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


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.

The Byzantine Silk Heist

Attending a wedding or preparing for a job interview often requires a silk tie, yet little thought is given to this piece of cloth other than its colour and that it feels different to an iron-pressed cotton shirt. Silk’s simplicity conceals its historical importance, where wars have been fought in pursuit of this lustrous commodity. To illustrate, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, hungry for silk, decided to invade the Himyarite Kingdom in Yemen in order to secure uninterrupted sea shipments between India and Byzantine-administered Egypt.[1]

The importance of silk

Why would a war be waged over access to silk? In trade, silk was a substitute currency; east Mediterranean merchants could use silk to pay for a transaction in lieu of coinage whereas shipwreck survivors would be required to forfeit any salvaged silk as compensation for cargo losses. When dyed with the broken shells of the murex snail, silk would form a brilliant purple fit only for the emperor and imperial elite. The ones which weren’t dyed purple would be marketed towards wealthy and middle class citizens along with members of the clergy.

Silk also served diplomatic purposes. It helped deter enemies as indicated when emperor Constantine IX, in 1045, sent a thousand silk costumes to Caliph al-Mustansir to stave off a military attack. Crucially, silk helped Byzantium cement alliances, including one with Vladimir the Great of Rus’.[2] Between the years 907 and 971 Byzantium intensified its diplomatic relations with Rus’; where a marriage between emperor Basil II’s daughter Anna and the Rus’ Grand Prince Vladimir the Great culminated in the Christianisation of Rus’. Silk played a significant role in building this alliance; Rus’ merchants were given priority access to Byzantine silk items, Rus’ citizens who lost their slaves in Byzantine territory would be compensated with silk and a delegation even insisted on silk sails for their ships.[3] In return, Rus’ pledged its military support to the empire, most notably seen when Rus’ soldiers intervened to quell an Anatolian uprising which threatened to dethrone emperor Basil II in 988.

Rus’-Byzantine Treaty of 911, Radziwiłł Letopis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A tale of two heists

Let us return to the fourth century era of Justinian I, where we notice the emperor is faced with a puzzle. Without an established domestic silk industry, much of the empire’s silk was imported from China using an overland trade route via Persia. At the best of times, Persia was a fickle competitor, and consequently Byzantium was often mired by silk shortages. Shipments through the Red Sea would also face stiff competition from Persian traders or be hindered by hostile polities like the Himyarite Kingdom. Thus, there was an urgency to determine the secret behind sericulture, or the production of silk worms.

Fifth century Byzantine historians dispute the means in which sericulture was introduced to the empire. Procopius argues Christian monks from India, having learned of emperor Justinian’s dismay at Persia’s silk blockade, smuggled silkworm eggs hidden in dung into the empire. However, according to Theophanes, it was Persians from the land of Seres who presented emperor Justinian with silkworm eggs which had been impressively concealed within walking sticks.[4] The Theophanes account raises questions as to why Persians would provide their trade secrets to their Byzantine nemesis; I can only think it was opportunism or spite.

A complicated business

Both accounts are very likely to be colourful myths due to evidence of sericulture in Byzantine Syria prior to the heist. Nonetheless, analysing domestic sericulture provides a great insight into pre-modern economies. Byzantium’s silk production entailed a strict division of labour. Sericulturists would be responsible for rearing the silkworms and the production of yarns. This gave rise to the ancillary industry of mulberry growers because silkworms which were fed on mulberry leaves yielded the highest quality commercial silk.  

The sericulturists would send their yarns to private and government-run silk guilds which comprised a collection of weavers, dyers, embroiders and silk printers. The government-run guilds had evolved from the voluntary associations of the Roman Empire into compulsory public service corporations entirely controlled by the Byzantine state.[5] As a consequence of the strict policing of sericulture by the state, the government increased its tax base and revenues, whilst regulating silk imports and exports allowed it to manipulate foreign markets. Importantly, the sale of silk made certain the empire was inundated with foreign gold, whereas financial mismanagement of silk negatively affected its balance of trade.

