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BULLS FROM THE SEA : Ancient Oil Industries by Dr. Zayn Bilkadi

The ancient Arabian people known as the Nabataeans, also referred to as the “Oilmen of the Dead Sea,” were the successors of the Thamud people of Arabia.

The Nabataean home base was the present-day Hijaz region of northwestern Saudi Arabia, from which they eventually fanned out to build a kingdom (4th - 3rd century BC) that included large tracts of the Negev Desert, almost all of what is now Jordan and, at one time, even Damascus.

They were known to have founded one of the greatest kingdoms of the ancient Middle East. Nabataeans were a wealthy nation - so wealthy in fact, that they are the only people in history known to have imposed a punitive tax on whomever among them grew poorer instead of richer.

It was the death of Alexander the Great and the division of his empire that brought the Nabataeans - and their bitumen industry - into conflict with the superpowers of the day. Much later in 88 and 87 BC, the Greek Seleucid king Antiochus XII launched two separate campaigns against the Nabataean king 'Ubaydah I, in a determined effort to capture the Nabataeans' oil industry. In 31 BC, the Arabs triumphed over the Judean king Herod at the battle of Qanawat, in present-day Syria, and the politics of oil in the ancient Middle East sealed the fate of Antony and Cleopatra VII. Finally, in the year AD106, the Nabataeans were incorporated by the emperor Trajan into the newly formed province of Roman Arabia, with its capital at Bostra in southern Syria.

Humans have used petroleum since the earliest times.

Pre-historic hunters used bitumen to attach flint spearpoints to shafts, and prehistoric farmers harvested with sickles whose stone edges were held in place with the same substance, which also served as a liniment and a laxative. Seven thousand years ago, the Ubaid people caulked their boats with bitumen, and used it as well as making works of art inlaid with mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli.

All this was in Mesopotamia, where petroleum was naturally available from bitumen seeps, oil springs and oil-bearing rock. Recent evidence suggests that bitumen was traded down the western shores of the Arabian Gulf before the end of the fifth century BC. And elsewhere in the Middle East, escaping natural gas, lit by lightning, produced “eternal flames” that were objects of superstitious awe.

In historic times, the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians each used bitumen from important seeps at Hit and other nearby sites on the Euphrates: Ain Ma'moora, Ain Elmaraj, Ramadi, Jebba and Abu Gir. It served in the construction of irrigation systems, as a caulk for ships, and as both an additive to strengthen fired clay bricks and a mortar to hold them together. These large-scale civilizations used bricks by the millions and bitumen by the ton - used them, in fact on a scale we would have to describe as industrial.

We think of the petroleum industry as a 20th-century phenomenon, and certainly more oil is used now than ever was in the past, even on a per-capita basis. But there were genuine oil industries in the ancient Middle East and surrounding areas that employed large numbers of people, that made standardized products, and whose workings had international economic and political ramifications. In the three articles of this series, we will look at some of them.

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