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Volume 45, Number 4July/August 1994

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Bulls From The Sea

Written by Zayn Bilkadi
Illustrated by Bob Lapsley

Humans have used petroleum since the earliest times.

Prehistoric hunters used bitumen to attach flint spearpoints to shafts, and 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 in 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 tile western shores of the Arabian Gulf before the end of the fifth century ac. 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 Git. 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 e-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.

For the ancient Arabian people known as the Nabataeans, history arrived in 312 BC, when an army of Greek mercenaries crossed the Syrian desert into present-day Jordan and headed toward the southern tip of the Dead Sea. When they reached their destination, their commander - a general named Hieronymus of Cardia - couldn't believe his eyes: Scores of Arabic-speaking tribesmen were camped on the shore, with pack-camels couched and reed rafts beached, waiting for what they called the thawr—the word was Arabic for "bull"—to appear in the middle of the sulfur-smelling waters.

The "bulls," Hieronymus discovered, were great iceberg-like mounds of jellied crude oil - bitumen—that floated up from the depths of the murky water and drifted aimlessly with the wind (See Aramco World, November-December 1984). Every time a new "bull" rose into sight, a swarm of axe-wielding seamen leapt onto their reed-bundle rafts and began a frantic race toward the catch.

The Arabs prized the oily exudate immensely; as the Greeks put it, they carried the stuff off "like plunder of war." Nowhere is this scene more vividly depicted than in Hieronymus's own journal:

"They make ready large bundles of reeds and cast them into the sea. On these not more than three men take their places, two of whom row with oars, which are lashed on, but one carries a bow and repels any who sail against them from the other shore, or who venture to interfere with them. When they come near the floating bitumen they jump upon it with axes and, just as if it were soft stone, they cut pieces and load them onto the raft, after which they sail back."

On the shore, crews of women and children sprinkled the hunks of tarry oil with sand, stuffed them into leather bags and loaded them onto camels for the long journey across the Sinai. Their final destination: Alexandria, Egypt.

Ironically, when Hieronymus witnessed this extraordinary harvest of the sea, he was under orders to the Arabs and secure the oil for his master, the Macedonian Greek king Antigonus I Monophthalmos—the "One-Eyed." As it happened, Hieronymus's talent for keeping good notes of his observations far exceeded his skills as a military leader. His army was handily defeated, and he had to flee back to Syria for his life. Some 270 years later, his diary, long forgotten, fell into the hands of the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus, who made good use of it in his description of early Nabataean life.

Until that eventful day when the Greeks made their unwelcome appearance in their midst, almost nothing was known about these oilmen of the Dead Sea, the Nabataeans. Some scholars equate them with the Nebaioth people mentioned in the Bible, and Qur'an translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali calls them the successors of the Thamud people of Arabia. It has been established beyond doubt that their home base was the present-day Hijaz region of northwestern Saudi Arabia, from which they eventually fanned out to build a kingdom that included large tracts of the Negev Desert, almost all of what is now Jordan and, at one time, even Damascus (See Aramco World, March-April 1981). Harvard professor G.W. Bowersock, an expert on the Nabataeans and author of the book Roman Arabia, called their realm "one of the greatest kingdoms of the ancient Middle East."

Although much of their history remains shrouded in obscurity, everyone agrees that the 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. To be sure, much of their fabulous wealth came from their tight grip on the caravan trade in spices and incense that flowed from southern Sea were running at an all-time high, and for good reason: The substance Because Egypt had no Arabia to Egypt—a lucrative trade for which they were the exclusive middlemen. But a strong case can be made that these shrewd and studious Arabs built their prosperity on two monopolies, not one, for they were also the sole exporters of Dead Sea bitumen to Egypt.

In the fourth century BC, Egypt's imports of bitumen from the Dead Sea were running at an all time high, and for good reason: the substance was fast becoming the main ingredient in the Egyptians' most important religious ritual-mummification.

