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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Samarkand Square

Global & Local

Oil: From Silk Road to Pipeline

Today, oil in Central Asia is big business, but it is not a new discovery. In the 10th century, Arab writers described caravans taking oil from Baku in Azerbaijan to other cities of Asia. In his writings Marco Polo mentioned oil as a cure for skin diseases in camels. But in the last century, oil has become coveted in the way Silk Road goods were in the past.

The Caspian Basin has the world's largest known reserves of oil and natural gas, built up as a result of organic material deposited in the Caspian Sea over millions of years. The Caspian Basin is surrounded by Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, and each nation has its own wells. Multinational companies have sought and obtained oil and natural gas drilling concessions, some covering thousands of square miles. Oil may be the new commodity that can bring wealth to the region as silk did in the past. However, just as there were also geopolitical and economic issues to contend with during the days of the Silk Road, there are today as well. Nations disagree over the division of the Caspian Sea and rights to drill where they wish. Though oil is needed to meet energy needs in the region and beyond, transporting the oil to market is difficult. Long oil and gas pipelines have been built, and many more are proposed to reach the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and China, but the reliability of the pipelines could be affected by regional political tensions. The cost of operating and constructing the pipelines is high, and local resources are very limited; thus foreign investment is required to exploit the oil. Ecological issues are of particular concern, too. The Caspian and its surrounding area have long been used for fishing and farming, but pollution has become a major problem, and, for example, sturgeon catches have fallen dramatically. In fact, the sea itself is shrinking.

As with silk and the other goods traded along the Silk Road, oil has brought many merchants and traders to the region, encouraging investment, promoting production, and prompting businesspeople and government officials to improve the infrastructure and distribution routes. Unlike silk production and trade, though, oil is not self-sustaining, and its exploitation has tremendous consequences for the local environment and beyond. People of the region and around the world continue to debate the best way of exploiting the oil and natural gas of this area.