BULLS FROM THE SEA : Ancient Oil Industries
by Dr. Zayn Bilkadi
The ancient Arabian people known as the
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
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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