Embalming of the dead had been an Egyptian tradition for millennia, driven by the ancient pharaonic belief that, without preservation of the body, there could be no assurance of an afterlife for the soul. However, sometime in the fourth or fifth century BC, the Egyptians began to experience a shortage of the aromatic resins, gathered from shrubs and trees, that they had relied upon exclusively for the operation. Eventually, Egyptian priests found they could do just as well by reducing the quantities of these aromatics and mixing them with molten bitumen - or mrh.Hr, as the word is transliterated from an old Egyptian papyrus text on embalming, written on behalf of Anubis, the jackal-headed funerary deity and reputed inventor of mummification:

"Anubis ... fills the interior of the skull with mrh.Hr, incense, myrrh, cedar oil, and calves' fat."

The word mrh.Hr is written in hieroglyphics with the signs owl, mouth, twisted flax, face and pot, as shown above. The word is suspiciously close to an Arabic word for bitumen, humar, which the Nabataeans may have used. bitumen or oil deposits of its own, it had stance from the Nabataeans. Egypt's population around 300 BC was close to seven million, demand for bitumen was very large and the Nabataeans knew that in the oil of the Dead Sea they had their hands on a fortune of immense proportions. Then as now, oil and international trade proved to be inseparable.

Between 323 and 285 BC, found themselves at the center of a bitter struggle between two superpowers, each headed by a former general in the army of Alexander the Great: Ptolemy I Soter and Antigonus I Monophthalmos. After the death of Alexander, each of the generals aspired to eliminate the other and carve out for himself an empire that would include all of the Middle East. Ptolemy I founded a dynasty in Egypt, while Antigonus I retained part of present-day Turkey and all Syria and Lebanon.

In the year 312 BC, Antigonus made his move against Ptolemy: He dispatched a trusted officer, Athenaeus, at the head of an army of 4600 men with the dual mission of subduing the "barbarians," as the Greeks referred to the Nabataeans, and of imposing an economic blockade against Egypt's eastern flank. Perhaps, too, Antigonus had heard of the bitumen exports across the desert—there are indications that he had—and calculated that a shortage of bitumen in Egypt would stir up the powerful priesthood against his rival.

But Antigonus's scheme failed.

Informers had told Athenaeus that it was the custom of the men of the nomadic Arab groups of the Dead Sea area to gather once a year for a national festival, during which they left all their possessions and their old people, women and children for safekeeping at a certain place referred to as "The Rock." This rock—described as exceptionally strong, high, and unprotected by a wall—sounds very like the hill Umm al-Biyarah, within the rose-red city of Petra, whose name means "rock" in Greek, and which was later to become the capital of the Nabataean kingdom (See Aramco World, September-October 1991)

Athenaeus timed his raid to coincide with the festival. Reaching the rock at nightfall, he surprised the Arabs there and killed or imprisoned many of them. After looting the encampment, he made off in the darkness with 700 camels and a large quantity of booty that included much frankincense and myrrh and about 500 talents of silver. To us, such riches are evidence that the Nabataeans were busy traders with southern Arabia and had accumulated great wealth, but for the forces of Athenaeus they spell doom. Weary in the torrid heat, heavy-laden and short of water, they made the fatal mistake of setting up camp too soon.

The Nabataeans learned of the Greek assault and lost no time gathering their forces and sending them in pursuit of the intruders. Locating the Greek camp, they fell upon it with vengeance, and at the end of the day all of Athenaeus's infantry and most of ere destroyed.

When they returned to their rock, with their recovered goods in hand, the Nabataeans sent an angry letter to Antigonus, written in "Syrian characters"—probably Aramaic, the lingua franca of the region. They accused Athenaeus of aggression, and demanded assurances that the Greeks would not harm them again. Antigonus, hoping to buy time, denied responsibility for the incident and assured them that Athenaeus had acted against orders and on his own. This was no consolation to the Nabataeans; as a precautionary measure, they decided to place their territory, to provide early warning of any future intrusion.

Shortly thereafter, Antigonus ordered his own son Demetrius—known to the Greeks as Poliorcetes, "the Besieger" or "City-Sacker"—to march on the rock at the head of a formidable force of more than 8000 troops, half of them cavalry. His movements, however, were detected very early on, and news of the imminent invasion reached Petra by fire signals. At once, the Nabataeans deployed a garrison to protect their city, and divided their cattle into small separate flocks which they drove deep into the desert.

