Page 1 - Background to the Village Khinalig, its People and Atashgah.
Highest Atashgah in the World?
|East Caucasus region map with locations of some old Atashgahs & historic sites. Image credit: Base map - Encarta. Modifications - K. E. Eduljee|
Khinalig Location & Heritage
On October 5, 2016 a team of dedicated and praise-worthy pioneers led by Farroukh Jorat an engineer from Baku (the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan) completed the
construction of an Atashgah, a House of Fire - otherwise a Zoroastrian Fire Temple - at the site of an ancient Atashgah* at Khinalig**, the highest village in the Republic of Azerbaijan.
[Atashgah is also spelt Ateshgah. **Khinalig is also spelt Xinaliq, Khinalug, Khinalyg & Khinalugh.]
At an altitude of 2350 m and deep within Azerbaijan's Greater Caucasus Mountains, sits the village of Khinalig, home to some 2,000 residents. The village is a 52 km drive from Quba (also spelt Guba) town, Khinalig's district capital.
By their own accounts, the residents of Khinalig were Zoroastrians prior to becoming Muslims.
The inhabitants of Khinalig are indigenous to Azerbaijan and speak the Khinalig language, a now isolated Northeast Caucasian language. According to
Sherif Ovzetin, a local history teacher, the locals trace their origins to one of 26 'Albanian' tribes. ['Albanian' is an English term not to be confused with the Balkan Albanians.] Their region would have been called Ardhan in Parthian and Arran in Middle Persian. Aran now is a central province of Azerbaijan. The entire region is steeped in Zoroastrian-Aryan history.
Since Khinalig village is located above the natural tree line, except for some terraced land, extensive agriculture is not an option though the residents collect wild herbs for medicinal purposes (see below). Their main occupation is instead, herding - there being, by one estimate, 6,000 sheep in Khinalig. As in Maymand, Kerman, Iran, the herders are semi-nomadic though in this case, they migrate with their flocks during the winter - when temperatures in Khinalig drop down to -20℃. Many move more than 70 km south to the warmer pastures of the Shirvan Plains (see map above) bordering Aran to the north.
|Khinalig village looking south. Note the henna-like colour of the barren surrounding slopes. Image credit: loykin.com.|
'Khinalig' in the Azeri language means 'henna-coloured place' (q.v. Jorat's 'Zoroastrianism in Northern Shirvan') - 'khina' or 'hina' being the Azeri word for 'henna'. The name may stem from the surrounding henna (orange) coloured slopes. [See the image above. We also read elsewhere that 'Khinalig' means "where henna grows".] When the village's name is pronounced "Hinalig" or "Hinalug", the first part does sound like 'henna'. Khinalig is called "Ketish" or "Katsh" by its residents and Farroukh Jorat informs me that 'ketish' means 'village' or 'place' in their language - a word similar to 'kadeh' in Iranian.
The land around the village has been declared a nature reserve by the government of Azerbaijan while the old village has also been declared a protected area. According to Aynur Talibova in an article 'Xinaliq - an Island of Antiquity' "Since (the old part of) Xinaliq has been declared a protected area, it is prohibited to build new houses there."
For further background information, please see our pages on Caucasia and
|A Khinalig Street. Image credit: Fariz Abasov.|
Azerbaijan's Name & Fire
Of particular interest to us is the association of the name 'Azerbaijan' with fire. Farroukh Jorat states the locals called Azerbaijan, "Aghvan". The name bears resemblance to 'Athravan', keeper of fire.
When the region was part of Persia's sister kingdom Media (Mada) during the Achaemenid era (c.700-330 BCE), its Old Persian-Median name was Aturpatan (the English version of the Greco-Roman name being Media-Atropatene) i.e. Atur-pat-an. Old Persian 'Atur' is derived from the Avestan language 'Atar' meaning fire. 'Pat' may have been derived from the Avestan 'payu' meaning 'guardian' or 'protector'. Numerous Iranian place names end with 'stan' 'gan' and 'an' meaning 'place'.
