By Ronnie Gallagher
Azerbaijan is a land of mystery and intrigue. We need only consider the enigmatic and ancient Maiden Tower in the Old City, whose purpose and function is unknown, to realise just how little is known of its past cultures. While history is largely silent on Azerbaijan’s distant past, archaeology informs us that its inhabitants were deeply spiritual, they believed in life after death and in the supernatural. There is much to suggest ancient beliefs involved the worship of natural phenomena and was essentially animistic, with the sun and moon playing important roles. Evidence of spirituality is seen in burial mounds or ‘kurgans’ where human remains in box-like tombs or ‘cists’ often face to the West – towards the setting sun, to the night and the realm of the dead. The veneration of anthropomorphic figures as gods and goddesses was also common, as can be seen in statues on display at Maiden Tower. The abundant rock art at Gobustan also provides numerous clues to past environments, cultures and beliefs.
What is not known, however, is that there are a number of very large anthropomorphic carvings in the countryside - a sort of mega rock art - that have so far gone unnoticed by the public and scientists. For several years these carvings were not obvious and only became apparent after many exploration trips into the countryside in search of Stone Age and Early Bronze Age sites. This aim of this article is to introduce readers to these huge carvings and briefly touch on an incredibly rich and potentially important aspect of Azerbaijan’s archaeological heritage.
For anyone exploring the countryside, the massive anthropomorphic images will not be readily noticed. At best they might simply merit a passing comment or be of only local interest. But, having found several carved examples in archaeologically rich areas, that were either modified by man to enhance natural features or were themselves naturally occurring rock formations, this clearly went beyond coincidence and merited further investigation. Typically, ‘carvings’ are located in areas associated with burial mounds, stone circles, petroglyphs and rock shelters. The fact that no one has seen or appreciated these Azerbaijani images - and there may be many more – is perhaps not surprising, for their existence was unknown.
Once noticed, it became evident that the anthropomorphic carvings were not just mere curiosities, but seemed to be an integral part of an ancient culture. The name given to the phenomenon by Russian scientists is ‘zoomorphism’, of which Mount Ocharovatelnaia in the Altai Mountains is a good example. This rocky outcrop has been carved to enhance its features so that it resembles a huge fish with a gaping mouth. The megalithic heritage of the site is evident from the numerous ‘cup marks’ in the area and in the mouth of the ‘fish’. Studies conducted by the Hermitage Museum identified the site as an ancient sanctuary used for astronomic observation by prehistoric inhabitants. Intriguingly, at a nearby rock art carved platform, the sun can be seen to set into the mouth of the ‘fish’ at the Spring Equinox – as if the animal is swallowing the sun. (Marsadolov). This clearly demonstrates that the ancient Central Asiatic Nomads understood the movement of the heavens, and that they venerated the sun.
With ancient Turkic speaking people in Central Asia ‘worshipping’ at Mt. Ocharovatelnaia in a seemingly animistic and totemic manner, this suggests that similar formations in Azerbaijan, described below, are real and not just coincidental. The ancient mindset was that the landscape was alive with spirits present almost everywhere, in streams, in wood, mountains and so on. Perhaps the anthropomorphic images were considered spiritual guardians. Just as megalithic remains such as stone circles can be found across Europe and Asia with the beginning of the agricultural revolution, it may be that ‘zoomorphisim’ is an as yet unrecognized, but related, Neolithic phenomenon.
It is against this background that we may consider anthropomorphic rock formations found near ancient settlements and consider their importance. For convenience, and purposes of discussion, and in the absence of local names, ‘nicknames’ have been given to each of the formations.
The first zoomorph discovered is located near Putta Mountain, - just to the south of Baku. (Coordinates; N 400 18’ 54.7”, E 490 37’ 51.7”). While it is possible that the features on this 3 m tall head-shaped rock may be natural, the fact that it is found close to a site of ancient human habitation, as evidenced by a nearby stone circle, rock art and burial mounds, suggested the head and perhaps body were created by ancient man.
At first, the rock was considered an oddity, perhaps created just for fun by prehistoric inhabitants. With minimum modification, this wind and water eroded rock may have had its mouth and throat enhanced, and with an eye added in the right location it gives the appearance of a turtle-like head. However revisiting the site in the summer of 2007 to look at it afresh, it became apparent that the head also had a body, and that the resemblance to a turtle (or tortoise) was even more pronounced. From whichever direction the head and small hillock are observed, the resemblance can be seen.
