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The Ancient History of Petroleum

bitumen, slime, common, asia, bitumens, found and ruins

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THE ANCIENT HISTORY OF PETROLEUM petroleum industry as it appears to-day is distinctly a creation of modern times. Yet so old is the actual knowledge of its character and its appropriation to man's needs that no one can tell just where or when petroleum was first recognized and put to general use. It might almost be said that the history of petroleum begins with the his tory of mankind, for references to the members of the bitumen family are found throughout the records of past and present ages.

The chances are, however, that petroleum, or some closely related member of the bitumens, was first put to general use by the ancient civilization of western Asia, at least two or three thousand years before the beginning of the Christian era. Modern explorations in Assyria, in excavating the ruins of ancient cities have revealed fragments of brick with an asphaltlike cement still clinging to them. Old bitumen and naphtha wells are said to have been discovered in many places, while in the remains of the famous tower of Ackerouf, near the ruins of Bagdad in ancient Chaldea, bitumen-ce mented walls are still visible after the lapse of at least thirty-five centuries. A semifluid bitumen, probably similar to mineral pitch or naphtha, is found to have been used extensively in the con struction of Babylon and Nineveh, as a cement for brick and slabs of alabaster. In the magnificent palaces and temples of these ancient cities, the wonderful mosaic pavements and beautiful in scribed panels were fastened in their places with this same material. It was also put to more hum ble uses in rendering water-tight cisterns and silos for grain.

Some of these structures, dating back into al most unknown antiquity, are still standing intact among the ancient ruins of western Asia. Most of the bitumens were undoubtedly obtained from local sources, which are common in many parts of Persia, Asia Minor, and surrounding districts, al though some may have been derived from more distant localities. Thus, Herodotus, the Greek his torian, says that the bitumen used as mortar in building the walls of Babylon was brought from the river Is, a tributary of the Euphrates.

The Egyptians also apparently made use of bitu mens as early as two thousand years before Christ, for it is known that embalming of dead bodies was a common practice among them at least four thou sand years ago, and many of the mummies since ex humed have been found to have the body cavities filled with an asphaltlike material. It is also said

that petroleum served as a sort of glue in the man ufacture of the ancient papyrus, assisting mate rially in preventing the ravages of insects, a valu able property of petroleum which is still utilized in various ways. Just where the Egyptians se cured their supplies of bitumens is not clearly re corded. Petroleum deposits are known at the pres ent time in Egyptian territory, but about the only information concerning the supplies in ancient days is afforded by a historian of Cwsar's time, one Diodorus, who says that inhabitants of the Dead Sea region collected the asphalt cast up on the shores of the sea, and sold it in Egypt for embalm ing purposes.

In view of the numerous records of bitumens in the early civilization of western Asia and Egypt, it may seem strange that the Old Testament Scrip tures do not mention these apparently familiar sub stances. It is true that in Job xxix, 6, is found the statement, "the rock poured me out rivers of oil," but beyond that statement there are no direct ref erences to oil from the earth. This apparent dis crepancy between historical and scriptural records, however, is explained by the fact that in translat ing the Bible, the word "salt" is said to have been used indiscriminately for common salt, nitre, and bitumen, while words translated "slime" in the common version, are translated "bitumen" in others. This other meaning of "slime" makes pos sible quite a different interpretation of those pas sages which refer to its occurrences or use. Thus, the statement that in building the Tower of Babel, "slime had they for mortar" (Gen. xi, 3), undoubt edly refers to bitumen, which may have come from the vale of Siddim, said to be " full of slime pits" (Gen. xiv, 10). This latter reference to slime pits would also seem to indicate that the substance was used commonly enough to make its collection from special pits a more or less regular practice; a con clusion which cannot be drawn so readily from the other early accounts of its use.

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