Seventh to Nineteenth Century

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Dr. A. Zahoor

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The famous tenth-century Muslim historian al-Mas'udi wrote about the oil fields in Muslim lands. He used the word atam to describe a burning well. Al-Mas'udi observed oil wells in Sicily, Oman, the Hadramawt in today's Yemen, Iraq, Persia, Turkmenistan, Tashkent, India and on the island of Sumatra. Astonished by the amount of oil produced, Al-Mas'udi called the Baku region bilad al-naffata, "the land of the naphtha fountain."

The Muslim oil age began with a tale of treason. To break the Arab seige of Constantinople in 680 CE, the Emperor Constantine IV ordered his high command to work with the defector from Damascus in strictest secrecy. In the end, Constantine succeeded in breaking the seven-year seige by using the Umayyad oil-weapon technology against them.

In many areas of the Muslim world especially the lands that now comprise Kuwait, Iraq, Iran and the newly independent republic of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, oil upwellings and gas vents had been known since the beginning of time. The Mesopotamian peoples who built some of the first civilizations were also the first to describe crude oil oozing from natural wells. Akkadian clay tablets from about 2200 BC referred to crude oil as naptu - from which derives the root of the Arabic naft. The first productive oil well in Iraq was sunk in 1927 at Baba Gurgur, about 140 miles north of Baghdad, almost within view of a natural oil spring called "Eternal Fires" that had been burning continuously since at least 600 BC.

When the Muslim armies first arrived in Iraq and Persia around 640, they found hundreds of open oil pits. Arab records from the 10th century show that the province of Faris, in Persia, paid an annual tribute of 90 metric tons of oil to light the palace of the caliph. And an early Muslim historian, Ibn Adam, wrote that the Arab governors of northern Iraq refrained from taxing the oil - and mercury - producing industries in their districts as an incentive to boost production. Clearly the demand for oil was high.

Several large oil pits were operating in Iraq and nearby areas in the eighth century. So vast and strategically important was the pit at Dir al-Qayyara (near Mosul) that at one time it had to be guarded day and night. It provided not only crude oil but most of the bitumen used by the state to pave roads. In the early 13th century, the geographer Yaqut described in detail how "asphalt" was made in those days from the pit and used to build roads. In Europe, roads paved with anything but flagstones or cobbles were unknown until 1838, when asphalt was first laid on a street in Paris.

Azerbaijan was conquered in 643 and it remained under loose Arab rule until the end of the ninth century, with allegiance first to the central government of the Umayyad Dynasty in Damascus and then to the Abbasids in Baghdad. Caliph al-Mansur (754-775 CE) imposed a special "naphtha tax" on Baku in the middle of the eighth century and it marked the first appearance of a state tax on petroleum - a levy with which we are all still familiar today.

By the early ninth century, the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad had appointed an "oil czar" (wali al-naft) in every major producing district. The famous physician Muhammad al-Razi (Rhazes, 864-930) has mentioned in Kitab al- Asrar (Book of secrets) that kerosene lamps were in common use for heating and lighting. He gives two methods for making kerosene, one using clay as an absorbent and another using sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride). The distillation is to be repeated until the distillate is perfectly clear and "safe to light," meaning that the volatile hydrocarbon fractions had been substantially removed. The kerosene lamps were in use in the Muslim world more than a thousand years before they became known in the West.

By 850, the distillation process used for producing the refined lamp oil or kerosene was perfected. This was what the Muslims called white naphtha, or naft abyad. It was made then much as it is today, except that instead of high-volume, continuous-process distillation towers, the Arabs used an apparatus called al-inbiq, batch-process still whose name we have taken into English as alembic. Essentially, the alembic consisted of three parts: a gourd-shaped lower flask called the cucurbit in which the crude oil was heated; a cooled, spouted condenser that sat atop the cucurbit and received the vapors that rose from the oil; and a receiver at the end of the condenser's spout in which the clear distillate was collected.

In Abbasid times, every school of chemists had its own variation of the alembic. Some were made of blown glass like today's labware, others were made of ceramic, copper or brass. Some were built for laboratory use, while others were much larger and might properly be called industrial stills. The Syrian naturalist al-Dimashqi wrote that in the early 13th century there was a quarter of Damascus known as Suq al-Qattarine, the distillers market.

Tashkent became the largest and most important city on Islam's eastern flank in 751, a distinction that it retains even today as the capital of the Uzbek Republic. In the eastern mountains of Tajikistan, the Muslims found the source of an extraordinary soft rock that could be torn apart into fibers, much like certain kinds of cheese. It was put to a great military use in the days of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809 CE), at the height of Abbasid power. They fashioned this material (asbestos) into fireproof uniforms and padding for the naphtha troops and their horses. In addition, they called the substance hajar al-fatila or "wick-stone" because, as one writer from Damascus put it, "it is made into indestructible wicks for lanterns, for although the oil burns off the wicks themselves remain intact."...

This article was developed from two articles on Ancient Oil Industries by Dr. Bilkadi, Aramco World, 1995.
Copyright © 1997 Dr. A. Zahoor.


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