Of course it is impossible to say what the function of the rock formation was. This may never be known, but it is interesting to note that turtles and tortoises are common animals in Azerbaijan and may well have inspired the design of this small hill. Curiously, turtles are creatures found in myth and legend.
Near the village of Rangebar, some 60 miles south of Baku, a much larger rock formation was found; I call it ‘Whale Rock’ because of its size and appearance. (Coordinates - N 400 10’ 55.9”, E 490 6’ 58.1”). This huge figure is carved from a metre-thick limestone layer which, through geological processes, stands almost vertical. While it is not possible to determine if the whole body has been modified to enhance the effect of a recumbent creature, it is evident that the head has been shaped to give both an eye and a mouth; features most unlikely to occur by chance. Some friends are seen sitting in the mouth of the rock to indicate its size, which is estimated to be some one hundred and fifty metres long.
‘Whale Rock’ shows many signs of a primitive settlement, including a stone circle, rock shelters, burial mounds and a graveyard with several pre-Islamic tombstones. Throughout the ages, the site has evidently provided shelter for animal herders or pastoralists, and would have been an ideal coastal dwelling for hunting or fishing when the level of the Caspian Sea was much higher at the end of the Ice Age. The picture looks to the East from behind the zoomorph’s head, and shows the plain below which, in Neolithic times, was a shallow sea.
As a distinctive landmark, ‘Whale Rock’ is likely to have had special significance to the ancients who lived there. Like other settlements it has all the necessities of life to hand - fresh water, limestone blocks as building material, good grazing in what would have been a wetter climate. With its sheltered southerly facing aspect, to protect from the prevailing cold northerly wind, perhaps to the ancient inhabitants, their overseeing zoomorph was considered some sort of spiritual guardian or totem.
This topographical figure resembles a seated camel. It is located around 30 miles due west of Baku. (Coordinates - N 400 22’ 57.4”, E 490 15’ 47.4”). This single-humped, camel-like shape is around 120 m long and has a clearly defined head which, like the ‘Whale Rock’, has an accurately positioned eye that again appears to be a human embellishment. Rock debris between the head and body suggests ancient quarrying activities were carried out to sculpt and enhance the creature’s features. A close up image of the head of the ‘camel’ shows some friends below the eye to indicate the scale of the beast.
The Camel Rock site is located in the middle of a plain and is visible for many miles: it can be seen from a distant hillside, from an ancient stone circle. As with the Turtle and Whale sites it shows signs of long term settlement. It too has a nearby stream and water hole and old burial mounds. Surprisingly, there are also several Persian style tombstones. Evidently the site was used from antiquity up to medieval times. As an aside, it is interesting to note that graves such as the Persian headstone typically orient in a south easterly direction. This orientation appears to be an old tradition and may be observed in at least two Azeri Neolithic or Bronze Age ‘chambered cairns’. Burials within the Islamic Sofi Hamid graveyard near Sangachal show a similar orientation. While these observations may be coincidental, it is possible there is an ancient cultural reason for the practice, possibly to do with midwinter sunrise, as has been noted with the Maiden Tower. (Gallagher and Blair).
Camel Rock is evidently archaeologically significant and seems to have been a focal point on an old trade route, for it lies just north of an old dilapidated Caravanserai and to the south of an ancient vaulted water-collecting cistern, or ‘Ovdan’ site, sadly now destroyed by limestone block quarrying activities. This huge animal figure has clearly been used as a landmark through the ages. With its distinctive and dramatic appearance it was no doubt regarded by prehistoric man as evidence of a living landscape.
Owl Hill is a highly important, though unstudied, megalithic site that lies eight kilometres north of Camel Rock. The hill was named by local shepherds. It is very distinctive and with only a little imagination it, too, can be regarded as a large animal. (Coordinates - N 400 27’ 39.6”, E 490 16’ 21.6”).
Apart from the shape of the hill, which drew attention in the first place, the typical discoloration of the settlement area, (which is caused by organic enrichment from animal dung) makes the site visible from a long distance. Below the hill a number of ancient features and cup-mark type carvings can be found. Most notable are the nearby burial mounds (kurgans), a stone circle, several water collection systems, cup marked stones and rock carvings. Below the head of the animal-shaped hill there is also a superbly carved rock which has been hollowed out to form a narrow passageway. The vertical carvings are fascinating and no doubt once held cultural meaning which is now lost in the mists of time.
