Oil Fields and Fire Worshippers

In 1942, to celebrate his birthday, Adolf Hitler was presented with a cake depicting Eurasia; the führer carved himself a portion labelled ‘Baku’, representing Soviet Azerbaijan’s capital. The Germans coveted the Baku oilfields as they lacked their own source of petroleum and, more importantly, because the region accounted for up to 80% of their Soviet adversary’s fuel production.[1] The major military setbacks of the Wehrmacht in Stalingrad, a turning point of the Eastern Front, put a halt to German plans to occupy Azerbaijan. Petroleum is a linchpin of the modern economy; it is needed to run our cars, heat our homes and, in Hitler’s case, to fuel a world war. Nonetheless, prior to 1846, when the first ever oil well was mechanically-drilled in Baku, petroleum was employed in unusual ways.  

Before the advent of Islam, Azerbaijan was administered by an assortment of Iranian polities. Many professed the Zoroastrian faith, a monotheistic religion which emerged in the Eurasian steppes between 1400-1200 BCE. A key doctrine of the faith recognised fire as an emanation of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian deity. Fire represented purity and bridged the spiritual domain of Ahura Mazda with our temporal world. Mac Williams hypothesised lightning strikes would set ablaze the petroleum-rich soils of Azerbaijan, creating eternal flames, upon which Zoroastrians built their fire temples.[2] For example, the seventeenth century Surakhani fire temple of Baku was fuelled by subterranean gas before its depletion by Soviet exploitation of reserves in 1969.  

Following the Arab conquest of Azerbaijan’s Absheron Peninsula, oil had several practical functions. It was used for embalming, as an ingredient for cement, and to waterproof rooftops and ship hulls. The murky liquid was utilised in war too. It coated city walls to hamper enemy sieges and, when lit, was an inflammatory agent which smouldered the flesh of invaders. In 753 CE the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur even taxed Azerbaijan’s oilfields; where the oil would be deposited into tanks and transferred across Western Asia using caravans. The tanks were also transported onto ships at the port of Baku and ferried across to the southern Caspian ports of Jurjan and Tabaristan – allowing for the commodity’s export to the Middle East and India.[3]

The 18th century British traveller Jonas Hanway even identified medical uses for petroleum after Russia’s conquest of the South Caucasus.

The Russians drink it both as a cordial and medicine; but it does not intoxicate. If taken internally, it is said to be good for the stone as also for disorders of the breast [….] Externally applied it is of great use in scorbutic pains, gouts, cramps […] but it must be put to the part affected only; it penetrates instantaneously into the blood, and is apt for a short time to create pain.[4]

I would caution that such medicinal applications of petrol would not be advised by any respectable doctor of the 21st century. Nevertheless, delving into petroleum’s history reveals its alluring role in religious ritual, economic value to empires and ingenious functions prior to electricity. The 19th century chemist Thomas Edward Thorpe poetically connected this magical past with the mechanical present by remarking:

With the conquest of Persia, first by Heraclius, and twelve years later by the Arabs, the power of the Magi of the Zoroastrian sect was shattered ; and the worship of the Eternal Fire in the Surakhani temple for ever passed away, and in its place are now the symbols of a new cult in the shape of greasy derricks and dingy kerosene distilleries.[5]

I cannot help but both admire and begrudge how presciently he described the devastation which springs from our fanatical thirst for petroleum.

The Oil Gush Fire in Bibiheybat, Baku (1898), via Wikimedia Commons

References

Featured image: Paul Von Franken, ‘The Maiden Tower in Baku‘, 1818-1884

[1] Yevdayev, Milikh. “How Azerbaijan Helped to Defeat Hitler.” Jewish Journal, November 2, 2017. https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/blogs/226725/azerbaijan-helped-defeat-hitler/.

[2] Williams, Mac. “Zoroastrian and Zurvanite symbolism in” Las ruinas circulares”.” Variaciones Borges 25 (2008): 115-135.

[3] Asadov, Farda. “Trade Routes, Trading Centers and the Emergence of the Domestic Market in Azerbaijan in the Period of Arab-Khazar Domination on the Silk Road.” Acta Via Serica 4, no. 1 (2019): 1-24.

[4] Thorpe, T. E. “Baku Petroleum.” Nature 39, no. 1012 (1889): 481-482.

[5] Ibid.