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2006 †N7-8(16-17)
In the 1st century BC, Strabo, an ancient Greek philosopher, wrote: "They say, diggers opened oily springs near the Okh River. Indeed, if a country has alkaline, asphalt, sticky, sulfurous waters, it is most likely to have oily springs. Only, their scarceness makes this fact miraculous".

He meant oil sources.

Some scholars think the Okh is the present-day Tejen River, others associate it with the Etrek river. Others think the message points to the oil deposits of the present day in Lebap province of Turkmenistan. A separate group of researches believes that Strabo's description, in which in addition to oily springs he wrote about alkaline and other waters, better fits to description of Hazar (former Cheleken). Anyway, there is no doubt, the event described by the ancient geographer occurred in the territory of contemporary Turkmenistan.

In Strabo's times, the Turkmen lands were part of three biggest states of the East: the Parthian Empire, the Kunya-Urgench State and the Great Kushans Kingdom. Most probably, the oil was extracted in the Parthian State. Antique historian Pliny the Senior (1st century BC) wrote that there was oil in the Astauena area (western Turkmenistan) that belonged to the Parthian state.

It was used primarily for the cult needs maintaining Zoroastrian flames in temples. It is also known that the Parthians used arrows sodden in oil in battles. Oil was widely used for military purposes in the medieval ages as well. In the VIII-XI centuries the Turkmen armies had special detachments called "naffatin", i.e. oil throwers. Small sized sphero-conal fireproof vessels filled with oil or its components were burnt with the help of a fuse and thrown by hand or with the help of archballista. Warriors underwent a special training and wore special fire resistant clothes, "libas an-naffatin". Throwers of ignition arrows and spears were called "zarrakin".

The XIII century author, Sharif Muhamed Mansur Mubarakshakh, indicates to the use of oil products in military science in the book "Rules of warfare and courage". The descendant of the Turkmen Sultan, Mahmood Ghaznevi, devoted his work to Shemsuddin Iltutmysh, the Turkmen ruler of the Sultanate of Delhi. He recommended that "fire and tar" should be thrown inside during the siege of fortresses.

The oil industry in western Turkmenistan is mentioned in "Jahannama", a book by Muhammed Ibn Najib Bekran (XIII century).
Soviet scholar B. Litvinskiy wrote in 1949: "Was oil extracted in Cheleken (present-day Hazar O.G.) in the XII-XV centuries? The sources available to me don't say it directly. However, it is well known that at least by the late XII early XIII centuries, oil was extracted in Balkhans. It means the demand for oil existed in northern Khorasan and that it was profitable to produce oil at the spot rather than importing it from elsewhere. Could it be that enterprising merchants and artisans who lived in Cheleken had not known that there was a good deal of oil under their feet, at the depth of 1-2 meters? Certainly, it could not. Additionally, in some places of the island oil was simply lying on the surface. At the same time, there could one more thing: oil was extracted only for local use and was not exported".

It is not by chance that Cheleken is mentioned here. Until the XX century, oil was extracted only there. In early Russian sources, Cheleken or Hazar was called Oily (Neftyanoi).

A representative of the British merchant company on the Caspian Sea, Captain Woodruff, who stayed in Hazar in 1743, pointed out that 36 Ogurdjali families resided on the island. They had 26 large boats and some oil wells. Nadirkuli, the Iranian Shah, an Afshar Turkmen by origin, offered Hazar people to remove and settle in Astrabad and sell oil. Some Ogurdjali moved to the mainland and started to merchandise.

Tsarist Russia also was interested in doing oil business on the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea. In the decree of the Foreign Relations Board of December 18, 1763, Astrakhan Governor Beketov was assigned to build a fortress on one of the Ogurdjali islands, "...considering that one of those islands contains oil that can be used instead of firewood".

In August 1764, a Russian engineer, Captain Ladyzhenskiy visited Hazar and saw 36 wells full of oil. Sand kept filling up such wells permanently, and the residents had to dig new pits. It was the main reason for low productivity about 4 thousand poods (an old Russian measure of weight, equivalent to 16.38 kg) of oil was extracted annually.

The next Russian expedition to the Turkmen coast was sent in 1782. It was led by the 2nd rank Captain, M.Voinovich. He also indicated that the general figure of oil extraction in Hazar was no more than 4 thousand poods. At the same time, Voinovich wrote about "springs of crude oil" that he had found on the mainland. They were much more productive that those on the island.

In the first quarter of the XIX century, the situation changed drastically. Only 40 years later after Voinovich's visit, the head of the new Russian expedition to Turkmenistan and Khiva, Captain Muravyov, wrote about "inexhaustible" wells on the Hazar Island. There were up to 3 thousand wells. In all, Turkmens extracted approximately 30 thousand poods of oil exporting it to Persia on boats, kirzhims, and exchanging it to wheat and fabric. Sometimes, oil was sold at 1 silver Rouble or 2 reals for 23 poods. Ozokerite was exported to Khiva and Bukhara.