Owl Hill has clearly allowed communities to flourish over countless years and, like other zoomorphic rock formation locations, was probably regarded as a sacred centre. It is an immensely rich site in archaeological remains, where I have no doubt much could be learned about Azerbaijan’s ancient inhabitants and the megalithic period. Like many Neolithic archaeological sites found, it has to be protected, professionally studied and recognized as a significant heritage site. In other countries I have no doubt this site would be a National Treasure and a major tourist attraction.
‘Besh Barmaq’ is one of the most fascinating and distinctive landmarks in Azerbaijan. Today its name means ‘Five Finger’ mountain, but in older times was simply Mount Barmaq or Xisr Xindi. Most people see the mountain as a rocky crag with finger- like digits, but through the lens of prehistory and an apparent regional tradition of animism, its huge animal shape emerges as a possible, if gigantic, example of zoomorphism. If true this would indicate a significance and importance that until now has not been suspected. With only a little imagination, the mountain can be seen to have an animal-like head (the craggy peak) and a body. An ancient shoreline or raised terrace is also evident to the left and indicates Azerbaijan’s flooded landscape. This important feature will be discussed in a follow-up article.
Thinking that the mountain might be considered by ancient man as a large animal, I checked it out using ‘Google Earth’ satellite imagery. To my surprise, I found what appeared as a long winding track, correctly positioned at the rear of the mountain as if to represent a huge tail, correctly in proportion to the zoomorphic mountain. (Coordinates N 40° 56´ 25.31", E 49° 12´ 26.21"). Visiting the rear of the mountain in 2007, it became obvious that the ‘tail’ appeared very old and was clearly manmade. It also appeared overgrown with no evidence of rutting to suggest it was ever used as a roadway. Local shepherds were unaware of who constructed it, so making it older than the Soviet era. It was an odd find and may be described as a long - 1000 m, - zig-zag winding path with two decorative lozenge shapes at the top. Discounting ideas that it might be a roadway, a quarry access or had any military function, I suspect it was perhaps carved to create a massive anthropomorphic or decorative feature. If it is indeed of any great age, it could perhaps also be a track leading up to a now hidden tunnel. This would be worth checking.
However, in keeping with a tradition of landscape carvings, it is not unreasonable to suggest it had some sort of religious or cultural function. There is also the possibility that the serpentine-like carving is not a ‘tail’, but rather designed in the shape of a snake or serpent. This obviously needs to be considered, for it is known that snakes played a major role in ancient myths and legends. Currently I am inclined to think the carving may have two symbolic functions: both a tail and a serpent. If the latter is agreed by archaeologists then this would make the ‘serpent’ carving the largest known in the world. It’s worth noting here that in America, prehistoric Indians, or Paleo-Indian carved the ‘Serpent Mound’ in Ohio which, at some 410m long, is considered the longest snake-like carving in the world. However, the Azerbaijani carving, which I call the Besh Barmaq Serpent, is over twice as long and so potentially of archaeological significance and international importance.
The ‘serpent’ cannot be viewed from the track below. To see it properly, it is necessary to climb the opposite hillside and view it from above. However, in doing this an even more astonishing carving that overlooks both the ‘snake’ carving and Besh Barmaq became apparent. Again in plain view but unnoticed by anyone unfamiliar with anthropomorphic landscape images and some four kilometres distant, there is a huge human-like image carved into the hillside close to the skyline. (Coordinates; N 40° 54´ 13.45", E 49° 11´ 58.48").
Unlike other exposed rock faces in the area that show normal erosion features, the human figure (which I have nicknamed ‘Enoch’ in association with the prophet legend associated with Besh Barmaq), has a number of unusual angular features that suggest it is not a natural outcrop. With the presence of large amounts of debris below the image, it seems that the steep hillside was deliberately scraped clean to reveal the underlying rock, and expose the image of a human with raised arms. Like some of the animal-shaped formations found, it should be possible to establish the age of the sculptures by radiocarbon dating organic remains below the excavation debris. Interestingly a nearby semicircular rock exposure may also be associated with the human-like carving.