Later, during the Parthian era (1st cent. BCE to 3rd cent. CE) the Old Persian name 'Aturpatan' evolved to 'Atarpatakan' (see Greater Bundahishn 29.12) and then Adurbaigan. Eventually, the name evolved to the 'Azerbaijan' as the New Persian 'Adur' evolved to 'Azar' or 'Azer'.
Since the lands of greater Azerbaijan are today divided between an independent republic and four Iranian provinces, for the sake of differentiation, we spell the name of the republic as 'Azerbaijan' and that of, or related to, the Iranian provinces as 'Azarbaijan'.
Khinalig's Ever-Burning Fire & Atashgah
|Road from Khinalig village to the Atashgah site with the alpine meadows in bloom. Image credit: Fariz Abasov.|
Farroukh Jorat notes that five km outside Khinalig village - at an altitude of about 3,000m and in the midst of the slopes descending from Qizil Gaya massif - a flame burns continuously fed by natural methane gas emerging from the ground*. The site has been called an "Atashgah" by Khinalig's residents even before the 2016
construction led by Jorat. Before the construction, the flame used to be surrounded by slate shards said to have been part of the ruins of an ancient Fire Temple.
[*Jorat: The natural fire burns on top of a bed of methane clathrate (a supramolecular compound of methane and water). The clathrate, which looks like snow, decomposes to water and methane, a flammable gas.]
|Khinalig natural fire and surrounding hills. Image credit: 5aze.info.|
|The Khinalig Atashgah's fire surrounded by slate shards on the slopes of Qizil/Gizil Gaya (Golden Rock). Image credit: Pavel Hanžl at Panoramio.|
F. Jorat in 'Zoroastrianism in Northern Shirvan' notes that Adam Olearius (1599 – 1671, secretary to Frederick III, the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp's ambassador to the Shah of Safavid Persia), called the Caucasus Mountains "Elburs" and wrote about sacred fires on Shah-dagh Mountain as follows: "Elburs is the part of Caucasus, bordered by Georgia and the area of Tabesseran... Earlier Persians kept their ever-burning fire on Elburs and worshiped there. Now, (as reported Teixera and others), such fires and the worshippers... fled to India...."
According to a local legend, a herder once stopped at the site and gathered some dried shrubs to make a fire. As soon as he struck a light to start the fire, flames sprung up around him. Frightened, he kissed the ground and prayed to God. Ever since then, the fire has never gone out. The place has been revered as holy and became a place of worship.
Dr. Idris N. Aliyev, Head of the Khinalig Archaeological Expedition and research fellow at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, in his 'Summary of archaeological excavations in the area of the “Atashgah” gas source near Khinalig village' notes that "according to Khinalig legends" the Atashgah, where a fire has burned for centuries, is sacred. Even after the adoption of Islam, in the minds of the locals, the fire remains sacred. The locals connect the shrine "with their past when they were Zoroastrians and this tradition is kept in the understanding of their past." While the inhabitants of Khinalig are now largely Muslim, they were at one time Zoroastrians. Their religious views are a syncretic combination of Islamic and Zoroastrian beliefs. As part of these beliefs, fire is held with special respect. Further, "As a result of the work carried out where the gas outlet is situated, ruins of the structures resembling an altar have been identified. It is possible with some caution to connect a stone pile with a simple primitive likeness of an altar. It is noteworthy that the plates mounted above the gas source were stacked creating a kind of altar, and for centuries maintained their configuration [edited slightly for syntax]."
