An interesting reference to the fire-worshipers of the Caucasus is contained in the "History of Zobeide," a tale of the wonderful Arabian Nights Entertainment. It runs thus:
"I bought a ship at Balsora, and freighted it; my sisters chose to go with me, and we set sail with a fair wind. Some weeks after, we cast anchor in a harbor which presented itself, with intent to water the ship. As I was tired with having been so long on board, I landed with the first boat, and walked up into the country. I soon came in sight of a great town. When I arrived there, I was much surprised to see vast numbers of people in different postures, but all immovable. The merchants were in their shops, the soldiery on guard; every one seemed engaged in his proper avocation, yet all were become as stone.... I heard the voice of a man reading Al Koran.... Being curious to know why he was the only living creature in the town,... he proceeded to tell me that the city was the metropolis of a kingdom now governed by his father; that the former king and all his subjects were Magi, worshipers of fire and of Nardoun. the ancient king of the giants who rebelled against God. 'Though I was born,' continued he, 'of idolatrous parents, it was my good fortune to have a woman governess who was a strict observer of the Mohammedan religion. She taught me Arabic from Al Koran; by her I was instructed in the true religion, which I would never afterward renounce.
About three years ago a thundering voice was heard distinctly throughout the city, saying, "Inhabitants, abandon the worship of Nardoun and of fire, and worship the only true God, who showeth mercy!" This voice was heard three years successively, but no one regarded it. At the end of the last year all the inhabitants were in an instant turned to stone. I alone was preserved.'"
In the foregoing tale we doubtless have reference to the destruction of Baku, on the Caspian (though to sail from Balsora to Baku is impossible), and the driving away into India, by the Arabs under Caliph Omar, of all who refused to renounce fire-worship and adopt the creed of the Koran. The turning of the refractory inhabitants into stone is probably the Arabian storyteller's figurative manner of referring to the finding of dead bodies in a mummified condition.
It is known that the Egyptians made use of bitumen, in some form, in the preservation of their dead, a fact with which the Arabians were familiar. As the Magi held the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water to be sacred, they feared to either bury, burn, sink, or expose to air the corrupting bodies of their deceased. Therefore, it was their practice to envelop the corpse in a coating of wax or bitumen, so as to hermetically seal it from immediate contact with either of the four sacred elements. