Fighting fear in Azerbaijan

Author: Ilkin Huseynov, Rustam Ismayilbayli

Edition: Fear

“The main goal is to frighten it away, because one fear can be erased by a different fear,” says Mirtofig Seyidrzaoglu, an employee at Eight Door shrine. This process is called çıldağ in Azerbaijan.

The word “çıldağ” means “casting out fear by fire.” It is believed that the healer, or çıldağçı, can lift a curse from a person by burning specific places on the body.

The ritual to remove fear depends on faith in the power of fire and the speed of the fear-catcher — his or her ability to cause the person to flinch. Since the basis of the treatment is to shock the patient by doing something unexpected, today the practices of fear removal are diverse: glass breaking, iron banging are also popular techniques. 

The fear-catcher uses the element of surprise. In a common version of the practice, the healer places a burned piece of cotton or a piece of the old fabric on sacred points of the body -- where the ends of the nerve endings are located -- before the patient realizes what is happening. The process starts at the back of the body and proceeds to the chest, arms, knees and, finally, the legs.

The procedure, which can be painful, has been used for so long in Azerbaijan, historians have trouble identifying exactly when it began.

Firudin Jalilov, a doctor of philology, believes that çıldağ is a phenomenon that was influenced by shamanism in Azerbaijan. Later, when people adopted Islam, the practice was changed to reflect their new faith.

In ancient times, the shock patients experienced during çıldağ was seen as a sign that “the evil spirits, the creators of fear and disease, ran away,” according to the third volume of Azerbaijani Ethnography, a collection of studies published by the National Science Academy. In fact, it created a counter-effect, a process that was “based on the principle of imitation magic.”

“The approach and attempt of intervention against natural events by ancient people, albeit in a passive manner, was understood in terms of magic. For example, our ancient ancestors believed that a solar eclipse was caused by demons, devils and etc. evil forces. That is why they made noise by hitting some things to each other (and later, iron tools), believing that those forces would be frightened and run away, ” according to Azerbaijani Ethnography.
In order to make the feeling of fear to disappear, a traditional healing method, çıldağ, involves placing a hot, burning piece of linen, cotton or tissue on specific parts of the body.
According to fear catchers, blood coagulates in certain points of the human body when a person feels stress and fear. But when fire is placed there unexpectedly, the blood begins to flow, making the person feel relaxed and healthier than before.
In a common form of the treatment, a burning piece of tissue is placed on a client’s head, neck, forehead, waist, chest and legs.
In Mashtagha, a settlement about 30 kilometers north of Baku, there is the Səkkiz Qapı shrine, which means "Eight Doors" in the Azerbaijani language. It is believed that a person’s wish will come true if he or she walks through each of the eight doors. This place also functions as a place for the çıldağ process.
When a visitor walks through the last door, the guide hits the iron plate above the arc. The noise is believed to cause surprise and eliminate fear.
An ancient drawing at the Eight Doors Shrine.
Guides at the shrine hit this iron plate to make the sound that is supposed to scare away fears. “Once a man got into a car accident. He was paralyzed. He was not able to walk. He was brought here using a wheelchair. When he was brought through the 8th door of the shrine, I hit the iron plate above the arch. It frightened his fear away and he was able to walk by himself,” says Mirtofig Seyidrzaoglu, an employee at the shrine.
A room for praying at the Eight Doors Shrine.
An engraving on a grave dating back to 1820 at Eight Doors Shrine.
A Mastaga resident, who is believed to be a Sayyid - a muslim who claim to be descent from Muhammad. In this small shop he reads lines from the Quran upon the request. The shop is also decorated with photos of different politicians in Azerbaijani history, like President Ilham Aliyev, former President Abulfaz Elchibey, and the president of 1918 republic, Mammad Amin Rasulzade.
This monument, which is popularly known as Tersa Piri and Nasrani Mosque, dates back to the 3rd century and is located in Buzovna settlement in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. Only ruins remain of the shrine. This monument is the only temple of Caucasus Albania left in Absheron peninsula. Caucasus Albania is modern exonym for an ancient kingdom which allegedly existed in the East Caucasus between the first and fifth centuries AD.
People bring children who are frightened or anxious to the ancient temple in Buzovna. There, they break glass and throw the pieces on the ground, in the hope that their children will be cured.
Socks are hung on nails on the walls of a ruined temple.
Fergane lives in the village of Mardakan, near Baku. She has been practicing çıldağ at Pir Hasan Temple for many years. As most of çıldağ practitioners, she says she is from a Sayyid family - Sayyids are Muslims who claim to be descent from Muhammad.
Scarves for women to cover they head before they enter Pir Hasan temple to undergo the fear removal process.
This boy is undergoing çıldağ to cure a problem with his heart. He is standing by the grave of Leyla granddaughter of Musa al-Kazimi. Musa al-Kazimi was the seventh Imam of Islam whose children moved to Azerbaijan from Mashhad, a city in northeast Iran known as a place of religious pilgrimage.
An alam, a heavy metal installation near the grave of Leyla in Pir Hasan shrine. Alam is an Arabic word that means flag or standard. It symbolizes the Karbala battle, an important event in Islamic history that took place in the 7th century.
At the Pir Hasan shrine in Mardakan settlement, glass bottles are used during the çıldağ process. A healer recites some text in a calm voice and then breaks a bottle on this rock, directly behind the person seeking to remove a fear. The sudden noise of breaking glass scares the patient and is believed to create a counter-effect to overcome their fear.
Broken bottles at Pir Hasan.
Another sacred site in Azerbaijan is known as Ali Ayaghy - Ali’s foot. Locals come here seeking cures for sickness, depression over the loss of loved ones and fear.
The registration desk at the Ali Ayaghy Shrine.
A visitor praying outside the Ali Ayaghy Shrine.
People pray and place coins inside a small building near Ali Ayaghy Shrine.
Visitors start to pray on the stairs to the entrance to the Ali Ayaghy Shrine.
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