"Baku Flame Towers" by Firuza via Flickr Creative Commons

Soon after your plane touches down on the tarmac of Baku, Azerbaijan, you’ll be greeted by the sight of its iconic Flame Towers. Their tapered tops and curvy sides sit on a hillside overlooking the Caspian Sea and act as a perfect representation of the country’s history and culture. At night, the entire complex appears to be set ablaze as flickering flames flash across the 10,000 high-power LED luminaries worked into the buildings’ exterior.

But that isn't the only fiery spot in the country. Small pockets of the Azerbaijani countryside have been literally and mysteriously engulfed in flames for centuries. As a result, the country has long been a hot spot for the Zoroastrian fire cult as well as tourists who can’t quite resist the thought of witnessing flames that appear to have no source and miraculously never run out of fuel.

Photo Credit: Graham

On Fire for 65 Years

Yanar Dag is often referred to as "Fire Mountain” and even though it’s more of a hill than a mountain, its 10 meter wall of fire is still an impressive sight. Local legend tells a tale of a careless shepherd who started the fire in the 1950s after heedlessly discarding a smoking matchstick. The flames have been going strong ever since.

A 30-minute trip outside Baku, Yanar Dag can be reached by public bus, either number 147 from metro station Azadliq or number 217 from metro Koroghlu. Evening is an ideal time to visit as the flames illuminate the dark hillside and the cooler temperatures allow you to appreciate the heat radiating from the flickering mass. Silhouettes clustered around the flames may give you the urge to start roasting marshmallows, but the strong smell of oil is an ever-present reminder that the fire you’re huddled around in not an ordinary bonfire.

Photo Credit: BBC World Service

Where do the Flames Come From?

The answer to the mystery of the eternal flames? Natural gas. Azerbaijan has enormous natural gas reserves beneath its surface. So much so that people often see it leaking through the top soil or into rivers. Some streams are so saturated with the substance that as little as a lit match will cause it to ignite. If a fire over a natural gas pocket is set, it will burn, regardless of the weather until it runs out of fuel. The fires, which used to be widespread, have become less common over the years as companies exploit the gas reserves and deplete the natural fuel. Be sure to visit while they're still going strong.

Although today we have a scientific explanation for this phenomenon, the early settlers were in awe of the seemingly inexplicable flames. The natural fires were considered to have played a big part in the creation of Zoroastrianism — a mystical faith centered around ceremonial fire cults. Yanar Dag is still often visited by pilgrims from Azerbaijan, India and Iran to pay homage to the fire gods.

"Yanar Dag - the Fire Mountain" by BBC World Service via Flickr Creative Commons

Other Attractions

No matter how intriguing a site is, it’s difficult to justify flying half way across the world for some flames. But don't worry; there’s plenty to keep you busy around Baku. The nearby Ateshgah Temple is worth a visit to learn how Azerbaijan’s fires shaped its historical and religious narrative. The city of Baku itself offers everything a sightseer could want from an Old City and medieval sandstone palace to shaded piazzas, streets lined with boutiques and cafes and modern museums.