Saudi Aramco World : Land of the Naphtha Fountain

Posted: March 30, 2012 in Art, Economy and Resources, Environment, Geography, History, International, Tajikistan
Tags: , , , ,

Land of the Naphtha Fountain

Written by Zayn Bilkadi

Illustrated by Bob Lapsley

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the undeveloped or underdeveloped oil resources of the new nations that were formerly Soviet republics have been much in the news. But that news is in fact very old. The existence of rich oil resources in the region from the western slopes of the Caspian Sea basin to the mountains of Afghanistan has been known for millennia.

The ancient Greeks and Romans could not help but notice on their travels the spectacular “eternal fires” that dotted the landscape all the way from Baku, in present-day Azerbaijan, to Persia and Turkmenia. Legend has it that one of the servants of Alexander the Great accidently struck oil while trying to pitch a tent for his master in Turkmenia. According to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, Alexander the Great observed burning natural oil wells in Bactria, which comprised today’s northern Afghanistan and parts of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (See Aramco World, May-June 1994).

The land from northwestern Iran to Azerbaijan was known in ancient times as Media, where the most numerous “eternal fires,” or burning oil seeps, probably inspired Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Persians that dates from roughly 600 BC. “The Pillars of Fire” near Baku became a center of worship and pilgrimage. The title of Zoroastrian priests was athravan, or “keeper of the fire.” Even the word Azerbaijan itself is rooted in the ancient Persian aderbadagan, “garden of fire.”

Neither Romans nor Persians, however, left us records of the trade in oil that must have existed in the region in ancient times. Such records were only written centuries later by the Arabs, who conquered the Caucasus within only 26 years of the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and who, by 751, had become masters of Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and Kashgar. The newly Muslim lands then included all the world’s known, major oil-producing regions outside China. Sargis Tmogveli, a Georgian scholar, quotes on that high point of caliphal power:

Thou art master of Eran and T’huran;

From China to Qirwan,

All is thine and under thy command.

In the Caucasus, the city of Tiflis—now Tblisi, the capital of Georgia—grew into a center of trade between the Muslim state and northern Europe. Gold and silver coins have been found in the city that date to the ninth century and were minted in Baghdad, Muhammadiyyah (in Armenia), Kufa, Basra, Aran and Balkh, as well as in Africa and India. In addition, according to the Arab geographer al-Maqdisi, Georgia had become an important exporter of naphtha and bitumen to Baghdad. Beyond that, the region was also strategically important to the caliphate: It was a buffer province facing northern Byzantium.

via Saudi Aramco World : Land of the Naphtha Fountain.


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