Summer 1995 (3.2)
Azerbaijan's Petroleum Stamps
by Hugo Vargas and Shirin Bazleh
Recent Azerbaijani stamp series commemorating commemorating the 115th Anniversary of the Nobel Brother's Petroleum Company (1994).
Incredible historical lessons are to be learned from studying stamps. When it comes to many aspects of early extraction and oil processing, Azerbaijan was among the first in the world. In 1919, it also was the first country to issue a petroleum-related stamp. Here is an overview of the Petro-stamps that have been printed in Azerbaijan over the past 75 years.
New Stamps Honor the Nobel Brothers
In June 1994, the Republic of Azerbaijan issued a series of stamps commemorating the 115th Anniversary of the founding of the Nobel Brother's Petroleum Company. The new stamp (#1) depicts the three Nobel brothers-Robert, Ludwig, and Alfred (who was benefactor of the Nobel Prize)-along with Peter Bilderling, all co-owners and executives of the Nobel Brothers Oil Extracting Partnership. This souvenir-set stamp is framed against a photo of early wood drilling rigs and juxtaposed onto a map of the Absheron Peninsula where these early oil fields were discovered.
The Nobel Brother's Petroleum Stamp is the first petroleum-related stamp issued by Azerbaijan since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The stamps anticipated the signing of the Western Oil Consortium contract which was ratified in December 1994.
The Nobel Brothers established their company in 1879 and played a significant role in modernizing technology as it related to oil production in Azerbaijan in the 40 years that followed (see Azerbaijan International, Autumn 1994; 2:3).
For example, they initiated the use of a continuous distillation process in their refineries, a procedure which was not adopted in the United States until some 20 year later. They bought the first oil tanker for the Caspian in an effort to reduce transportation expenses. Within a short time the oil business began to boom in Baku, making it the busiest port in the world by 1890. The brothers also introduced diesel fuel as a source for heating their ships' engines and they designed railway tank cars, holding approximately 60 barrels each, to transport crude from the fields to the refineries. Later they went on to build the first pipeline in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan: First Oil-Related Stamp in World
Azerbaijan set the precedent for issuing "petro-stamps" (the name given to the stamps featuring a theme related to the petroleum industry). Today more than 170 countries have followed by issuing approximately 2500 petro-stamps, which relate to all phases of oil, natural gas and petrochemical industries. The stamps feature exploration, production, refining, transportation, research, end use and marketing.
Also depicted are some of the great oil personalities such as the Nobels, John D. Rockefeller, and Professor Saint-Claire Deville of France, who in the 1860s set about to examine crude samples from many countries of the world including Azerbaijan. Deville concluded that the oils of Baku, when compared to the European and American oils which he had had the chance to examine, ranked highest in calorific power. (Georg Hansen, Petro-Philatelist, "Early Exploitation in Azerbaijan," Winter 1987, 8:4, 9).
Left: One of the first Petro-Stamp ever issued by the independent Azerbaijan Republic (1920-21). Note Azerbaijani language in Arabic and Cyrillic scripts.
Right: Gushing oil well. The first Soviet Azerbaijani petro-stamp. Note the "Hammer and Sickle" (Early 1920s).
Baku's Fire Temple
Azerbaijan's first petro-stamp (#2) issued in 1919 featured a sketch of the Fire Worshippers' Temple, a shrine devoted to Zoroastrianism (one of the world's first religions dating to 1400-1200 BC). The temple was constructed on ground that was considered sacred because of its "eternal" fires which, in fact, resulted from natural gas seepage, not uncommon in the region even today. The temple was designed so that these natural gas flames were funneled to the dome and four corners of the temple roof through specially laid pipes. This unique Fire Temple, located 25 kilometers from Baku, has been repaired and its flaming torches can still be seen today. Several Sanskrit inscriptions date the monument.
In the year 625 AD, Emperor Heraclius, who was wintering in the steppes at the mouth of the river Kura near Baku, commanded his soldiers to extinguish the fires and destroy the temple. For a long period afterwards, according to James D. Henry (Baku, an Eventful History, 1905), there were no reports of buildings on or around these natural gas emanations.
For example, Marco Polo, who passed through the region in the 13th century, made no comment about the Fire Temples though he noted the existence of an "unguent that was used to cure cutaneous (skin-related) distempers in men and cattle, as well as other complaints; and which was also good for burning. In the neighboring country, no other (oil) was used in their lamps, and people came from distant parts to procure it."
Top Left: One of the first Petro-Stamp in the World. It was issued by the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan and features the Fire Worshippers' Temple near Baku (1919).
Top Right: Overprints on Petrol-stamps during the Soviet period: 15,000 rubles printed over 5 Rubles.
Bottom Left: Overprints on Petrol-stamps during the Soviet period: 50,000 rubles printed over 3,000 Rubles.