The natural flame's site is located on the slopes of the 3,700m high Qizil/Gizil Gaya (Golden Rock) Mountain east of the nearby 4,200m high Shahdagh (King Mountain).
|Path from the Atashgah to a waterfall with Qizil Gaya in the background. Image credit: Fariz Abasov.|
Khinalig's Atashgah as a Pir
In his article, 'Zoroastrianism in Northern Shirvan', Farroukh Jorat calls the Khinalig Atashgah, a "pir" (meaning 'old' or 'aged'. A pir is a religious site other than an official place of worship). Jorat goes on to say that while worshipping at sites called "pirs" is forbidden in Islam, the residents of Khinalig nevertheless have various pirs which they venerate and where they offer prayers. According to local legend, the name of the Khinalig Village Atashgah's last priest was Pir Jomard "who lived a thousand years ago" (i.e., in the 9-10th cent. CE. The veneration of pirs in Khinalig is similar to the veneration of pirs by the Zoroastrians of Yazd, Iran. We find some of the similarities in customs and clothing very striking. Also see Pirs of Yazd.)
The anonymous author of the page 'On one of the roofs of the world: Xinaliq' at the site Poemas del río Wang who was a guest of Khinalig resident Gadjibala Badalov*, states, "At the highest point of the village stands a mosque, built around 1200, and slightly below it is the 7th-century house of a pir, a Zoroastrian holy man. In the woods there can be found a few Ateshgahs, Zoroastrian fire temples, and around the village are the tombs of many Zoroastrian, Christian and Muslim pirs, which are still worshiped by the villagers, who let them be buried around them." [*Gadjibala Badalov is a sheep owner, historian and author, His fourth book is on the names and traditional uses of the Khinalig's medicinal plants. Incidentally, locals claim that Khinalig's honey cures seventy diseases.]
|Old coins collected by Khinalig resident Gadjibala Badalov. Image credit: riowang.blogspot.|
Old Khinalig Village & Zoroastrian Sites
Main Mosque Previously a Fire Temple: Khinalig has several mosques and the main Friday/Abu Muslim Mosque in the old part of the village is said to have been the site of a Zoroastrian Temple, an Atashgah, before being converted to a mosque by Abu Muslim (Jorat: meaning 'Father Moslem' in Arabic - "it seems is not to be a real name").
Aynur Talibova also mentions a "Picomard Mosque". 'Picomard' is also spelt 'Piajomard' and is likely a corruption of 'Pir Jomard' the last Zoroastrian priest who tended the village Atashgah (we had previously cited Jorat as stating that Pir Jomard was the last Zoroastrian priest and that he lived over a thousand years ago). This mosque was built in 1388 CE according to a plaque at the site. If a previous structure at the site had anything to do with Pir Jomard, the present building could be a renovation or a rebuilding over the old structure.
We are unclear if the Friday and Picomard Mosques are the same or different mosques. Given the impreciseness of the source information on the village mosques, it has been very difficult for us to develop a clear understanding of the different previous Fire Temples within old Khinalig village.
Fire Temple's Priest, Pir Jomard's, House: Khinalig resident Gadjibala Badalov states, "At the highest point of the village stands a mosque, built around 1200, and slightly below it, the 7th-century house of a pir, a Zoroastrian holy man." Perhaps this pir was the Zoroastrian priest Pir Jomard (also called Pirocomard).
Tower & Its Fire Temple: In 'Xinaliq - an Island of Antiquity', Aynur Talibova mentions that a "tower" called the Burq /Burj shrine [Jorat: Burj means zodiac] , was once the site of the Fire Temple "built in the 7th century in the most ancient part of the village. It is visited only during Muslim religious holidays."
Jorat, Farroukh - 'Zoroastrianism in Northern Shirvan' & 'Atashgah of Khinalig' at WZO
Dr. Idris N. Aliyev - Summary of archaeological excavations in the area of the “Atashgah” gas source near Khinalig village
Aynur Talibova - Xinaliq - an Island of Antiquity
Gadjibala Badalov - 'On one of the roofs of the world: Xinaliq' at Poemas del río Wang
Sherif Ovzetin - Cited by Vladicravich
Wikipedia - Khinalug
» Next Page 2 - Khinalig Atashgah Construction Beginnings