Bibi-Heybat is an oil and gas-condensate field located on the Apsheron Peninsula on the west coast of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan. Known as “the Land of Fire” for its ancient burning oil and gas seeps, it is generally considered the first oil-producing country in the world. In 1846, an oil well in the Bibi-Heybat field in the capital city of Baku laid the foundation for industrial production of “black gold” in Azerbaijan. By 1899, Azerbaijan led the world in the production and processing of oil, and it produced half of the world’s oil that year. From 1899 to 1901, the Russian (Baku) oil industry was first in the world in total production, delivering 84.3 million barrels of oil per year. At that time production in the United States was about 66.7 million barrels per year.
Most of us know only a little about the history of oil in the Baku beyond the great fortunes made there by the Nobels and the Rothschilds, but the history of oil development in the area extends back three millennia. In the 6th century B.C., the army of Cyrus II (the Great), first emperor of the Achaemenid Empire (today’s Iran), used Absheron oil as an incendiary weapon to attack the strongholds of his enemies. Two hundred years later, as noted by the Greek historian Plutarch, soldiers of Alexander the Great of Macedonia used oil from the Absheron Peninsula for lighting purposes. They transported it in wineskins or in earthen-ware crockery. Fire worshippers’ temples in Surakhani and other places near Baku where oil and gas were extracted, such as Shubani village on Pirallahi Island near the Absheron Peninsula, were destroyed during Alexander’s attack on Midia (today’s Azerbaijan).
Arab historian Istarhi-Abu Isak noted that Baku residents used ground impregnated with oil for heating because of the absence of wood as early as the 8th century A.D. A century later, Arabian traveler Baladzori (Al-Belazuri Ahmed) described in “The Conquest of the Countries” that political and economic life on Apsheron had been long connected with oil.
A thousand years later, the first attempts to extract oil in the Caspian Sea date back to the early 19th century. In 1803, the Baku merchant Haji Kasymbek Mansurbekov built two oil wells in the sea. These wells were located at a distance of 59 and 98 feet from the coast of the village of Bibi-Heybat (meaning “Aunt Heybat” in the Azeri language). They were protected from the water by a log house made of tightly-knit planks.
In 1834, Nikolay Voskoboynikov invented a special distillation system for the production of kerosene from skimmed oil. Three years later, his oil refinery began operations in Balakhani, becoming the first in the world (Samuel Kier constructed the first similar facility in the United States in 1853-55). Later that decade, a report detailing Voskoboynikov’s ideas on drilling for oil rather than digging pits by hand was presented to the Russian government, then the rulers of Azerbaijan. Funds were authorized for drilling.
In 1844 – some decade-and-a-half before discoveries in Oil Springs, Ontario in 1858 and the famous Drake well in Pennsylvania in 1859 – drilling began in the Bibi-Heybat field. The world’s first successful drilled oil well, 69-feet deep, was drilled in 1846 at Bibi-Heybat settlement. Industrial drilling specifically for oil was proven to be effective for the first time.
Although this first well was drilled in 1846, the official date of the discovery of the Bibi-Heybat field is 1871. In the modern sense, the beginning of the large-scale oil industry in Azerbaijan is considered to be 1871, for that is the year when the Bibi-Heybat, Balakhani, Sabunchi and Romani fields were discovered near Baku. Oil production has continued since that time. By 1872, the legal basis for the exploitation of oil fields began to form when two legislative acts were adopted: “The Law on Oil Fields and the Collection of Excise Taxes on Oil Products” and “The Law on the Auction Sale to Private Persons of Oil Fields in the Hands of Tenants.” At the first oil auction at the end of 1872, 17 plots were sold at Bibi-Heybat and Balakhani (Baku villages). Bibi-Heybat saw its first gusher six years later. The field produces from several Pliocene sandstone reservoirs on what we now know to be a giant faulted anticline.
The beginning of the first work with the aim of commercial oil and gas production in the Caspian Sea dates back to 1906, when the Union of Oil Industrialists in Azerbaijan announced a competition to fill in the shallow part of the Bibi-Heybat Bay on the outskirts of Baku. Excavation work began in 1909, was completed in 1922 and an 865-acre area was filled up and reclaimed from the sea.
By 1920, nine oil fields were already being developed in Azerbaijan: Bibi-Heybat, Balakhany, Sabunchi, Romany, Binagadi, Surakhani, Shubany, Pirallahi and Naftalan. (These oldest deposits have the names of the corresponding Apsheron villages). In 1923, well No. 5 erupted in a powerful oil gusher, which marked the beginning of the exploitation of the first offshore field in the Ilyich Bay (later known as Bayil Limani). At that time, the offshore was already producing 10 percent of Baku’s oil.
A year later, well No. 71 was drilled in this field in the Ilyich Bay from an artificial island built of wooden piles. It became the first well in the world to produce an industrial flow of oil from under the ocean floor. Wells had been drilled in Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio as far back as 1890, and in 1911 an oil well was drilled in Caddo Lake in Louisiana, but these wells were in fresh water. Well No. 71 was drilled offshore in saltwater. The oil flow obtained from this well gave impetus to the intensification of further prospecting and exploration work in the Caspian Sea.
Beginning in the 1920s, sophisticated geophysical research methods (gravimetric, magnetometric, electrometric, seismic) were widely used to explore for oil and gas in the Baku area. At that time, the coastal shelf of the Apsheron Peninsula was developed by shallow wells drilled from longboats, afterwards by more modern techniques.
During World War II, the Baku oilfields were a key target of the German offensive to the Caucasus, ultimately thwarted at Stalingrad. In 1971, the the first billionth ton (more than 7 billion barrels) of oil was produced from oilfields in Azerbaijan since the beginning of industrial oil production there.
On Nov. 8, 2017, Azerbaijan’s oil industry reached a new momentous milestone: 2 billion tons (14.7 billion barrels) of oil production. The landmark was celebrated at a special event in Baku, featuring an appearance by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. The year 2021 marks another milestone, as the oil industry of Azerbaijan turns 175 years old. One of the largest fields in the South Caspian Basin, the venerable Bibi-Heybat field is still in production.
Acknowledgments: The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of William R. Brice, retired geology professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, and author of “Myth, Legend, Reality - Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry.”