Naftalan Crude Oil Baths - Vladimir Iakovlev Enjoys Naftalan Therapy

Azerbaijan’s Crude Oil Baths

The World’s Weirdest Bath | Crude Oil Baths in Azerbaijan: Naftalan’s Bizarre Medical Treatments

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Summary: People travel from all over the world to bathe in crude oil in Naftalan, a small town in Azerbaijan. What pushes people to take a dip in black gold, what makes Naftalan oil special, and what other bizarre, alternative “medical therapies” are hidden in the Azerbaijani countryside?

Azerbaijan: The Land of Fire

Emblem of Azerbaijan

If I asked you where the Caucasus were, would you be able to point them out on a map? If not, don’t be embarrassed; you’re definitely not alone. They might not regularly be on the forefront of Western media platforms, but they are starting to get a little more attention, both from tourism and from news reporters, since the region is sandwiched between three geopolitical juggernauts; Turkey, Russia, and Iran. They’re made up of a few countries, all immensely culturally rich and diverse, that don’t always get along; Georgia, Armenia, the Northern Caucus region in Russia, and Azerbaijan. And that’s before you take into account the separatist provinces. This article isn’t about politics, geography or economics, but let’s get a few facts down about the country I’ll be talking about before we go any further; Azerbaijan.

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Azerbaijan is home to just under 10 million people. It has a tonne of mud-volcanoes, so much natural gas and oil spewing from the countryside that I once passed a puddle of water that was on fire, and is involved in an ongoing conflict with its neighbour, Armenia, that has dragged on since 1988. It’s remarkably diverse in everything from food to ethnicity, and is home to several minority groups with their own languages, such as Juhuri and Khinalug. A number of these are considered endangered, with less than 10,000 speakers, and some are spoken by less than 1,000. In fact, since it is so diverse, there is some tension regarding what to call people from Azerbaijan. Some use the term “Azeri”, but that’s considered offensive to people who live within its boundaries whilst being part of one of the country’s many minority communities. Because “Azeri” refers only to ethnic Azeris, who make up the bulk of the population, “Azerbaijani” is a more accepted term when talking about anyone from Azerbaijan.

The country was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, meaning that although it’s history is full of Turkic influence, and the main language is very similar to Turkish, much of the country still has the practical and purpose-built vibe of the ex-USSR.

The flag is made up of three colours: blue conveys it’s Turkic heritage, red symbolises progress and the development of democracy, and green represents Islam. The Crescent and star is generally considered to be a reference to Islam, too, but the reason for the number of points on the star, eight, is up for debate. Some argue that it’s because the word for “Azerbaijan” in Arabic has eight letters.

Flag of AzerbaijanThe Flag of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan has a uniquely close relationship with oil and natural gas. Some 30km from the skyscraper-encrusted shorelines of Baku, an entire town built on oil rigs weathers the choppy waters of the Caspian Sea. A short bus ride North outside of the capital’s boundaries and you’ll reach “Yanar Dag”, or “Fire Mountain”, where pores leading to an underground chamber belch natural gas into the outside world. Fifty years ago, a farmer threw a lit cigarette just a tad too close, igniting a fire that hasn’t been extinguished since and now serves as one of the city’s tourist attractions. So, yes, it’s the only place that I know of where you can find a mountain that’s on fire. The original main religion, Zoroastrianism, worshipped fire, and there is an image of a flame at the centre of the national emblem. All that being said, then, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that its nickname is “The Land of Fire”, which it certainly lives up to.

Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain) Outside Baku, AzerbaijanThe fire spewing from Yanar Dag has been burning for more than 50 years.

I rolled through a countryside, dotted with rusted nodding donkeys (the pumps above oil wells), rising and falling with a hypnotic gentleness. There’s something strangely industrially beautiful about them, and they serve as a permanent reminder of the foundations of Azerbaijan’s modern economy. There was a time, at the dawn of the 20th century, where 50% of all the world’s oil came from Azerbaijan.

Nodding Donkey Oil Pumps Near Baku, Azerbaijan“Nodding Donkeys” (Oil Pumps) outside Shirvan, Azerbaijan.