When Demetrius reached Petra, he found it heavily guarded and on the alert. His first assault was easily repelled and, at the end of the day, he was forced to retreat. The next day, as he was preparing to storm the city a second time, the Nabataean elders sent him a message that beautifully expresses both the peaceful desires and steely resolve of the Bedouin Arabs:

"King Demetrius, with what desire or under what compulsion do you war against us who live in the desert, in a land that has neither water nor grain nor wine nor any other thing whatever that pertains to the necessities of life among you? For we, since we are in no way willing to be slaves, have taken refuge in a land that lacks all the things that are valued among other peoples, and have chosen to live a life in the desert..., harming you not at all. We therefore beg both you and your father to do us no injury but, after receiving gifts from us, to withdraw your army and henceforth regard the Nabataeans as your friends. For neither can you remain here many days, since you lack water and all the other necessary supplies, nor can you force us to live a different life."

After negotiating with their emissaries, Demetrius finally agreed to withdraw, on condition that he be given hostages and gifts Instead of retreating toward Syria, however, Demetrius—to the Arabs' dismay—marched on to the Dead Sea and declared himself "lord of all the oil fisheries." Leaving behind his army, he then hastened back to his father to report the news.

Antigonus, apparently impressed by what his son had found, immediately sent another battalion to the Dead Sea, headed this time by Hieronymus, with specific orders to "prepare boats, collect all the bitumen, and bring it together in a certain place.” However, when Hieronymus attempted to harvest the oil with his boats, his forces were attacked by no less than 6000 Arabs—some of them on rafts—and were annihilated in a shower of arrows.

The episodes of Athenaeus and Demetrius in 312 BC marked the entry of the Nabataeans into recorded history and, as archeologist Peter Parr writes, clearly imply that by that date they were already rich and powerful. In the first half of the third century, during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 BC), the Nabataean territory expanded further to include the area of the Hawran in present-day Syria, and a larger tract of the Negev Desert across the Wadi Araba.

Very little is known about the history of the Nabataeans from the middle of the third century to about 100 BC, except for the name of al-Harith (or Aretas) I, the first individually recorded Nabataean ruler, in about 168 BC, and the fact that, by the end of the second century, Petra was full of foreign dignitaries, including a Roman ambassador.

We know from the Roman historian Josephus that 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. Both invasions were crushed. In fact, in the second invasion, Antiochus himself lost his life in a battle close to the Dead Sea, as Josephus reported:

"'Ubaydah retired to better defensive positions, then suddenly faced about with his cavalry force of 10,000 men and fell upon the army of Antiochus while [it was] in disarray. A bitter struggle followed. While Antiochus survived, his men fought on, though they suffered appallingly at Arab hands; when at last he fell as a result of risking his life continuously in the forefront to help his struggling soldiers, the entire line broke. Most of his army was destroyed in the engagement or in the subsequent flight; the survivors took refuge in the village of Cana, where lack of food killed all but a handful."

The Nabataeans continued their petroleum exports to Egypt well into the first century BC, and their wealth, already considerable, continued to grow. The bitumen was carried along the Wadi Araba to Petra or Avdat by camel caravans, and then north to the coastal city of Gaza. From Gaza, it was either loaded aboard ships bound for Alexandria, or taken along the Mediterranean coastline in fresh caravans into Egypt.

But, as the first century BC progressed, both the Nabataeans and their captive market, the Egyptians, faced a serious threat from the Romans in Syria. In 62 BC, a Roman officer from Syria named Scaurus led an expedition against the Nabataeans and withdrew only after being bought off with a large amount of silver. Seven years later, a Roman commander called Gabinius invaded the kingdom in his turn and demanded another ransom in silver. The more silver the Nabataeans were willing to part with, however, the bolder the Roman demands grew, until Roman leader Marc Antony finally annexed the kingdom outright.

