It is a sliver of sand in the Caspian, a flat, low-lying island surrounded by cobalt blue sea and an aura of mystery - Azerbaijan’s Eastern-most point lays placid some 45km east of Baku, on the tip of the Absheron peninsula where the capital sprawls, and has been the frontier of the country’s oil adventures and aged oil drills are a stark reminder of that past.
Its name has been changing according to the country’s political fate and has seen more history on its shores than its tiny size would suggest. Fire worshipper Zoroastrians built a temple on the 11km long and 4km wide piece of land and for centuries the islet was known as Pirallahi, or God’s sacred place. During the Russian empire it was referred as Svyatoy, the holy one. In 1936 it was renamed after Russian revolutionist and a close friend of Joseph Stalin, Artёm Fyodorovich Sergeev - widely known as Comrade Artёm. At the fall of Soviet Union, in 1992, the island got its ancient name back, yet, most people still call it after its Soviet name, Artёm.
Pirallahi-aka-Artёm was one of the first areas to develop drilling in Azerbaijan’s oil rush at the turn of the 19th century. History has it that in 1820 the island was divided in two areas, one residential and one dedicated to the production of paraffin, then in 1868 Russian professionals moved on the island with their families and two wells were drilled.
By 1901 an oil field was developed and a year later “Nobel Brothers,” the Swedish company which pioneered oil drilling in Azerbaijan, drilled their first oil well. The Swedes kept the information secret in order to buy land at low prices from the local population, yet they were trusted employees - they introduced a 10-hour work shift down from the 14-hours in force at the time, paid good salaries, provided housing for families, and allowed Muslims to take breaks to pray. In 1912 the Nobel Brothers built a narrow-gauge railway, connecting the pier to the town, which no longer exists. The Nobel Brothers drilled in alongside Russian companies like Shibayev, belonging to Russian industrialist Sidor Shibayev.
Less than a kilometre separates the island to the Absheron peninsula, but until 1943 the only connection to the mainland was by boat, then a bridge built to provide a road line - the bridge was upgraded in 2012, and the central arch was widened and lifted to facilitate the transit of ships. Over the years the production has dwindled, but the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (Socar) estimates are at 1.2 million tonnes for the reserves of oil in Pirallahi.
At the northern end of Pirallahi, owned by Socar, over a century of black gold exploitation has left permanent scars - assorted offshore debris, platforms in decay, boats left in the lurch, and oily mud pools. Damba, the 25m-tall lighthouse built in 1859, stands sentry in that landscape.
Here cameras are banned, snapshots of the life on the island are a rare commodity.
The southern point houses most of the 17,000 people living on the islet where at least one member of each family works in the oil industry. The town, called Artem, features empty and neglected low-rise houses - many used to host the first Russians settlers who came following the oil trail and left once the boom slowed down. Lots of residences were abandoned due to the rising water levels of the Caspian and some people were relocated in tall Soviet apartment blocks, others are still continuing to live in a houses. Along the only large road cutting across the island parade large 3D banners of Baku’s sightseeing and historical architectural monuments. The SOCAR building displays oil wells paintings.
The permanent mark on the environment is inevitable - a layer of black oil floats over the water and covers the shores, the biosphere is depleted and the once-thriving fishing industry is now choking. Like the Caspian’s fish.
Telman’s father was a fisherman - his childhood’s memories are the early morning feasts around the fishing boats and the games around the nets.
“When I was a child you could not imagine to go out at sea and return without fish, even on the shore there were a lot of mullets which we just cached by whip,” says Telman, now 65, who makes boats after years as oil worker. “There was so much fish then and a rodman catching a sturgeon of less than 5 kilos was laughed at by fellow fishermen.”
Hidden among the dwellings, in a green field lay dozens of animal carcasses, eerie skeletons - the cattle cemetery is yet another surreal touch. How those hulks ended up there, nobody seems to know.
Driving back from the north tip of the isle, through the settlement, across the new bridge to enter the Absheron peninsula, the landscape changes and a tech-park brings you back to the 21st century. The technology park is a long-term project, due to be finalized in 2020, and vested with high hopes - in the government’s intentions it will support cutting-edge research and development in the field of ICT, energy efficiency and telecommunications as well as provide an alternative touristic destination.
Pirallahi is just a few kilometres away, yet its oily yesteryear makes it feel further remote, in time and space.