But I’m not here to bore you with a lesson on economics and the global production of crude oil. Instead, there is another aspect of Azerbaijan’s oil affairs which caught my attention. On a cycle tour that takes you off the beaten path, you often stumble across some of the more unique aspects of different cultures and traditions. I can say, without a doubt, that Azerbaijan’s crude oil baths are one of the most peculiar and intriguing examples of those that I’ve ever experienced.

Naftalan: A Bizarre Crude Oil Medical Therapy

NOTE: I often write “Naftalan oil” when describing it. Since naftalan is a type of oil as well as the name of the town where it was discovered, saying “naftalan oil” is a bit like saying “oil oil” to an Azerbaijani. Sometimes, though, in this article, you’ll see me write it that way whenever there’s any chance of confusion about whether I’m referring to the town or the oil. 

Naftalan seems like an unremarkable place at first sight. Snow-capped peaks are just about visible through a haze to the North; a lone mountain stands guard to the South, and a giant Azerbaijani flag flutters against a cloudless blue sky. It’s a small village that took only a few minutes to cycle through, and many of its buildings hide behind a shield of trees. But soon after arriving you’ll spot a hotel, or a spa. And then another. And another. Dozens of them dot Naftalan’s streets offering a selection of alternative and unusual medical treatments. 

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I’d be staying at the “Naftalan Sanatorium” for the next four nights and, after getting settled in my room and letting my legs recover from a long and unexpectedly hilly day of cycling, I headed down to the foyer to look around. I passed a door, with “Urologist” emblazoned across a silver plaque beside it. Then another: “Cardiologist”. “Dermatologist”, “Gynaecologist”, “Neurologist”… It seemed that every medical “ologist” under the sun sat in their offices next to reception, occasionally beckoning patients in from outside. Though it technically was a spa, the countless on-site doctors gave it a much more medical atmosphere (and I suspected that might have been the intention).

I wanted to find out why people would come so far for such an obscure therapy. So, I met up with Elias, a urologist and dermatologist who told me about the alleged benefits of the treatment. 

“Around the world, there are about 100 people who are named “Naftalan”. Why? Because their parents were unable to have children, and they came here for fertility treatment with the Naftalan oil. Then, they were able to have a child.”

This was one of many very bold claims I’d hear during my stay. He also told me about a museum of crutches; a place where people left the things they’d previously needed to help them walk after 15 days of treatment at the facilities here. He did mention, however, that there are precautions you must take when having the treatment. 

It’s important not to expose yourself to cold temperatures afterwards. And you shouldn’t have more than 8-10 baths during your stay. Otherwise it can cause damage to your body.

He didn’t specify exactly what kind of damage, and I couldn’t find the answer online beyond “to your heart and skin”, but given his expertise I took his word for it.

With that, Elias gave me a quick tour of the spa before I got myself settled. The buildings were connected to one-another by raised, enclosed walkways. This, Elias told me, was to ensure patients didn’t have to go outside in cold weather after their oil baths; a protective measure against the damage he’d warned me about. 

We passed through a beige-tiled waiting area that reminded me of a high-school changing room, before I was led into a bathroom for one of the strangest introductions I’ve ever experienced. For it was here that I met Vladamir Iakovlev, who would become a sort of unofficial guide during my stay in Naftalan once Ayxan had left. He raised a hand, coated in oil, from the surface and gave me an “OK” symbol with his thumb and forefinger.

Naftalan Crude Oil Baths - Vladimir Iakovlev Enjoys Naftalan TherapyVladamir enjoys an oil bath; he’s hoping the treatment will be good for his skin and bones.

The interaction was short, and I didn’t have much time to find out about him or the treatment process then and there; that would come in due course. He allowed me to film and take some photos before I headed off for lunch, the smell of the oil still lingering in my nostrils, but we agreed to meet the next day; he told me he had something he wanted to show me, but wouldn’t tell me what (more on that later). 

I took my place at my assigned table in the dining room, and soaked up the surreal atmosphere. Each day, residents would wake up at the same time, head down to the dining room, and sit at the same allocated table made up of the same four people (you didn’t get a say on where you sat, it was decided by your room number). Then, repeat twice more for lunch and dinner. There was a strange blanket of calm that hung wherever I went that made me wary of speaking to loudly, or acting over-energetic. It was a drowsiness that had the effect of making me feel drugged, and I couldn’t help but think of the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as nurses and assistants continuously checked up on us and catered to our every need.

