The Broader Picture: The oldest oil town in the world

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THE BLACK oil seeping from the barren landscape around Baku in Azerbaijan has for millennia attracted people to this remote corner of the world. Pre-Christian fire-worshippers venerated the flaming torches of escaping methane on its hillsides and medieval barons built fortresses to guard the oil wells. Marco Polo wrote of the medicinal qualities of Baku oil; others used it to cure venereal disease. Hitler's armies nearly captured the Azerbaijani oilfields; had they done so, the course of the Second World War might have been very different.

At first, oil was simply scraped from the surface, sometimes using leather bags as buckets. The precious liquid was then transported in sealskins by boat over the Caspian Sea. Medieval output was measured in camel packs - about 200 camels per day, each one carrying just over two of today's barrels. Refining started in the 13th century.

For centuries Azerbaijan was an oil pioneer. The world's first paraffin plant opened there in 1823 and shortly afterwards the first deep well was sunk. The world's growing thirst for oil, and legal changes in 1872, triggered a prospecting stampede often compared to the Klondike gold rush. By the turn of the century, half the world's oil was produced in Azerbaijan. It made part of the Nobel family fortune and that of many others, but there was a darker side. Visitors deplored the aggressive commercialism, the absence of greenery, the oppressive heat and the pollution.

Hydrocarbons still hang heavy in Baku's air. The crumbling fabric of the city of two million people is stitched together by big, leaky, low-pressure gas pipes running at head-height along most pavements. Coming in from the airport at night you pass what looks like a cataclysmic fire but is in fact just burning gas. The landscape is arid and treeless. Pipelines twist jerkily past a shanty town that houses some of the million Azeri refugees from Armenia or the war in Nagorny Karabakh. Black oil lies in shallow pools beside the road.

The oilfield of Bibi-Eibat, along the Caspian coast south of Baku, is an amazing sight. Squat triangular derricks cluster thickly on a black, oily carpet as far as the eye can see. The big heads of the nodding donkeys slowly rise and fall, their thin tail-rods sucking in and out of the ground. Over the glinting sea rise the gaunt outlines of early offshore platforms.

The Soviets may have chased out the oil barons, but the Azerbaijan state oil and gas company still operates out of a pre-revolutionary Armenian magnate's seafront palace. Inside, the old tiled stoves and glass engraved with the tycoon's curling initials remain untouched. Soviet-era engineers opened up offshore fields, including a curious oil-town built on stilts. Then Moscow made its strategic investments in Siberia, and by 1990

Photograph by Ian Berry

(Photograph omitted)