Private guilds, like their government counterparts, had to address the dilemma of the significant level of seasonal capital demanded by the trade along with securing steady supplies of raw material. Lacking state funding, private guilds acted as cartels, where resources were pooled among members. This allowed them to collectively purchase silk at lower prices than if each guild-member attempted to negotiate by themselves. The cartels also ensured a fair distribution of silk by allowing poorer members to buy from the affluent at a predetermined profit margin. The 10th century Book of the Prefect outlined how private guilds paid utmost attention to product quality and had measures to prevent unethical behaviour among their membership, not too dissimilar to modern quality control practices in businesses.[6]

As we have seen, silk was a very important commodity replete with material and symbolic significance. It helped form a tapestry of alliances, augmented economies and generated resource wars. With all of this in mind, in the mad rush prior to my next job interview, I’ll be sure to better appreciate my tie.


Featured image: Emperor Justinian and his retinue, Basilica of San Vitale. Courtesy of Roger Culos, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Liu, Xinru. The Silk Road in world history. Oxford University Press, 2010. pp. 62-86.

[2] Muthesius, Anna Maria. “Silk, power and diplomacy in Byzantium.” (1992).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Muthesius, Anna Maria. “The Byzantine silk industry: Lopez and beyond.” Journal of Medieval History 19, no. 1-2 (1993): 1-67.

[5] Ibid.

The Indian Merchants of Tsarist Russia

The city of Astrakhan sits on a delta, not too far from where the Volga River empties into the Caspian Sea. In modern Russia it is an industrial city known for its fish processing and as a regional administrative centre. Yet, in the 17th century, Astrakhan had a far more glamorous role, owing to its position on a geographical crossroad between Russia and lucrative Asian markets.

A warm welcome

During the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), Russia experienced enormous socio-political upheaval characterised by the end of the 800-year old Rurikid ruling dynasty, numerous pretenders to the Tsarist throne and foreign interventions by neigbouring powers. Once the chaos subsided, Russian officials faced the predicament of building an economy depleted by famine and war. To increase customs revenues and ensure the flow of foreign silver into the empire, the Russian state encouraged foreign merchants to settle in Astrakhan, a city conquered by Ivan the Terrible nearly seven decades prior.

Non-Russians dominated the imports and exports trade in Astrakhan, among whom were merchants hailing from Mughal India. By 1725, there were 209 Indians residing in Astrakhan and engaging in local banking, mercantilism and moneylending. Additionally, the need to interact with the resident Turkic and Russian communities necessitated the hiring of interpreters.1 The Russian state cautiously allowed merchants to practice religious rites; where merchants could employ private cooks (likely to meet strict vegetarian diets) and were even allowed to cremate the dead, even if it alarmed local Christians.2

The mercantile community mainly imported Persian textiles into Russia; a 1638 Russian customs report found one merchant carried up to 28 varieties of silk and cotton. Similar to European markets, Mughal Indian consumers valued Russian furs. However, unlike their European counterparts there was a lower demand for Russian forest products in India. Instead, Mughal elites coveted luxury goods such as gyrfalcons, walrus tusks and Borzoi dogs.

The transcontinental trader’s dilemma

Between the 16th and 17th century Astrakhan’s Indian merchants formed part of a wider Persianate world, where the Persian language facilitated international trade stretching from Bengal to southern Russia’s borders. Trade routes could encompass distances as long as 3,600 kilometres, and this required enormous levels of trust between traders. To better understand how Indian merchants would have imported and exported under such uncertainty, I will introduce transaction costs; which are costs incurred to accomplish a trade.

Firstly, participants in a transaction need to address search and information costs; that is the costs of finding a trading partner and to market their goods. Subsequent bargaining and decision costs involves the ironing out of a contract which is agreeable to the respective trading parties. Finally, policing and enforcement costs ensure the contract is not broken and there is a recourse to action should a default occur.3 Trading is difficult enough for a modern-day seller who uses eBay to peddle old revision guides and, arguably, Astrakhan’s merchants faced much more manifold challenges.

