Thus Genesis records the first use of "rock oil," a substance which seeped from Old World springs as long ago as 4000 B.C.
Bitumen—the general term applied to inflammable substances found in the earth—formed the cement used in the walls of King Solomon's Temple. It served as mortar in the construction of the Tower of Babel. With it the Egyptians embalmed their dead, calling it "mumia."
Asphaltum and its more volatile naphthenic liquids were the Biblical "rock oil" that the Greeks knew as petros olaion and the Latins as petra oleum. Traces of asphalt, a modern paving material, have been found on old Roman roads.
From these ancient uses the jinni that sparked Aladdin's lamp—petroleum—has come a long way, and nowhere is this refinement over the centuries more colorfully reflected than in a stamp album. Without stirring from their armchairs, philatelists learn much about the history, romance and high adventure of the oil industry, for stamps often commemorate oil's uses and international value as a world energy resource. Theirs is "wildcatting" in a relaxing way.
To begin with, the armchair observer discovers that Iraq, old Mesopotamia, issued a stamp in 1923 showing the guffas on the Tigris River. It may well be that these round boats, made by stretching skins over a palmwood frame and then coating them with pitch or asphalt, are the earliest oil tankers. Other Iraqi oil stamps show King Faisal II against a backdrop of oil wells and, in 1957, an oil pipeline compressor station.
Saudi Arabia, where the Arabian American Oil Company holds important concessions for exploration and development of oil and gas reserves, issued its first oil stamp in 1961. There are 13 stamps of identical bi-colored design in different denominations and colors.
Jordan issued two denominations in 1961, each showing the oil refinery at Zarka on the occasion when this modern installation went on stream.
Iran, ancient Persia, issued two sets of colorful oil stamps in 1953 to commemorate the discovery of oil at Qum. One design shows an oil well with mosques in the background. The other, of horizontal format, features an oil well, mosques and a bas relief from the ancient city of Persepolis.
Four years ago Iran issued a set of two stamps to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the drilling of the first oil well. In them a hand holds a dish of flaming oil—symbolic of the perpetual fires of Iranian myths.
One of these early myths refers to an eternal fire that needs no feeding and can be found on the shore of the Caspian Sea. The religion of the fire worshippers of which Zoroaster was the leader was based on this Old-World wonder. It has been perpetuated by the "temple of eternal fire" on the stamps of Azerbaijan, now a Soviet state, which prior to 1925 had issued 32 oil stamps.
Enjoying a major oil boom, Libya has issued three identical bi-colored designs showing a map of the Zelten Field and an oil tanker at Marsa Brega, plus a unique triangular pictorial honoring the International Fair at Tripoli early this year.
Most European nations have recognized the oil industry on their postage. France, with a beautiful design showing a modern drilling rig in the Bordeaux area and another of a Sahara exploration project, is outstanding.
The Netherlands pictures a large oil refinery in Curacao on one of its issues commemorating the tercentenary of this Dutch West Indian island on which Venezuelan oil is refined.
Italy, Poland, Greece, Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Russia have all issued oil stamps. Romania with 90 varieties has put out more oil topicals than any other country.
In South America, where many of the nations have recognized petroleum on their stamps, Venezuela has issued some 80 oil stamps in various postage, air mail, revenue and departmental varieties. One of the more popular older sets shows oil derricks on Lake Maracaibo, world-famed oil production area.
Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala (rather oddly because it has no production or refining), Peru, Brazil, Bolivia and Mexico are other Latin American nations which have recognized the oil industry on their postage stamps.
Today some 54 countries produce oil and/or natural gas, and 44 of them—plus Lebanon and Guatemala which are non-producers—have issued a total of 451 postage, air mail and revenue stamps whose designs pertain to the oil business.
"The world is a great book," wrote St. Augustine, "and they that never stir from home read only a page." Not so with the stamp collector, for Marco Polo himself would have been enchanted with the revelations of these little pieces of paper which carry the mail.