A trail of oil leads to the Naftalan sanatorim. This ‘miracle oil’ occurs exclusively in the semi desert region of central Azerbaijan. Unlike that of the nearby Caspian Sea, Naftalan oil has little commercial value as it is too heavy to process. However, it is claimed that bathing in it for ten minutes a day treats psoriasis, rheumatism and arthritis.
When viewed from space, the Caspian has a distinct outline, like an upside down map of the British Isles, and roughly the same size. But the Caspian is no lake, nor is it an ordinary sea; surrounded by vast tracts of desert, hovering half way between Asia and Europe – though belonging to neither, the Caspian is a sea almost lost in the land. I set out to capture the spirit of the illusive region; picking out unusual, poetic and often humorous aspects of everyday lives.
Over the centuries, nearby Empires have come and gone, each leaving its mark: first the Ottomans, then Persians, Mongols and finally, the Russians.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1993, an oil boom brought fresh prosperity to the area. Ports such as Aktau sprang up on the coast of Kazakhstan, where in the cemetery migrant workers now construct elaborate tombs for a new oil-rich middle class.
Across the water in the semi-desert of Azerbaijan, in a sanatorium town called Naftalan, people bathe in unique, chocolate-brown oil, which is believed to have therapeutic properties. It was startling to see an industrial substance so associated with international politics, power and wealth, being used for health and relaxation.
While the economic relationships between Europe and Asia change and ecological conditions on our planet mutate, so do the fortunes sift of the disparate communities who live around this strange sea. Even today, the lives of these people are tied to the landscape as never before.
Juliya Burvinyova travelled 1000 miles from Moscow to receive the Naftalan treatment. She is one of a growing number of young Russians, who soak in oil for it’s cosmetic benefits. During the fifties, the Naftalan treatment was identified by the Soviets as a potential holiday resort. They built 2,500 capacity sanatoriums, and by the late eighties, 75,000 people were being treated each year, with free flights offered by the Soviet government.
A journalist from the capital stands up after 10 minutes bathing in crude oil. He is being treated for prostate problems and is a great believer in the healing properties of Naftalan.
Openair cafè at the Shafa Sanitorium. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Naftalan sanatoriums were left redundant. However in recent years, interest in the unlikely treatment has been rekindled and patients are trickling back. The President’s sister is redeveloping the largest sanatorium in town and the government is improving infrastructure in the remote area, which is said to include an international airport.
Afelia is a nurse at the Naftalan Sanitorium. After each patient has bathed in oil for 10 minutes she scraps the oil from their body with a spatula. The oil is then collected and reused on the next patient.
Albina Visilova is a patient at the Naftalan Sanitorium, Azerbaijan. The healing properties of Naftalan, ‘the miracle oil’ that is found exclusively in the Azeri desert, were noted in Marco Polo’s accounts in the late 13th Century: “Near the Georgian border there is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil, in such abundance that a hundred ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab.
Socar state oil fields Ramana, Absheron Penninsula, Azerbaijan. The history of oil in the Caspian is long standing. Wells were being hand-dug in the region as early as the 10th century and the world’s first offshore and machine drilled wells were built on the Absheron peninsula during the 1870s.
Oil reservoir for the Naftalan sanitoriums, Azerbaijan.The story goes that in 1870 an Azeri spice merchant was passing through the area when his camel fell ill, and he decided to abandon it. On his way back some months later, he discovered to his amazement, the very same animal, apparently fit and healthy, basking in a pool of black oil.
Local boys splash in the Caspian waters, in the shadow of oil rigs. Sixov Beach, Baku, Azerbaijan.
Early morning in the oil boom town of Aktau, Kazakhstan, a man does exercises on the beach.
Two sisters run down to the underground mosque in Beket-Ata. They have come on a pilgrimage with their family from Aktau, to pray for the recovery of their uncle. Beket-Ata Necopolis, Kazakhstan.
A cow stands in the shade in the grounds of a disused sanitorium of the Absheron Peninsula.
A mother and daugher sit on the artifical sea wall in Astara, Azerbaijan, by the Iranian border. The Caspian’s sea borders are still unresolved between Azerbaijan and Iran, almost twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Both countries claim ownership of lucrative oil fields in the southern waters, which has led to a series of confrontations, as each side has forged exploritory missions to profit from the region.
A woman stares out to sea, Aktau, Kazakhstan. With the new development of Aktau as ‘The City of Energy’, a tower will be built in the shape of an oil derrick and luxury accommodation established on small islands off the coast. When laying the foundation stone in 2007, the Kazakh president Nazarbayev said Aktau City will be the ‘pearl of Kazakhstan’.
Two Azeri guards talk to a local man at a beach cafè in Lankaran, Azerbaijan.
Less than one kilometre from the Caspian coast lies Koshkar-Ata cemetery ‘City of the Dead’, Kazakhstan. As the Caspian oil industry booms, so the demand for extravagant mausoleums has grown. At this cemetery, grave builders set up temporary home on site so that they can work all hours of the day.
In a coastal cemetary, Uzbek migrant workers build elaborate mausoleums for the new oil rich middle class. They wear makeshift masks and sunglasses to protect themselves from the sun’s glare, which bouces off the mussel-chalk they work with.
An Uzbek migrant worker pastes plaster into the cracks of a mausoleum. When the Koshkar-Ata cemetery was first established mausoleums were reserved for local saints, a status that was obtained through wisdom and benevolence, through contributions to the wellbeing of the community. Today’s saints, honoured with these splendid tombs are the local oil barons.
A local man digs a grave for his uncle at the Koshkar-Ata cemetery. Employing people to dig and construct graves is an expensive business, so many locals who do not have money from oil or land, have to do it themselves.
Oltinoy is married to one of the cemetery labourers and has been brought along to take care of the group. She spends her days inside their trailer, preparing meals and sheltering from the sun. The rest of the workers don?t see families for months at a time.
Abish cleans his face at the end of the day. He uses a temporary washing station created from upturned water bottles, with screw caps used like taps.
Sunrise in Koshkar-Ata cemetary, Kazakhstan. A group of ten Uzbek men live inside the necopolis for the duration of summer. They rarely leave the site, working from dawn till dusk, and sleeping on palattes in the open air.
Dusk falls on Koshkar-Ata, ‘City of the Dead’, Kazakhstan.
My work is a hunt for moments of potency; when the clutter of day-to-day existence falls away to reveal something uncomplicated, something essential.
After a degree in Fine Art at Oxford University, I worked in the feature film industry for four years. Although it was an exciting world to be part of, I found myself questioning its extravagance. I wanted to work on something quieter, more economical, where I had room for spontaneity and intimacy with my subject.
In 2010 I traveled overland from China to Britain, hitchhiking and camping, in an attempt to experience and capture the cultural shift that takes place as one moves from Asia to Europe. During that time I shot projects on the Uighur minority in Western China, the returning waters of the Aral Sea, and the Caspian.
My work has been published in the Sunday Times Magazine, the Independent, Foto8, Vision China and Dazed and Confused magazine, and exhibited in London, Birmingham, Buenos Aires and Berlin.
Chloe Dewe Mathews