Before long, however, Antony fell in love with that extraordinary Greek-Egyptian queen, Cleopatra VII, who persuaded him to give her the Nabataean oil fisheries as a gift. To maximize her income from the operation while still ensuring that the oil would continue to flow into her kingdom, the canny queen contrived the first recorded leaseback scheme: For a hefty 200 talents, or roughly $400,000 a year, she leased the Dead Sea oil works back to the Nabataean king Malik I in 36 BC. Without any expenditure of money, labor or military force, Cleopatra thus assured herself a substantial revenue - which she intended to use to help build a naval fleet strong enough to defeat Antony's chief Roman rival, Octavian.

The financial toll on the Arabs, however, proved unbearable: In 32 BC, Malik I, under intense pressure from his elders, balked at tile payment and defied the Egyptian queen. Cleopatra, in response, called on Antony to launch a punitive campaign against the Arabs, led by one of his protégés, Judean king Herod. But the hostilities between Herod and the Arabs turned out badly for the queen: The Arabs triumphed over Herod at the battle of Qanawat, in present-day Syria, and shortly thereafter, in 31 BC, Antony himself was defeated by Octavian's forces in the naval battle of Actium, off the coast of Greece.

In a desperate scramble to escape to India with Antony, Cleopatra had some of her ships dragged overland from the Nile to the Red Sea. But there, on the coast, her heavy-handed policy against the Arabs came back to haunt her: By an amazing coincidence of history, a garrison of Nabataeans was stationed near the site where the ships were to be launched.

No sooner were Cleopatra's galleys afloat than the Nabataeans—forever wary of any Egyptian naval presence on the Red Sea, which might threaten their overland trade routes —attacked and set them ablaze. Antony and Cleopatra were forced to flee back to Alexandria; and the couple, realizing that they were hopelessly trapped in Egypt, committed suicide. In a true sense then, the politics of oil in the ancient Middle East sealed the fate of Antony and Cleopatra.

 After the death of Cleopatra, Egypt became a colony of the new Roman empire created by Octavian, who took the title "Augustus," and the pharaonic custom of mummification ended. As a result, the bitumen fisheries of the Dead Sea lost their economic importance. The Nabataeans retained some degree of independence from Rome until the year 106, when they were incorporated by the emperor Trajan into the newly formed province of Roman Arabia, with its capital at Bostra in southern Syria.

Although the Romans did not practice embalming, they continued the Middle Eastern custom—originally from ancient Mesopotamia—of ingesting crude oil and bitumen for medicinal purposes, a custom—originally from ancient Mesopotamia—of ingesting crude oil and bitumen for medicinal purposes, a custom that led, more than a thousand years later, to one of the most bizarre commodities routinely traded in the history of humankind, "mummy."

Sometime in the 12th century, medieval Europe learned that the ancient Egyptians had used a bitumen mixture called mumiya' to embalm their dead, and that by melting this substance down one could obtain an oil that Ibn al-Baytar and other Muslim physicians claimed was of great medicinal value. Beginning in that century, and throughout the Middle Ages, thousands of Egyptian mummies were exported from Alexandria to Europe by way of Marseilles—initially for recovery of the bitumen, later, as the effective ingredient was forgotten, to be simply ground to powder altogether. This powder, called "mummy," was a standard apothecary ingredient, and much in demand.

When the supply of genuine mummies and mummy parts ran low, unscrupulous gangs in Alexandria resorted to deceit, shipping instead the corpses of slaves and criminals which had been disemboweled, aged in the sun and then stuffed or swabbed with a little bitumen, without proper cleansing. Not surprisingly, the practice had disastrous consequences in Western Europe, especially in France and Germany, where it contributed to the spread of the Black Plague. In 1564, a French physician, Guy de la Fontaine, traveled to Egypt and exposed the "mummy" fraud to the French king. Unfortunately, his warnings were not immediately heeded, and the export trade in mummies did not come to a complete halt until some 50 years later. Indeed, domestically produced false "mummy" was still traded in Europe into the 18th century—a macabre offshoot of one of the Middle Eastern petroleum industries of more than 2000 years earlier.

Dr. Zayn Bilkadi was born in Tunisia and studied at the American University of Beirut, the University of Rochester and the University of California at Berkeley. He is a senior research specialist at 3M Corporation and holder of nine patents.

This article appeared on pages 20-31 of the July/August 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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