In the Azerbaijan city of Naftalan, 320 kilometers north-west of the capital Baku, crude oil is found in such abundance that people literally bath in it. During the Soviet era, Naftalan’s famous crude oil baths used to draw tourists from all over the Soviet Union. It is believed that Naftalan crude oil has medicinal properties and is good for treating skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, easing joint pains and generally calming the nerves. At their peak in the 1980s, Naftalan spas had 75,000 visitors a year. This reduced to a trickle when war broke out between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenians in nearby Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988, and many resorts were converted into camps for housing refugees. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, petroleum baths closed down entirely. Now nearly two decades later, crude oil spas have started opening up again.
The qualities of Naftalan oil has been known since ancient times. In the 13th centaury AD, the famous explorer Marko Polo who was passing through Azerbaijan on his way from Venice to China mentioned about Naftalan oil which he saw being loaded on to camels. He noted the oil’s therapeutic properties and how it could treat humans and animals with skin diseases. Modern use of the oil started during the 1870s under Czarist Russia. By 1912, a German joint-stock company was founded to export and trade the oil, which was used as a treatment in the Russo-Japanese War.
Naftalan oil’s magical properties were discovered way back in the 6th century BC. According to legends, a passing merchants' caravan left a sick camel to die in the muddy waters of a lake near the town. One their way back, the merchants found the camel happily bathing in the waters of the lake apparently cured of its sickness. Upon inspecting the lake, the caravan’s people found black oily liquid beneath the muddy waters and understood that the sick animal was cured by it. They covered their hand’s and feet’s sores with the black oil and were convinced of its healing powers. After that the people from nearby villages stared to use the miracle liquid as medicine.
Naftalan crude oil is indeed different from the commercial grade variety used to make petroleum. Naftalan crude contains about 50 percent naphthalene, a hydrocarbon used in mothballs. It is also an active ingredient in coal tar soaps, which are used by dermatologists to treat psoriasis. Although the National Agency for Research on Cancer, an American government agency, classifies naphthalene as a possible carcinogen, no one has concluded whether regular baths in Naftalan oil cause cancer. Gyultikin Suleymanova, the lead doctor at Health Center, a spa that opened in 2005, said the therapeutic benefits are a product of natural antibiotic and anti-inflammatory agents that seep into the skin.
A crude oil bath usually lasts for 10 minutes during which visitors lie naked in a pool of thick, black, lukewarm oil up to their neck, followed by almost 40 minutes of scrubbing with a wooden spatula and paper towels and multiple trips to the shower. For three days after a bath, the saturated skin continue to ooze crude oil. The gross part is that the oil is recycled, which is no surprise, given the cost of oil these day. Each bath uses about a barrel of crude, and after the bath is over, the oil goes back to a communal tank for future bathers. A single bath costs between $200 to $240.