Oil and Geopolitics in the Caspian Sea Region

By Michael P. Croissant; Bülent Aras | Go to book overview

1

History of Oil Development in the Caspian Basin

Bülent Gökay

Although there has been a great deal of attention on the energy resources of the Caspian basin since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Caspian is actually one of the oldest oil-producing regions in the world. In order to provide the proper context for analysis of the current Caspian situation, this chapter aims to look back on the history of oil development and use in the region.


EARLY HISTORY

Since ancient times, the Caspian-Caucasus has been one of those regions of the world where there is a long history of involvement with oil. Exploitation by collection from springs and shallow pits was well noted in the earliest historical records. Travelers' reports attest to the historic presence of oil in the Baku region. Oil was being extracted and considerable commerce was carried on in the area, providing oil both for medicinal purposes and for cooking, heating, and lighting in homes. The natural flows of oil and gas at Baku were some of the most spectacular in the world and have been narrated since very early in history.

Stories of Baku's “eternal fires” have emanated from the area for at least 2,500 years, and authenticated reports since the sixth century B.C. Zarathustra (Zoroaster) 1 was said to have travelled to see the fires with his own eyes. 2 The ancient literature of Greece and Rome contains many references to the oil and gas of the Baku area. Herodotus complained in 450 B.C. about the evil smell of Persian oil and described the production of oil and salt from springs and wells. 3 Still, the oldest records on the “eternal fires” of Baku are not very precise and give us little information about oil extraction and its uses. 4

The fall of the Roman Empire opened an era in which European visitors could visit the oil seepages of the Caspian-Caucasus region. Byzantine authors often referred to “Medina fire, ” meaning the fire from the northwestern region of Persia (Medina). This might well have meant the oil from the Baku area.

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