‘Enoch’ is around 200 m across its outstretched hands and some 200 m in height. It can easily be seen from many kilometres away, including from the craggy top of Besh Barmaq and the main highway. In a manner not unlike the early Bronze Age English hillside carvings, such as the Cerne Abbas Giant and White Horse of Uffington, Enoch could well be of ancient cultural significance and importance. What is certain is that the image overlooks a remarkable sacred landscape. In addition to overlooking Besh Barmaq and the ‘serpent/tail’ and two old deserted villages, there are also a number of intact kurgans and an intact stone circle. Dr Idris Aliyev of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography has visited the Besh Barmaq with me and agrees the region is of special importance.
Discussion and Summary.
In this article, links have been made between prehistoric peoples, megalithic societies and anthropomorphic shaped rocks and hill formations. With examples described including Turtle rock, Whale rock, Camel Rock, and Owl Hill and possibly Besh Barmaq and its two associated anthropomorphic images – the Besh Barmaq Serpent and Enoch, it seems very probable that zoomorphism and an animistic belief system was an important cultural tradition in Azerbaijan’s distant pre-history. With supporting observations from Kazakhstan’s Mt Ocharovatelnaia, it is evident that zoomorphism is a subject that has been insufficiently recognised. Most certainly other anthropomorphic sites are yet to be identified. In Naxhchivan for example, Ilan Dag or Snake Mountain is a probable example. I would welcome reader’s information on other possible sites.
For now there appear to be sufficient examples associated with settlement sites in Azerbaijan to warrant serious consideration and investigation. What is required is for local and international archaeologists to confirm the reality of the images as archaeological monuments and, in doing so, establish them as sites of special scientific interest.
With regard to the protection of ancient monuments, it is a concern that Azerbaijan is going through a period of rapid development in a new oil era. A consequence of this is that with the influx of wealth, I have personally witnessed the destruction of several valuable heritage sites. Due to the lack of effective regulations, knowledge of heritage sites and with few resources to protect, study and conserve sites of importance, losses will continue. Besh Barmaq is clearly a very special mountain and I suspect a potential world heritage site. With the numbers of pilgrims it currently receives, damage is inevitable. An archaeological assessment should be carried out to establish its archaeological importance and establish an appropriate level of protection.
It is hoped that the information presented in this article will serve to raise awareness and inform readers about an amazing heritage of spiritual landscape guardians within Azerbaijan. Hopefully it will promote scientific interest to encourage debate on a little known phenomenon.
Here we may note the words of the late President Heydar Aliyev in his introduction to the book ‘The Archaeology of Azerbaijan: a Brief Discourse’ by the late Rashid Geyushev. He states:
“Whatever their significance, all monuments must be the focus of our attention’.
These are fine words and surely apply to Azerbaijan’s landscape carvings. With appropriate attention and resourcing, it is my hope that, with scientific investigation into the anthropomorphic/zoomorphic phenomenon, it may be possible to roll back the pages of history to a distant and more formative time, to the dawn of belief systems for the benefit of Azerbaijan, and indeed world heritage.
A follow up article will describe Besh Barmaq in more detail and propose why even today it is considered a special and holy mountain.
1. Bekbasser, Nyssabbay ‘ Astronomical Practices and Ritual Calendar of Euro-Asian Nomads. http://www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol31/bekbassar.pdf
2. Gallagher. and Blair, B. Secrets of the Maiden Tower: What they Reveal about Early Man’s Beliefs’. Azerbaijan International. Autumn 2006 . http://azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/ai143_folder/143_articles/143_mt_secrets.html
3. Geyushev Rashid. ‘The Archaeology of Azerbaijan, - A Brief Discourse.’ (1999).
4. Marsadolov, Leonid ‘Mt Ocharovatelnaia and Mt Siniaia in Altai: Legends and Reality. http://www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol31/marsadolov.pdf
5. Wikipedia: The Uffington White Horse. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uffington_White_Horse
6. Wikipedia: Cerne Abbas Giant. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerne_Abbas_giant
7. Wikipedia: Serpent Mound. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serpent_Mound
About the author: Ronnie Gallagher worked as Environmental Manager for BP in Azerbaijan from 2000-2003. In his free time, he explored much of the countryside, enjoying the natural history and searching for evidence of ancient settlements. His observations on stone circles, cup marks, cart ruts and mud volcanoes have been published in the Azerbaijan International Magazine. Ronnie is currently living in Abu Dhabi and returns to Azerbaijan whenever possible.