In the 1950s, Soviet engineers built a massive city in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Azerbaijan. It was a network of oil platforms linked by hundreds of kilometers of roads and housing 5,000 workers, with a cinema, a park and apartment blocks. Gradually disintegrating but still closely guarded, this astonishing place inspired a fiery scene in a James Bond movie. The backdrop of the floating city Bond battled his way out of in the 1999 movie “The World Is Not Enough” was built in Britain’s Pinewood Studios — but it was inspired by a very real location that counts as one the world’s most astonishing cities: Neft Dashlari, far out in the Caspian Sea.
This area of Azerbaijan has been famed for its rich oil resources since ancient times. The “liquid fire” with which Constantinople drove the Arab besiegers from its walls in the seventh century consisted largely of oil that bubbled to the surface unaided along the coasts of the Black Sea and the Caspian. The Persians called the area the “Land of Fire,” where priests lit their temples with oil from these natural sources.
The petrochemical industry didn’t take off here until 1870 after Russia conquered the territory. In the years that followed, industrialists like Ludvig Nobel and the Rothschild brothers transformed the capital Baku into an oriental version of the French Mediterranean jewel of Nice. In 1941, Azerbaijan, then part of the Soviet Union, was already supplying 175 million barrels of crude oil a year — 75 percent of the country’s entire oil production. That’s why German forces fought so hard to try to seize the city and the surrounding Absheron Peninsula. (They failed.)
After the war, Soviet engineers took a closer look at a reef that mariners called the “Black Rock.” They built a shed on the tiny island and conducted test drilling. During the night of Nov. 7, 1949, they struck top-quality oil at a depth of 1,100 meters below the seabed and shortly thereafter, the world’s first offshore oil platform was built at the spot, now renamed Neft Dashlari, or “oily rock.” “Platform” is a hopelessly inadequate word for the many-armed monster of steel and timber that gradually spread across the waves of the sea, which is only 20 meters deep on average, over the following years.
The foundation of the main settlement consists of seven sunken ships including “Zoroaster,” the world’s first oil tanker, built in Sweden. In Neft Dashlari’s heyday, some 2,000 drilling platforms were spread in a 30-kilometer circle, joined by a network of bridge viaducts spanning 300 kilometers. Trucks thundered across the bridges and eight-story apartment blocks were built for the 5,000 workers who sometimes spent weeks on Neft Dashlari. The voyage back to the mainland could take anything between six and twelve hours, depending on the type of ship. The island had its own beverage factory, soccer pitch, library, bakery, laundry, 300-seat cinema, bathhouse, vegetable garden and even a tree-lined park for which the soil was brought from the mainland.
Hokhsbat Yusifzadeh, vice president of Socar, the state-owned Azerbaijan oil company, worked on Neft Dashlari in the early days. “We were pioneers in those days, and the oil flowed in huge quantities, he says. He has fond memories of the time. “Don’t forget there were many women on Neft Dashlari, and the evenings were long at sea.”
It was a Stalinist utopia for the working class. A Soviet stamp from 1971 summed up the gigantic hopes it embodied in a tiny image: against the black outline of a drilling rig, a road made of bridges snaked its way across the deep blue sea towards further rigs and a red sun on the horizon.
But there are few things as precarious as a world built on water and oil. The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in the decline of this floating city as new oilfields were discovered elsewhere and the price of oil began to fluctuate. The workforce has halved to 2,500, and most of the rigs are now out of use or can’t be reached because the bridges leading to them have collapsed. Of the 300 kilometers of roads, only 45 kilometers remain usable, and even they have fallen into disrepair. During a flood a few years ago, many apartments were submerged up to the second story.
A worker on Neft Dashlari still earns some $130 a month, twice as much as someone employed in the same job on the mainland. But the plant hasn’t been operating efficiently for years. Submerged steel constructions pose a threat to shipping, oil leaks abound and equipment is falling apart.
Dismantling Neft Dashlari properly would probably be more expensive than simply keeping it going with a scaled-down oil production. To the government, the place is still the proud, closely-guarded secret it was in Soviet times. It is still very hard for foreigners to gain access to the city, which isn’t even shown on Google Maps.
There were plans to refurbish Neft Dashlari and even to transform it into a tropical luxury holiday resort, but nothing has come of them. Today, it accounts for only a fraction of Azerbaijan’s oil production. Experts estimate that the oil deposits underneath the city will only last for another 20 years. In a few decades, rusting steel jutting out of the waves and old seacharts will be all that remain of this gigantic labyrinth in the sea.