This year marks the 110th anniversary of the discovery of the Masjid Suleiman oil field in southwest Persia (Iran), which ushered in a new era in the history of the Middle East. This is the story of the men whose vision, interests and perseverance made it happen.
Oil from seeps in Iran and Mesopotamia were used by the native people for millennia for illumination, waterproofing, medicine and other applications. In the 1890s, the French scientist Jacques de Morgan published his maps and reports of oil seeps from western Persia. His 1892 article in the “Annales de Mines” was of particular interest to Edourad Cotte, a French business agent and geologist who had spent time with de Morgan in Persia. At the Paris Expo in 1900, Cotte together with Antoine Kitabchi Khan, a high-ranking Iranian officer representing his country at the world fair, and Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, who had served as a British special envoy in Tehran from 1888-91, discussed the possibility of a modern oil industry in Iran. Wolff introduced Kitabchi Khan to William Knox D’Arcy, an Englishman who had made huge wealth from investing in the Mount Morgan gold mine in Australia, and from his base in London was on the lookout for new business ventures.
The D’Arcy Concession
D’Arcy used the consulting services of Sir Thomas Redwood, a leading petroleum engineer in London. In March 1901, D’Arcy sent his representative, Alfred L. Marriott, together with Cotte and Kitabchi Khan to Tehran to negotiate for a concession from the Iranian government. He also separately dispatched H.T. Burls, a geologist working for Redwood’s firm, to Iran to verify the oil seeps in the areas mapped by de Morgan. It was all good news to D’Arcy: Burls’ report was favorable (“the territory as a whole is one of rich promise”) and the Persian King Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar needed money to finance his expensive trip to Europe.
On May 28, 1901, the oil concession was signed by the king. It granted D’Arcy permission to explore, drill, produce and export petroleum in Iran (except for five provinces in the north close to Russia) for a period of 60 years. D’Arcy was required to form a company within two years for this purpose. The Persian government was to receive £20,000 in cash, £20,000 in shares from the company, and 16 percent of profits made by the concessionaire. D’Arcy formed the First Exploration Company in May 1903 with a capital of £600,000. He owned half of it.
The First Drills
For field operations in Persia, D’Arcy hired George Bernard Reynolds, an English engineer who had had worked for the Indian railways and in the Dutch oil fields in Sumatra. Working conditions in western Iran, as Reynolds soon learned, were hard: the climate was hot, the drill sites remote and the local tribesmen were suspicious of foreigners in their territories. Reynolds had to hire local laborers and security guards and pay the tribal chiefs for their cooperation. He also put together a technical team of Polish and Canadian drillers, an Indian doctor and a tough American engineer, C. B. Rosenplaenter, as his deputy. Rosenplaenter had worked in oil fields in Texas, Mexico, Baku and Assam.
In November 1902, Reynolds started drilling at the seepage area of Chiah Surkh (one of the key areas mapped by de Morgan) in the Kermanshah province close to the border with Iraq. In the summer of 1903 a slight show of gas and oil was encountered at 1,665 feet. In January 1904, a second well hit oil at a shallow depth of 765 feet. However, D’Arcy’s excitement was short lived – the daily oil flow rapidly reduced to a few barrels.
D’Arcy, now disappointed after having spent more than £200,000 of his money, was willing to sell the concession, and some non-British companies were interested in a deal.
Redwood was alarmed. He did not want the D’Arcy concession to slip out of British hands.
The timing was right: Sir John Fisher, who had become first lord of the admiralty in October 1904, was planning to convert the Royal Navy from coal to oil fueling. Moreover, the Scottish Burmah Oil Company, for which Redwood had long worked as a consultant, was in need of new oil reserves. Orchestrated by Redwood and Fisher, a new company, the Concessions Syndicate Ltd., formed in 1905 in Glasgow to take over D’Arcy’s interests in Persia. It was financed by the Burmah Oil Company and a retired wealthy Englishman Lord Strathcona. D’Arcy remained the director of the new company.
In 1905, under instructions by his new bosses, Reynolds abandoned Chiah Surkh and moved the drilling rig to the southern Khuzistan province. Two years earlier, D’Arcy had sent W.H. Dalton, another geologist from Redwood’s firm, to investigate oil prospects in that province. Dalton had singled out Shardin (Marmatin), some 55 miles east of Ahavaz City, as “by far the best.” Based on his report, Reynolds drilled two wells at Shardin: one in HH1906 reaching a depth of 2,170 feet and the second in 1907 to a depth of 1,940 feet. Both were dry wells.