I glanced around at the others’ who were here for their own reasons. Many had travelled from the farthest reaches of the ex-USSR. I met people from Russia, and heard of some visiting from Kazakhstan. Opposite me, one of my breakfast-mates’ ate slowly, his fork rattling against his plate; he had a pretty severe tremor, which I assumed was the reason for his visit. A table across from us, a severely handicapped girl in a wheelchair sat with her mother. Mealtimes highlighted the extreme contrast in the patients. Some had very severe and obvious conditions, while others, it turned out, were here for “preventative measures” or simply R&R.  

After lunch, my next stop was Ilqan’s office; he was the owner and manager of the spa, who had built the first privately owned sanatorium after the fall of the USSR, and had called a translator, Ayxan, over from the nearby government buildings so he could tell me a little about the history of the oil treatment over some tea.

Owner of Naftalan Sanatorium, Ilqan, in His OfficeIlqan, the owner of the Naftalan Sanatorium, working in his office.

“We have a legend about how Naftalan oil was discovered. In old times, people were travelling through Naftalan. They had a camel with them that could not go any further because it was too weak. So they had to abandon the camel and continue their journey. When they came back the other way, they came across the same camel! It was strong. It had gone down into a pool of oil and the camel had become healthy again. With this, they discovered the benefits of Naftalan oil!”

It was easy to see how transformational the Naftalan oil industry had been for the area. It wasn’t just a part of the local economy. It was the local economy. Aside from a supermarket, the town didn’t seem to have much else generating revenue. 

“There are about 150 people working in the clinics here. Our business is good, and we have developed over the years. We contribute 300,000 manat ($176,500) to our town through taxes per year. These other 10 sanatoriums, also pay taxes, and none of us take subsidies from the government, so it helps our local budget a lot.”

A phone rang, and Ilqan exchanged a few words with Ayxan. They’d decided it was time for me to try out a bath for myself.

As we strolled across the grounds, we passed several workers taking smoking breaks in doorways, on benches, and against walls. Call me crazy but crude oil and lit cigarettes don’t strike me as a smart combo. 

“What happens if someone lights one of those too close to the oil?” I nodded towards one of the smokers. 

“Don’t worry”, Ayxan laughed, sensing the nervousness in my voice, “naftalan does not have the same characteristics as other oil. It doesn’t have octane in it, so it isn’t flammable.”

Taking the Plunge: What is a Bath in Crude Oil Like?

Your visit to a Naftalan clinic will begin with a series of tests. Since I just planned on taking a one-off bath, I didn’t need to do many. My heart rate and blood pressure were checked; I’m not sure what they were looking for, but since overexposure naphthalene can affect the heart, it is a necessity. For those who are staying longer, you may need to take a blood test. As far as I could tell, it all depended on what you were having the treatment for, and how many times you did it. Fortunately, I was given the all-clear, and after a quick lunch with Ayxan, we headed to the bathing facilities.

Preparing for my Crude Oil Bath at the Naftalan SanatoriumGetting my blood-pressure taken by a cardiologist at the Naftalan Sanatorium before my crude oil bath.

The tap choked and spluttered as it spat out the last of the dark brown fluid. Streaks on the surface swirled with an invisible current, and I stepped in. 

“When you enter Naftalan oil baths”, Ilqan, the spa owner, had told me earlier,  “you feel something on your skin; it almost feels as if something is moving under it. You also feel like you’re letting out all your stress. You feel comfort, like you’re in heaven. It’s warm; it’s the same as body temperature. That means that the body can interact with the oil. If it’s too cold, it won’t work, and it also cannot be more than 2°c warmer than the body. So it should be between 38-40°c.”

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I was enveloped by a warm blanket with a thickness akin to melted chocolate. It stuck to me, coating every inch of skin that dipped below the surface. Royal, the assistant, flipped a sand timer and placed it on the side of the bath as Ayxan waited patiently in a corner; 10 minutes left. Any longer, I recall, and I’d risk damage to my skin and internal organs.

