n 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.