Reynolds decided to try a new well at his favorite area, which was about 55 miles northeast of Ahavaz. The area was traditionally known as Meidān Naftoon (“Field of Oil”). It was also home to the ruins of an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple, and for this reason local people (mistakenly) called it Masjid Suleiman (“Mosque of Solomon”). This place was mentioned in the geological reports of de Morgan, Burls and Dalton, but it was particularly attractive to Reynolds because in November 1903 on a brief trip to Kuwait, he had heard stories of rich oil seeps at Meidān Naftun from a British historian, Louis Dane. Reynolds had even gone to this desolate place in 1904 and again 1906 to observe the sedimentary rocks saturated with oil.
Reynolds was enthusiastic about the new site. Well No. 1 at Masjid Suleiman was spudded on Jan. 23, 1908. Reynold’s optimism was encouraged by D’Arcy himself, as well as by Edward Hubert Cunningham-Craig, a geologist with Burmah Oil who, in November 1907, had made a survey of the Masjid Suleiman area together with Reynolds. However, Burmah Oil managers – having already spent a great deal of money on the D’Arcy Concession – were beginning to lose heart.
Arnold Wilson, a young lieutenant of the British Indian Army who had brought 20 gunmen with him in 1907 to protect the drilling operations in Persia, wrote in his autobiography, “S.W. Persia: A Political Officer’s Diary,” that Reynolds had received a telegram from the company to stop the operations altogether and ship the equipment back if oil was not found at Masjid Suleiman.
To buy time, Reynolds decided not to reply to this cable. History was repeating itself: half a century earlier, Edwin Drake had received a similar letter from his bosses just before he struck oil at Titusville, Pa.
A Gusher at Masjid Suleiman
Reynold’s vision and persistence paid off. On May 16, 1908 a strong gas smell from the well was noted. Reynolds kept on drilling, and on May 26 at 4 a.m., the well hit a gusher that shot more than 80 feet above the rig. Reynolds, in high spirits, called for a camel courier and sent off a message to the telegraph office in Baghdad to inform his company that the oil was struck at 1,180 feet. Wilson, who had been sleeping close to the rig, also broke this important news to the British government, but in a coded message so that clerks could not notice: “See Psalm 104 Verse 15 Third Sentence and Psalm 114 verse 8 second sentence.” Un-coded, the telegram read: “That he may bring out of the earth oil to make him a cheerful countenance ... the flint stone into a springing well.”
The following day, Well No. 1 was tested at about 297 barrels of oil a day. In reply to the company’s cable to the effect of stopping the operations, Reynolds wrote: “The instructions you say you are sending me may be modified by the fact that oil has been struck; so on receipt of them I can hardly act on them.”
Well No. 2 in June and Well No. 3 in September 1908 proved to be even bigger gushers at Masjid Suleiman. It took seven years and close to half a million pounds to discover this first oil field in the Middle East. In 1912, a 130-mile pipeline connected the oil field to the Abadan refinery, the first of its kind and still one of the largest in the Middle East.
The Masjid Sulaiman oil came from the Oligocene-Lower Miocene, 1,000-foot thick limestone of the Asmari Formation – so named in 1924 by R.K. Richardson after the Asmari Mountain about 20 miles southeast of the field. The reservoir sits on a giant anticline pushed up by a major thrust fault at deeper levels of the Zagros foreland basin. The oil was light crude (39 degrees API) with 1.3 percent sulfur. Until Iran’s 1979 revolution, 314 wells had been drilled in the Masjid Suleiman field, having produced a total of one billion barrels from the Asmari, and in 1979 the reservoir was still producing about 7,000 barrels a day. Although today Asmari limestone is no longer a producing reservoir at the Masjid Suleiman field (production comes from deeper reservoirs), Asmari limestone is still an important reservoir rock in many oil fields in the Zagros basin.
The Masjid Suleiman discovery had enormous commercial and geopolitical implications. On April 14, 1909, a new company, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, replaced the Concessions Syndicate Ltd., with a capital of £2 million, registered in London. D’Arcy remained its director until his death in 1917. In order to secure oil supply for the Royal Navy at a lower price, in 1914 Winston Churchill’s government decided to buy 51 percent of the APOC. Indeed, Persian oil provided a considerable amount of cheap oil for the Royal Navy during World War I and II. In 1953, in the wake of nationalization in Iran, APOC was split into British Petroleum and the National Iranian Oil Company.
The Masjid Suleiman field put the Middle East on the word’s oil map and paved way for other discoveries in Iran and other parts of the Middle East. And let’s not forget the idea for drilling at Masjid Suleiman was suggested to Reynolds by a historian, which is an apt ending for this Historical Highlight.