I understood why people enjoyed the sensation. My body felt lighter, as though I was floating. If I leaned too far back, my legs would be pushed upwards by their buoyancy. The warmth lulled me into a state of relaxation and I examined my hand, mesmerized, as I dunked it beneath the slick, brown fluid before bringing it back up and watching the viscous droplets trickle from my fingers. I tried not to think about how many people had sat in this oil before me; Ilqan had mentioned that the stuff is reused multiple times for three months before it’s returned to the state-owned oil-company, S.O.C.A.R:

“We buy 12 tonnes of oil at a time. If we want to buy it again, we have to return 10 tonnes of it to SOCAR, the state oil company, first. We reuse the Naftalan oil for 3 months; after that, we return the old 10 tonnes to S.O.C.A.R., and buy some new oil from them. If we don’t return it, they won’t sell us new oil. The government can use the oil that we give back to them to make some cosmetics. So it has two life stages.”

I had a Bath in Crude Oil in Naftalan, AzerbaijanI spent 10 minutes soaking in a bathtub full of Naftalan, a form of crude oil.

10 minutes went fast as I explained the sensations to the blinking red light on a camera in front of me. The last of the sand slipped into the base of the timer, and I was ordered to stand up. Royal was in a bitter mood. He grumbled as I accidentally smudged the side of the bath, and got very exasperated when I didn’t understand his Azerbaijani instructions. I couldn’t blame him: scraping oil from strangers’ bodies every half-an-hour doesn’t sound like my ideal Tuesday afternoon. We exchanged a brief moment of eye contact accompanied by a painfully long awkward silence as I stood, totally naked, over the bathtub in front of him and Ayxan – poor guy, he’d only initially agreed to translate for the interview with Ilqan, and now look what he’d been dragged into. So there I was; it had come to this. I questioned  all the decisions I’d made that had culminated in this very moment, before the chill of a metal scraper on my back (and other places) signalled the beginning of the oil-removal process.

I’d expected to jump straight into the shower and scrub the oil off myself, and didn’t realise the experience would get so… hands-on. But I figured it was done this way to conserve as much oil as possible for the next guest. To think that, as I write this, somebody might be bathing in the very same oil I did is, admittedly, a little off-putting.

At last, I was left to my own devices in the shower. You have to use a strong conditioner – a surfactant that is able to remove the oil from your skin – when you wash off, and the process can be a long one. I was paranoid after hearing about the potential health risks of overexposure to naftalan, so I scrubbed myself clean for ages. I emerged, got dressed thanked Ayxan for his help and apologised for what he had to witness, before I was sent back to my room and told to stay there and rest for a minimum of one hour. I was reminded, once again: “Do. Not. Go. Out. In. The. Cold.”

Is a Crude Oil Bath Healthy or Harmful?

So, was this “a miracle cure for over 70 different diseases”? It sounded a bit too good to be true. I knew I wouldn’t get an unbiased answer if I asked the clinic workers about the potential harm that comes with bathing in crude oil, so I did a little digging into the chemical composition of naftalan, and its potential side-effects. 

It is true that there are a number of papers and articles demonstrating the effectiveness of Naftalan oil as a medical treatment. But I tend to find that, no matter how outlandish your claim, you can always find some piece of data that you can twist and mould until it becomes supporting evidence you can use to back yourself up. I’d listened to stories of people being able to walk unassisted for the first time after treatments, infertility miraculously cured, and hormone imbalances corrected by a diluted version of the oil. Elias (the first doctor I spoke to) had pointed to the museum of crutches as evidence of that. But with each bold claim, I became more and more sceptical of these supposed medical applications.

Dr. Sagin Babayer explains the difference between two types of Crude Oil in NaftalanDr. Sagin Babayer explains the difference in uses for the diluted oil, used to treat hormone imbalances, (beaker on the left) and the pure form (beaker on the right).

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It was actually very difficult to find out much about naftalan oil’s structure, and one article claims that its composition hasn’t been totally understood yet; that’s red flag number one. It’s difficult to say that something works and is safe to use when you don’t really know what it’s made of. Red flag number two was one of the chemicals that makes the oil unique; “Naphthalene”. It’s also present in cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes, and is the main active ingredient in mothballs; balls of pesticides used to kill – you guessed it – moths. Not exactly appealing when you put it like that. To add icing to the cake, regulators in the E.U. and U.S.A. consider naphthalene to be carcinogenic, meaning it increases your chances of developing cancer, although no direct link between the disease and the oil has been proven.