Bottom Right: Panoramic view of Bibi-Heybat Oil fields near Baku. Note "Star and Crescent" symbol of Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. Also note Azerbaijani language in Arabic script and French (1920-21).
The first stamp of the Fire Temple, depicts five oil derricks in the background and the Turkic symbol of pointed sun cradled by a crescent moon. French and the Azeri (Arabic script) were used. At that time the Arabic script had been in use for hundreds of years in the region although it would be replaced by Cyrillic in 1929 when the Soviet government began to standardize the alphabets used in its various Republics.
Panoramic View of Oilfield
The second Azerbaijani oil-related stamp (#3) also appeared during this period prior to Soviet rule. It depicts a panoramic view of an unidentified oil field. This stamp (with perforated and unperforated editions) is believed to have been issued privately and is not considered to be an official government stamp and, therefore, is not cataloged. Reportedly printed in Vienna, Austria, its origin is unknown.
The Bibi-Heybat Oil Fields
Soon after the Soviet takeover in 1920, Azerbaijan as a Socialist Republic issued two new petro-stamps. One showed a gushing oil well (#4) and the other a panoramic view of the Bibi-Heybat Oil Fields on the outskirts of Baku (#5).
Due to the economic disorder and inflation at the outset of the Soviet rule, the provisional government, instead of issuing new stamps, continued to use old ones stamped with new values. The overprints were poorly executed, using primitive printing equipment and hand-numbering machines with different ink colors.
Two examples are shown: a 5-ruble Bibi-Heybat Oil Field with a 15,000 rubles surcharge (#6) and a 3,000-ruble Bibi-Heybat Oil Field, a tête bêche (mirror image), with a 50,000 rubles surcharge (#7).
Twenty-two varieties of overprints have been cataloged of these first petro-stamps in Azerbaijan. Also, several counterfeit stamps of the first two were commonly printed and used. The forgeries can be easily detected today since they were printed on off-white paper; whereas, the originals were printed on white and, later in 1921, on brownish paper. There are also slight design differences which mark the stamps as counterfeit (Varro E. Tyler, Linn's Stamp News, 1992, 135).
Turkmenistan Also Issues Nobel Stamps
Turkmenistan joined Azerbaijan in commemorating the 115th anniversary of the creation of the Nobel Brothers by producing four petro-stamps and one souvenir set of their own. Their history also is linked to these famous early oil entrepreneurs.
Similar Turkmenistan series also commemorating the 115th Anniversary of the Nobel Brother's Petroleum Company (1994).
When Robert Nobel purchased his first refinery in Baku, he acquired some land on the Cheleken Island off the coast of what now is Turkmenistan on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea due east of Baku. There, on that isolated island, Turkomans were involved in the exploitation and mining of ozocerite, a solid paste mixture of hydrocarbons (mainly paraffin) of dark-brown color which was sold and used as fuel, lubricant, and water proofing. The ozocerite was mined by hand by digging around in some of the active little mounds, known as "mud volcanoes" which were formed by oil and gas seepage. Turkmenistan's 1-Manat stamp shows one of those "mud volcanoes" (#8).
Since these "mud volcanoes" were familiar indications of the prolific oil fields in Baku, Robert decided to explore for oil on the Cheleken Island, too. In the early 1880s he drilled two wells but the results were poor, he soon gave up exploration. Several years later, however, Karl Vasiliyevich Hagelin, a manager of the Nobel Brothers Company, by chance learned about the wells and in 1901 organized an expedition to study their potential. As research could be carried out by geologists and engineers with a better understanding of the oil reservoirs and with more advanced drilling techniques, it wasn't surprising that oil was discovered on the island. Turkmenistan's 2-Manat stamp shows one of the first rigs used to explore the island (#9).
Cheleken Island's crude oil was unusually rich in paraffin. Knowing that Russia was importing considerable quantities of paraffin, Hagelin decided to develop and produce this rare type of crude, and he installed the first paraffin refinery in Russia to process the crude.
The 1.5 Manat stamp (#10) shows the ship, "Turkmen", the first of two diesel engine tugs ever built and used in oil transportation. The "Turkmen" and the "Sart" were used to pull barges up the Volga River. Both tugs used engines manufactured by another Nobel company in St. Petersburg.
The 3-Manat stamp (#11) depicts the three Nobel brothers and Peter Bilderling just as the Azerbaijani stamp does. The 5-Manat souvenir set shows the Company's 27th Anniversary Commemorative Medal depicting a cloister of early Baku oil well derricks along with Ludwig and Robert Nobel.
Hugo Vargas is an Engineer with Chevron in San Ramon, California, and current President of Petrophil (Petroleum Philatelic Society International). He proudly displays an original Azerbaijani "Oil Gusher" stamp of the early 1920s on his office wall. See the "Opportunities" section in the magazine for information about Petrophil.
From Azerbaijan International (3.2) Summer 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.