Her recent passage through Azerbaijan brought Italian photographer Machi di Pace to Xinaliq, a very small and very remote village in the Caucasus Mountains, at 2,500 meters (ca. 8,200 feet) above sea level, in search of the hidden flame sanctuaries.
The secluded village of Xinaliq is an incredible place, where the people are completely different from the rest of the Azeri inhabitants: They speak their own unique language and their features are rather European, with a light skin tone and light eyes. The women here carry an important role in the society.
My aspiration for this journey through Azerbaijan was to discover eternal flames of an ancient sanctuary, hidden in the mountains.
A long time ago, the inhabitants of these high-alpine places were worshipers of Zoroastrian fire. And these flames, which spontaneously erupt as natural gas from the ground, still exist today in the mountains of Azerbaijan.
Only the shepherds know which path to take along the way to reach the Ateshgah—the flame sanctuary—where they rest to warm their feet by the flames and boil water in their mugs.
The Azerbaijani village of Xinaliq only accessible in fine weather—and even then four-wheel drive is necessary to traverse the rugged mountain road up. The deep, steep rockwalls of Cloudcatcher Canyon quickly become so narrow one car can barely pass some stretches of the canyon. Through the deep gorge runs a small river that leads to the secluded village of Xinaliq. Once on top, a wide view opens to the mountainous landscape.
High up in the Caucasus Mountains, there is the Ateshgah, a natural flame sanctuary venerated by the ancient Zoroastrian fire worshipers, where today the shepherds rest and warm up. The underground gas fuels the eternal flames.
The shepherds boil tea water in a metal mug on the hot rocks that are heated by the natural flame coming out of the ground.
The eldest and the youngest daughter of a typical family in Xinaliq. They invited me into their home to have lunch with them.
An everyday scene in the village of Xinaliq, where the small houses were surrounded by snow when I was visiting.
An old woman outside her house with a shovel for the snow. The bricks she has piled up are made from dung and straw and used as fuel to heat the house.
A mother with her daughter in a typical Xinaliq house. After a lunch of lentils, the family lingers, relaxing and chatting over a warm cup of tea. △