In the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” (2008), Gemma Arterton is killed by getting covered in crude oil. In Azerbaijan, a country whose wealth has been built around its vast oil and gas reserves, and has been known since ancient times as the “Land of Fire,” people seem to be less concerned about the health risks of crude oil.
On the contrary, in the small town of Naftalan, local oil is even regarded as having beneficial therapeutic effects, and people are happy to bathe in it. Naftalan, as local scientists eagerly point out, is the only place in the world in which oil has (allegedly) thermal qualities. Naftalan (literally translated as “taking the oils”) is thus the only spa town in the world where treatments do not involve water, but oil.
Astonishingly, the first accounts of the healing oil of Azerbaijan were made by Marco Polo in the 13th century. He had never visited Naftalan, but noted in his travel accounts stories of magical therapeutic oil springs he had heard about in the area of today’s Azerbaijan. At the end of the 19th century, a German chemist began to export bottled oil from Naftalan, which soon became extremely popular in Russia and neigboring countries.
The spa is not one of those contemporary ethereal beauty temples, but rather a clinical Soviet sanatorium-style affair. A number of treatments are offered, but the most popular is to simply bathe in the black stuff, which after a bathing session, is thoroughly scrubbed down the body.
During the Soviet Union, when the spa town had its heyday, Naftalan was one of the most important spa towns in the Caucasus region, and received up to 75,000 visitors annually. Immediately after Azerbaijan’s independence, when relations with Russia notably cooled down and the Caucasus fell into a number of violent conflicts, Naftalan received very few guests. Back then, a number of the sanatoria had been turned into refugee camps for IDPs, who fled the horrors of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war.
In recent years, the local government is working hard to restore Naftalan to its former glory, and hopes to attract Western tourists in the near future. The oil of Naftalan is claimed to be especially beneficial against psoriasis, arthritis and rheumatism.
- Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan; 3rd Edition; May 2008