A Caravan by Ilya Zankovsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Indian merchants would mainly operationalise Commenda agreements to reduce the transaction costs associated with long-distance trades. These were straightforward contracts where one or many merchants would provide capital for the business venture and traders, who lacked funds for investments, would need to fulfill the potentially life-threatening task of marketing or delivering the merchandise. If successful, the profits would be divided; where two thirds went to the investors and one third to the trader.4 On the other hand, if an attack on a caravan led to the endeavour’s failure, the investor would lose their money, whilst the trader risked losing their life. The 17th century merchant would be faced with an impasse: how could they find a trustworthy business partner who would not renege on their contract? It would be incredibly tempting for a trader to dash off with expensive merchandise they have not paid for.

The answer to this may lie in the 1747 Russian Census which revealed, out of the 51 Indian merchants residing in the Astrakhan, nearly half originated from a single city; Multan, whilst most other came from nearby areas in southern Punjab. Stephen Frederic Dale asserts that the Multani Hindu merchants would most likely have been from the Punjabi Khatri caste whereas Muslim traders would have hailed from the Pashtun ethnic group.5 Furthermore, there was a familial aspect to these firms too; five pairs of brothers conducted joint trade within Astrakhan and twelve Astrakhan Indians received goods from uncles or brothers in the Gilan province of Iran.

Membership of the same caste meant prospective firm partners were usually employed in the same profession, consequently their skills could be easily verified. In place of complicated contracts, kinship also provided a set of common cultural norms and allowed for mutual peer-monitoring. Furthermore, transaction costs associated with rule-breaking could be met with enforceable sanctions, including exclusion from the community.6 This ultimately encouraged prolonged economic interactions between Indian merchants, whilst discouraging opportunism associated with uncertainty. Similar kinship firms were also found among the Indian merchants’ Armenian contemporaries who originated from a single suburb of Isfahan in Iran, yet dominated the lucrative Indian Ocean silk trade.7

Protectionism and decline

Astrakhan’s Indian merchants kept business within the family as a response to trading in an uncertain environment. Yet, these same firms proved to be quite dynamic in the face of state pressures. Whilst Indian merchants were initially welcomed by Russian officials, Peter the Great’s introduction of the New Trade Regulations posed a serious financial challenge. The protectionist measures bestowed special trading privileges to Russians, Turks and Armenians, whilst Indians would have to pay extra custom duties, thus introducing new transaction costs. Indian firms would bypass these regulations by intermittently increasing their firm’s size, through recruiting Armenians and Russians, who would act as intermediaries for their business.

Whilst Russia’s protectionist measures discouraged Indian traders, it was external socio-political processes which ultimately debilitated Astrakhan’s mercantile activity. The sudden collapse of the Safavid empire in 1722 interrupted Multani trade networks within Iran, resulting in a rapid dwindling of Astrakhan’s Indian population. The slower disintegration of the Mughal empire had disrupted Multan itself and by 1850, Astrakhan’s Indian community had all but vanished.


Featured image: ‘Astrakhan in Russia’ in Rambaud’s Russia, volume 2 (1898), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1 Dale, Stephen Frederic. Indian merchants and Eurasian trade, 1600-1750. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

2 Gopal, Surendra. “A Brief Note on Business Organisation of Indian Merchants in Russia in the 17th Century.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient/Journal de l’histoire economique et sociale de l’Orient (1986): 205-212.

3 Dahlman, Carl J. “The problem of externality.” The journal of law and economics 22, no. 1 (1979): 141-162.

4 Dale, Stephen Frederic. Indian merchants and Eurasian trade, 1600-1750. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

5 Ibid.

6 Gopal, Surendra. “A Brief Note on Business Organisation of Indian Merchants in Russia in the 17th Century.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient/Journal de l’histoire economique et sociale de l’Orient (1986): 205-212.

7 Aslanian, Sebouh. From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. University of California Press, 2011.