Initially, Turkmens picked up ozokerite that was piled on the shore, or dived to the seabed and broke it by spades and axes. Later, ozokerite was found on the land beds. Extraction of natural wax faced many difficulties as mines frequently broke down. Ozokerite was re-melted in big cauldrons filled with water. The pure product was poured into special pits in which it hardened and turned into bars weighing 2-5 poods. Several hundred poods of ozokerite ore were melted during a day.

Russia was interested in buying this rarest oil product in the world. In 1858, TransCaspian Merchant Association bought about 50 thousand poods of ozokerite at 60 silver kopecks per pood. It is the Hazar mineral that the production of the paraffin plant on the Svyatoi Island was based on.

The sharp increase in the population in Hazar by the end of the XVIII early XIX centuries led to the growth of production of Turkmen oil. Iranian Turkmens started to settle in the island. Having united the separated groups of Djafarbai Yomuds a Turkmen tribe, Khan Kiyat put all his efforts to the extraction of oil and ozokerite. He lived at the Persian border and knew very well Iran's needs in oil. Supplies from Baku were clearly insufficient.

In 1830, a yesaul Lalaev wrote about the Hazar oil wells: "There are big oil wells around in the island. They even surpass the Baku ones. Persians from Gilyan keep continuously coming here to buy oil and send it to Persia." Russian General Rtischev reported to the Tsar that one should beware of competing with Turkmens and asked not to raise prices for Baku's oil as Persia would immediately switch to cheaper Turkmen oil extracted in Hazar and the Turkmen mountain-ridge (Balkanabat Nebitdag).

In 1836, scholar M.Felkner gathered detailed data on Turkmen oil extraction. He wrote, that in addition to three natural springs (Karasetli 8 poods of oil a day, Aligul 2 poods a day, Tazeken 500 poods a year), there existed a great deal of wells around. For example, Pyrdum (200 wells) gave 15 thousand poods of valuable product per year, Yang-Tefe (200 wells) 25 thousand, Bakishlya (700 wells) 28 thousand. In all, Felkner counted 3410 wells. The annual extraction of oil totaled 136 thousand poods.

To store it, special pits, anbars, were dug out and faced with masonry. The logs were put on their top to be covered up with earth. The capacity of such pits was 50-100 to 1 thousand poods of oil.

Turkmens used to export oil in the summer or fall, shipping it on board of 30-40 ships. In 1825, Cheleken oil was sold at 2.5 silver Rubles for 1 harvar (20 poods), three times cheaper than oil produced in Baku. In 1836, despite the growing prices, Turkmens sold 136 thousand poods of oil to Persia, whereas the main supplier, Baku, sold only 121,120 poods. Russian natural scientist G.Karelin noted (1836): "Almost all Northern Persia, i.e Astrabat, Mazendaran, Tunkabin, partly Gilyan provinces were illuminated by Cheleken oil".

It is not by chance that G.Karelin reported to the Finance Minister on July 1, 1836, that Turkmen oil producers "...undermined official sales from Baku, and there are no doubts that such rivalry will soon destroy it completely, if no decisive and strict measures are taken in due time, as Your Excellency will realize from my report".

Several years after, the Finance Minister wrote to the Vice-Chancellor about the necessity of capturing the island, for Turkmens forced more and more Baku industrialists out of the market: "Inexhaustible oil reserves are available on the Cheleken Island at the entry to the Balkhan bay. These sources annually supply Persia and Bukharia with a lot of oil at a cheap price. The commodity is willingly bought because it is much cheaper. In Baku, 1 harvar of oil is bought at 7 silver Rubles; in Cheleken it costs 2-2.5 silver Rubles. Moreover, those who come there to buy oil are allowed to extract and ship out black oil used to tar boats, kirzhims and kirs, i.e. earth impregnated with oil, which is used to cover roofs and fuel that are also bought by Persians and Bukharians. It is believed that the only way to ensure enough volumes of oil for Baku oil business, which is more corresponding to their inexhaustible wealth, and to prevent it from the gradual decay, is to get hold of Cheleken".

On February 25, 1859, the project of the Russian Commercial Company was developed. One of its paragraphs said: "The Society will establish enterprises to process local products like oil and etc. on the Cheleken Island, at the entry to the Balkhan Bay".

