Essential Oils

In the petroleum spa of Naftalan, Azerbaijan, bathing in crude oil is touted as a sure cure for a variety of ailments. And the hordes of visitors don't seem to mind being shooting distance from the still-volatile region of Nagorno-Karabakh

Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman
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Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman

Early in the morning on my last day at the resort in Naftalan in central Azerbaijan, a spa employee appeared at the door of my room - a dark niche with a heavy wooden bed covered with a tattered orange wool blanket. The director of the facility, Ilgar Guseynov, wanted to see me as soon as possible, she told me. On the way to his office I passed a Russian family, mom and dad and their young children, out for an early walk across the lawn surrounding the vacation residences.

Sitting behind a long wooden desk in his luxurious office, hands folded on his chest, was Guseynov, about 50, sporting a black moustache with a thin white stripe in the middle. He gave me a hostile look and gazed at me long and hard, not saying a word. When I turned my head to look at the wall, with its display of photographs of him with the president of Azerbaijan and other politicians, he lost patience. "Who sent you?" he demanded. Hearing my reply, he nodded with impatient courtesy, as though I had not grasped the full import of the question, and repeated it with the addition of one word, which he emphasized: "Who really sent you?" Realizing that this clarification might take some time, he asked his secretary to make tea.

"You ask a lot of questions," he said. "I saw you asking a lot of questions. Why do you ask so many questions?" Before I could answer, a young man in jeans and a checkered shirt entered the room. Trying, with very limited success, to inject a note of affability into his voice, he asked me to take a short drive with him. We got into his car, a black Mercedes. On the way he told me, without elaborating, that he was a security man and that many agents were known to be in the vicinity of Nagorno-Karabakh.

This region has long been the scene of strife between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and is within sniper range of the health center. "We only need to make sure you are not an Armenian. The mayor wants to talk to you," the security man said.

We drove to the municipality building through the narrow streets of the valley town of Naftalan. Sheep grazed in the green fields, while in the distance the hills of the battle-torn district were shrouded in low white clouds. The mayor, Moussa Hezi Mousayev, short and dark-skinned, wore a beautifully tailored suit and glasses with gilt frames. A double door separated his spacious office from the secretary's room. No fewer than six telephones were perched atop his desk, as well as two televisions, one showing scenes from his office's security cameras, the other tuned to a news program.

After asking to see my business card, the mayor rambled on about his fondness for Israel, which he had visited two years ago, and about the curative powers of the local spas. He rattled off anecdotes about local Azeri (Azerbaijani) politics and about the difficulties of his job. Finally he got to the point and asked why I had traveled to the border region and why I had talked to refugees. Still, he seemed to trust me and apparently decided I was not an Armenian, or at least that there was insufficient evidence to back such a hypothesis. He then allowed me to leave in the black Mercedes with the visibly relieved security man. In silence, we drove to the bus station in the nearby town of Ganja, and after we said our goodbyes, I boarded an evening bus for Baku, the capital.

Almost every Azeri is familiar with Naftalan, as are residents of the states of the former Soviet Union, many of whom have been visiting the resort town since the 1960s. At that time, Naftalan was part of the network of resorts and health centers of the USSR, which combined a pastoral vacation with a sanatorium providing a variety of alternative treatments. The sanatoria of Naftalan quickly gained fame throughout the Soviet Union, thanks to the unique treatment they offered: immersion in a bath of crude oil pumped from a local well. Members of the Soviet social elite used every ounce of influence they possessed to be able to visit the petroleum baths in Naftalan, renowned for their extraordinary healing qualities.

Spa employees speak proudly of patients who came to the site on crutches and discarded them a few days later, able to walk on their own. The town once had a museum that displayed the crutches left behind by visitors who had taken the oil baths and no longer needed them. But during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, the crutches were given to disabled combatants and the museum shut down.

Residents of the region started to bathe in crude oil at the end of the 19th century. At that time there were two small oil ponds in the village, one for women, one for men. In the 1890s, two German physicians visited the area to conduct a study of the oil's medicinal properties and refine it in various ways. They took some oil back to Germany, where it proved highly successful as a treatment for various diseases. (During World War II, every Wehrmacht soldier was given a tube of Naftalan oil to rub on his wounds if he was hit.)

In 1918 the oil ponds were taken over by the Russians, who had conquered the area, and four years later they passed into the hands of the Soviets, who sent about 3,000 people, mostly Russians, to avail themselves of the oil cure. In the 1960s the Soviets started to build seven sanatoria in the town, which attracted tens of thousands of people every year. From 1982 to 1987, for example, between 60,000 and 70,000 residents of the Soviet Union visited the oil town annually.

During the Soviet period, says Guseynov, Naftalan was like "a small Paris, very modern and beautiful." Visitors included judges, engineers and company directors, as well as members of the Communist Party elite who had enough clout to persuade the Directorate of Resorts to send them to the town. In addition, many workers and farmers enjoyed holidays in Naftalan, especially wounded soldiers and "social veterans," meaning laborers injured in work accidents.

At the end of the 1980s, the Armenians began to move troops into Nagorno-Karabakh and take over Azeri territory. Visitors stopped coming to the sanatoria at Naftalan, which were very close to the battle zones and within shooting distance of the rival forces. The facility then began to handle mainly wounded combatants. In 1991 and 1992, Azeri refugees who had fled from Nagorno-Karabakh took refuge in the empty sanatoria, most of which were by then in a state of disrepair. The resorts quickly turned into mass refugee camps, and only one of the seven spas continued to operate as usual.

Fighting between Armenians and Azeris continues to this day - every week there are shooting incidents along the nearby border - but according to Mousayev, this does not bother the vacationers. "We tell them it is not so dangerous," he says. "The border is six kilometers away and no one will let you approach it, even if you try. The soldiers are there to keep you from approaching the border."

Over the past five years, spurred by privatization reforms in Azerbaijan, there has been intensive development of private sanatoria, where the oil treatments are similar to those once available at the Soviet spas. Every year since 2004 has seen the establishment of a new private sanatorium. Following the success of the tourist sites, international companies have begun to examine the possibility of establishing foreign-owned facilities in the town.

"We all lived through the Soviet period," Mousayev says, commenting on the changes taking place in the oil baths. "Some things have remained from that time - maybe a work ethic of a certain kind, and a type of communal outing - but we are trying to be up-to-date about capitalism. For example, there is fierce competition between the sanatoria over the quality of the treatments, the food, the standard of service."

The daily routine in Naftalan has few surprises. After rising at 8, guests straggle to the dining room through the spacious grounds of the facility, at the center of which is a spectacular system of fountains. The dining room is a large, dark hall, with heavy curtains blocking the sunlight. Weary workers pile bowls of kasha on the tables. At my table are Northin, a loud, tiresome architect of 50 from Baku, and his wife, Zahida, who teaches elementary school science. The architect, who was a physician in the Red Army, tries to amuse us with anecdotes about the human digestive system, though most of his energy is focused on trying to remember the English name of a particular part of the stomach. Getting a desultory response, he quickly shifts his attention to his portion of kasha, while his wife enumerates the wonders of the oil treatment, which she takes once a year: "We look better - just look at me," she says with a burst of enthusiasm.

After the meal, almost everyone rushes off for a treatment. Apart from a handful of idlers who spend the day playing board games in the yard, the visitors avail themselves of a range of health services. On the way to the treatment rooms, they pass a nurse sitting at a table that holds dozens of boxes containing pills in a variety of colors, which she hands out. The visitors can then smear themselves with glycerin, have an acupuncture treatment or expose their body to curative electric lamps. But the high point is the bathhouse, where the oil treatments are given. Three men in their forties sit on benches, awaiting their turn. Each of them has a bathing kit, tongs and a towel. A young attendant accompanies the visitors and helps them enter the baths.

I sit next to Khalid Khadjayev, 82, who observes the people in the waiting room with a broad smile. His neighbor, who has come with him to the spa, acts as his retainer and helps him get around. A former department director at the Ministry of Agriculture in Baku, Khadjayev claims that since starting treatment at the oil baths, he can walk again. He spends the time between treatments playing the piano and the accordion. Opposite me is Ayub Mahtayev, about 60, who is the editor of the Baku-based news magazine New Life, and next to him is Alashraf Niftiyev, a former civil servant in Azerbaijan, who is about the same age. I draw on their expertise as veterans of the network of resorts during the Soviet era to ask them whether it is nostalgia for that period that draws them to Naftalan. The question sparks an argument.

Niftiyev listens, outraged. "What does he miss? Fifteen years ago, people from Azerbaijan didn't even come here - the place was full of Russians," he says loudly. "It is part of what is interesting about coming here," he continues, explaining: "To see what they did, how the Big Brothers spent their holidays. Now we are independent and can do what we like. Even go abroad. If back then they made you wait a year or two for a letter of authorization, now you can just go."

What part did ideology play? Didn't people believe in the justice of the Soviet system?

"There was only one system," Mahtayev says. "We believed in it for a long time, but as soon as it collapsed we changed all our beliefs in an instant. That does not mean we have something better now."

Niftiyev takes issue with him again. "No one believed in it even then," he insists, and others in the waiting room nod in agreement. "That is why the change is not so great."

Our conversation is interrupted by the emergence of a bather from his oil treatment. My interlocutors enter two separate rooms and I enter a third. The attendant indicates that I should disrobe and shower before entering a modest, well-lit room in the center of which is a short, clean white bathtub. The smell of crude oil fills the room. I sit down in the tub and the attendant turns on the oil faucet; a warm, thick, brown-black liquid oozes out. The oil covers my whole body, clings to it and produces a pleasant sticky feeling. The attendant places a paper towel behind my head, puts a digital clock under the window and leaves for a quarter of an hour.

The minutes pass quickly. The attendant then helps me out of the tub and to the shower, where I try, with quite limited success, to remove the traces of the oil. Outside the bathing area I meet my pals Mahtayev and Niftiyev, along with the elderly Khadjayev, all three delighted with their gooey immersion and hurrying off to lunch. I follow and sit next to the talkative architect and his wife. A tired waitress serves bowls of kasha to all.

The next morning, I go for a stroll through the town. Scattered among the new, privatized spas are remnants of the Soviet network of baths. These are elegant but disintegrating sanatoria in which refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh have been living for the past 20 years; they still have no permanent housing. The new tenants converted the treatment rooms into living quarters, with four or five inhabitants per room, although the overcrowding has eased somewhat over the years.

Almira Madova, a nurse from a hospital in Nagorno-Karabakh, came here in 1992, after Armenian forces captured her village. She had intended to leave her children in Naftalan and return alone to the village, but quickly discovered that the Armenian army had sealed the border. In the months that followed, hundreds of residents from the Azeri village of Khojaly in Nagorno-Karabakh arrived in the wake of a massacre perpetrated by the Armenians, who also destroyed the villagers' property. In recent years, the residents of the refugee camps have seen videos about their villages, which the Armenians rebuilt and populated with their own nationals. When they arrived, Madova relates, the building in which she now lives was still operating as a sanatorium, but there were no visitors. The medical staff evacuated the rooms for the incoming refugees. Most of them did not find work in the spas and remained unemployed.

"The workers in the spas know one another and prefer to bring in their friends and relatives," Madova says.

She is somewhat surprised at the proximity of the overcrowded refugee camps to the flourishing private spas. "There are a few people here with money who are getting richer and richer from this place, while at the same time thousands of people in the town have no permanent home. I would say that this is a very bad omen."

Madova and others maintain that the authorities, under the influence of accelerated liberalization, are taking less responsibility for the situation of the refugees and reducing the support given to them. Not far from here is a government sanatorium in which disabled veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict receive oil treatments. The residential quarters and the modest treatment rooms are very different from the elegance of the privatized sites. On the veranda, four disabled veterans from the Azeri army talk about their oil treatment experiences. One of them, Ahtiar Ali, 36, was wounded when he struck a mine in Nagorno-Karabakh while serving as an Azeri soldier. He is from a refugee family from Armenia. He was first sent for treatment to Tehran, where one leg was amputated. The hospitals in the Iranian capital were full of Azeri soldiers, he recalls, speaking fondly of the months he spent there. "There is no other city like it in the world," he says, "especially the religious sites, the mosques with gilded domes. And the Azeri soldiers were treated very well."