The third and final flag was a little more subtle: most of the workers I spoke to said they didn’t use the bathing facilities themselves. Ilqan, the owner, has used them in the past, and told me that “that’s why I’m looking so young even though I’m over 60!”, although he didn’t tell me when his last one was. But, when it came to the others, I wondered why, when it was right in front of them and had so many alleged benefits, they didn’t partake in the oil baths. The same was true for residents of the town. It was mainly people from elsewhere in Azerbaijan, or abroad, who came for treatment. It may have meant nothing, but it did force me to consider whether the staff and locals were more aware of the health risks more than the patients.

Naftalan’s Lesser-Known Medical Therapies

The doctor leaves the room for a moment, and Vladamir stretches to limber up. The tap is still running, and the rushing sound echoes off four pristine white walls and a tiled floor. We’ve left the oil facility for the morning, and walked half-an-hour along a road to the neighbouring clinic. I’m still nervous about exposing my skin to anything cold after the oil bath, so I’d wrapped up in layers, but now I’m sweltering in the heat of my new surroundings. 

The doctor returns, and instructs Vladamir to lie on a platform that can be electronically lowered into a 40°C bath (filled with regular, boring water this time, not crude oil). I watch from the side as he fastens clips and straps around Vlad’s shoulders and waist, hooks wires onto them, and checks the settings of the tub. What followed was the closes thing I’ve seen to a medieval torture method… 

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Vladamir is lowered into the water. The harness around his shoulders holds his upper body in place, but the doctor adds weights to a metal bar on the other end of the bath attached to his waist-strap by a wire. My new friend lets out a groan as his vertebrae are slowly pulled apart and his spine is stretched. Despite how much pain I imagined he must be in, he grins and gives me another “OK” gesture; it seems to be his signature. Once again, the doctor disappears. As Vladamir lies there, his face reddening under the intense pressure his body is under, I figure now is the perfect time to ask him about his visit to Naftalan.

I came down here from Murmansk, in Russia. It’s my first time. I have problems with compression of my vertebrae in my spine, so this treatment will pull them apart. I have to lie here for 20 minutes, and then we will be done. I’ve done this once before since I’ve been here, and I will do it three more times before I go. Each time, they add more weight, so you’re stretched more and more. It’s very good. After this I’ll feel like I’m 18-years-old!

The 20 minutes is up, the doctor returns for the final time to help Vladamir onto a raised bed where he lies for a few minutes and dries off. Then, he’s up and stretching. Considering what he’s just been through, he’s incredibly cheerful. We head down a hallway that smells of chlorine, and into another office, where a different doctor gives him a once-over. He taps a small hammer on Vlad’s back, says something in Russian, and the visit is complete. We head back to our rooms,  and I wonder what other bizarre treatments lurk in Naftalan’s many spas and hotels.

Vladamir on a Modern Stretching Rack to Treat Compression of the Spine at a Clinic in Naftalan, AzerbaijanVladamir is placed on a modern stretching rack in a warm bath to treat vertebrae compression.

Final Thoughts

The Naftalan clinics have somehow managed to advertise themselves as both a medical treatment and a spa therapy, and have created their own economy, providing jobs to people who need them, revenue for an entire town, and a sense of comfort for visiting patients. They weren’t ripping people off, and the prices were reasonable. Those I met seemed to be in good spirits and, to them, the oil baths made a difference; I know that Vladamir certainly had a spring in his step when I last saw him. 

But I left the Sanatorium feeling conflicted. On the one hand, the oil baths were one hell of an experience, and I could sense the coming explosion of interest from tourists on the horizon once travel to Azerbaijan starts to become more common, as is currently the case in neighbouring Georgia. I’d read about the health risks prior to my visit and still went through with the baths; it’s still one of my favourite memories from the cycle tour. On the other, there was the sense that some might be taking advantage of people’s desperation and lack of scientific knowledge, with people visiting from far and wide to treat conditions for which there is, in some cases, no known cure.

After reading research suggesting naftalan oil may be linked to an increased chance of developing cancer, I couldn’t help but think of all those people who return year-after-year, sometimes staying for weeks to bathe in oil up to 10 times. Perhaps, I reflected, it would be a little more ethical to advertise the baths as attractions, rather than as treatments. To be honest, that’s how I feel about pretty much all alternative remedies. Regardless of how I feel, I know how powerful the belief that something works can be; the placebo effect is very well documented. If it works in that sense, then who am I to judge those that take the decision to travel hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles to take a dip in black gold? 

Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!

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Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

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