Oil manufacturers, especially those that ran business in Baku, craved for Turkmen oil. The firm of Ludwig and Alfred Nobels was the biggest one. In 1874, Turkmens leased their lands for a 20-25 year rent to the Nobels and industrialist Plashkovskiy. They started the commercial extraction of Turkmen oil, as it was here that the first drilling rigs were assembled. In 1876, the Nobels firm that leased 164 hand-dug wells and 8 plots with 3 laid holes got a fountain of oil from the depth of 37 meters. Plashkovskiy drilled holes in each of his 30 plots. In addition, he built a plant to produce kerosene.

Technical superiority of foreign industrialists was evident and it undermined the local oil extraction greatly. After Russia's annexation of Turkmenistan, Turkmens were almost pushed aside from oil extraction. Moreover, tenants did not fulfill their obligations. Researcher Klychev cites the petition of Turkmens addressed to the head of Krasnovodsk Uyezd in his work: "As the Department you lead knows, according to the agreement with the Nobels firm, we should get one third of oil extracted from our lot in Cheleken. Due to absence of the firm's eminent representatives and presence of the Nobels' salesman for 15 years, we seldom, very seldom received what we should have gotten. In recent times, the firm's salesman has become impudent. He administers oil production to his liking, disposing all oil uncontrollably. In other words, it's better to die..."

In historian A. Akatova's opinion, the Nobels' oil company deliberately leased a large part of oil fields in Hazar (Cheleken) so that there was no competition to their oil production in Baku. The firm even spread rumors about "unreliability" of oil deposits in Hazar, and stopped operations on some wells to prevent the influx of manufacturers to Hazar.

Despite of this, over 20 Russian oil companies started their business in Hazar. Such firms as "Moscow Society", "Cheleken-Dagestan Society", "Kuzmin and Co", "Bostondjoglo", "South Caucasian Mining Society", "Second Moscow Group", "Ivankov and Co.", firms of Saking, I.Gadjinskiy, Ya.V. Vishau, "Shagird" (extraction of ozokerite) and "Charkent" societies were among them.

No drilling rules were observed. It was done blindly. In empty wells the water level rose up and the layer was drowned in water. Powerful apparatuses pumped out oil and exhausted oil wells of Turkmens.

In 1909, Gadjinskiy was lucky to get a fountain of 85 m in height from the depth of 170 m. The well produced 8200 tons of oil a day. However, a week later it burst into flames. Next year, another two wells gave fountains producing 10 thousand tons of oil a day.

A. Klychev wrote: "The growth of oil production in Cheleken caused construction of oil pipelines and big jetties in the Kara-Gel bay. For instance, the Nobels' firm laid a 12 km pipeline from their wells to Kara-Gel village. In the eastern part of Kara-Gel village, this firm and oil producers Gadjinskiy, Rylskiy, Melik-Dadaev and others constructed a jetty. Big oil ships of consumers moored here. Brothers the Nobels owned their own quay on the western part of Gara-Gel village, too, and their motor boats, also serving as passenger boats, came here".

By the start of the XX century the industrial production of oil in Hazar was in full swing. In 1905, 758,556 poods of oil were produced. In 1909, Gadjinskiy extracted 1,750,000.00 poods and the Nobels 100,000 poods of fountain oil. The land lease fee rose to 500 Rubles a year for one tithe plus 10 percent of net oil or ozokerite extraction.

Until 1917, almost all oil production had concentrated in Hazar, although big deposits were become known in the western part of Turkmen lands.

With the establishment of the Soviet rule, all oil fields were nationalized. By 1925, the oil production decreased considerably. And only in late 1950s, oil production index went up again. In addition to Hazar, other oil fields were put in operation. In May 1931, well N 24 in Balkanabat gave 500 tons in three hours and well N 13 produced about 110 thousand tons of oil in 18 days. In 1948 and 1956, Gumdag oil field and Goturdepe deposit were opened. In 1961, Caspian shelf deposits of Tertiary, Jurassic and Cainozoe periods were discovered. In early 1990s, oil beds were found in Okarem, Gamyshlyja, Barsa-Gelmes, Burun, Guidjik, Erdekli, Chikishlyar, Gograndag fields.

Since 1950 Turkmenistan ranked third among the Soviet Republics in the oil production. However, Turkmens were not masters of their own riches. All revenues went to the Union Center, no ecological norms were observed in hydrocarbons extraction.

From the first days of independence, the Government of Turkmenistan has been paying particular attention to the development of the national oil and gas industry with its share of over 55% of the country's all industrial production. According to the "Program of Comprehensive Development of the Oil and Gas Industry till 2020" Turkmenistan plans to increase oil and gas extraction significantly. New oil deposits are discovered in Turkmenistan annually. Almost 80% of the country's territory are promising oil and gas bearing areas.

Ovez GUNDOGDIEV, professor

©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005