire. Within a forty-minute drive outside Baku we saw a mountain spewing fire called Yanar Dag, one of several mountains in Azerbaijan that erupt in flames when heat and gas combine. The natural gasses from within the Earth ignite when they meet the hot air in the atmosphere, creating the perfect sauna for a photo-op! Everything made sense after we saw the natural fire; with inexplicable flames shooting from the side of a mountain it was no wonder the Azeri people used to worship fire. People tend to explain the inexplicable with either magic or deities, and in this case it was believed that fire was a divine spirit since there was no reason behind it and it provided heat, a way to cook food, and light. This practice of worshipping fire became known as Zoroastrianism.

      We also visited the Ateshkah fire temple just outside of Baku City. The fire was in a circular pit in the temple in the center of the complex, which originally contained rooms for traveling merchants and their horses as a Karvan Sarayi. When Islam became the religion of Azerbaijan around the ninth century, the temple was destroyed. Later, Indian monks and merchants, who still practiced Zoroastrian religion, sponsored the restoration of the temple. Enjoy some pictures of Ateshkah, as it was restored and presented to us.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Our Weekend Getaway to Sheki

     On our drive from Baku to Sheki we saw rolling hills of farmlands, fields of poppies, tree covered mountains, and snow capped mountains in the distance. The picturesque countryside was like scenery from a fairytale. The Caucasian mountains looked like crumpled blankets sprawled across the land. The drive there was a trip in itself, and we spent a great deal of the ride hanging out of the car taking pictures.
     When we arrived in Sheki we found out that the road to our cabin had been washed away from the heavy rainfall the day before. This kind of rain is typical for Sheki because the river that runs through the town catches all of the water coming from the mountain. The roads in town have trenches about 2 feet deep to help contain the rivers that form in the streets during the rainstorms. These rainstorms are called “sels”. Thank goodness we did not arrive during the “sel”. We parked the cars and got into taller cars to take us on a back road to our cabin. Our ride was like the computer game Oregon Trail, except it was real life! We traveled down narrow stone streets in a small village in the mountains, woodsy back roads, and then across a river- all in a car. Once we arrived, we had a traditional Azeri meal family style. There was a traditional folk music performance celebrating a female composer Shafiga Akhundova from Azerbaijan being filmed in the same place.

     Shekhi has some very ancient places to visit such as the Xan Sarayi’s palace that was built in the 18th century. This palace is indescribable because it is so magnificent. There were gorgeous old trees that were planted around 1530 that looked like the guards of the palace. 

     We also visited an Albanian church from the 5th century that had the walls of a pagan temple from the 1st century B.C. buried underneath it. It’s almost unimaginable how old this place is. This church is one of the oldest standing churches left from this time period in Caucuses.

     We stopped to see the 18th century hotel Karavansaray that was a resting place for merchants on the Silk Road.

     We experienced some of Sheki’s famous sweets in a candy shop. All of the sweets such as Sheki baklava and various candies are made by the shop owners.