Half a year later he returned to Azerbaijan, where he continues to receive various medical treatments. He spends most of his time with friends "without doing a whole lot - we reminisce and play board games. We can't work, so we mostly just pass the time." He hasn't been able to track down the buddies who were with him when he struck the mine, and assumes that none of them survived.

In the afternoon, after a nap and another oil dip, the visitors sit in the yard, eat fruit, drink tea and bring out the game boards. Across the way, an orchestra plays sad Azeri tunes on a makeshift stage. The singer, a disabled veteran from Khojaly, warbles quietly off key.

I am sitting with Tatyana Sharmatova, a judge in Novosibirsk federal court, and her husband, Aleksander Sharmatov. He first visited Naftalan 20 years ago, after suffering a back injury in an accident while working as a fisherman in the Far East. He traveled by train for a week, from Novosibirsk to Naftalan, in order to bathe in the oils. He fondly recalls the two weeks he spent in Naftalan back then. "It was drenched in sun and full of Russians, who were very friendly." In addition to the oil baths, which were beneficial, he remembers long, warm evenings when visitors sat around and listened to records or to a live orchestra.

In the years since then he has praised Naftalan to his wife and urged her to make the trip. Judge Sharmatova moved up the judicial ladder, from court secretary in the Soviet Union to district judge in the new court that was established after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This year they made the trip together - by plane - and were surprised to find that relatively few changes had been made to the now-privatized Soviet site. True, the rooms have been upgraded and outfitted with running water and other amenities, but the treatment program is basically unchanged (though shortened by a few days).

Tatyana, quiet and smiling, seemed not to understand her husband's enthusiasm, but was curious to discover the effects of bathing in oil. The next day I met her sitting in the foyer of the bathhouse, next to my acquaintances from the previous day's line.

Sitting at a nearby table were four Russian women, friends who came to the spa together. Katya, 60, with short red hair, was wearing a black blouse with white floral embellishments. She said she first came here 25 years ago, when she was a member of the construction workers union and was injured in an accident near Siberia. She grew up in Kazakhstan, but has lived in Germany for the past year. She makes a point of coming to Naftalan once a year and has now begun to bring her Russian friends.

"I feel that something draws me here anew every year," she says. Thanks to the treatments, she says, she has begun to dance, which she could not do as a young woman after her accident.

From her first visits here, she remembers mainly the huge lines to enter the sanatorium, which was located in the middle of a green yard strewn with papyrus plants. "There were masses of people everywhere. The whole city was like one big train station that never stopped working for a minute," she recalls. On her first visit she waited a whole day before finding a place. "There was a very tense atmosphere. People were shouting and arguing and running every which way. The higher-ups shouted at those below them. But I am a positive person and I stayed calm." Between treatments, she and her friends took day trips to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and to the nearby Siwan spring.

Katya was one of the few who continued to visit Naftalan in the early 1990s, when echoes of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh were clearly audible from both the residential quarters and the oil baths. "In that period people came for medical treatments, not for a holiday," she says. "They stopped the evening dances, so that people would not be happy while others were dying nearby. The visitors started to hear about the massacres perpetrated by the Armenians, and in later years the visitors saw refugees filling up the sanatoria in which they had vacationed."

It is the feeling of solidarity between the Russians, which has been eroded but has not disappeared since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that prompts her to fly year after year to Azerbaijan. "My biggest mistake was moving to Germany," she says. "There is no feeling of community or sharing there. A Russian there seems to have 'comrade' written on his forehead. It's a very different approach from what we knew - even for funerals they don't let you off work."

She finds no connection between her nostalgia for the feeling of solidarity and Communist ideology. "They did not do anything good for me," she says. "If they hadn't started their politics in 1917, I would have lived with my family in a big house and we would have gone on being rich." Accordingly, she is pleased with the privatization of the vacation resorts and with the change in the type of visitors. "It is not a mass thing anymore, and that is good. You can't live in a mass place or love in a mass place." W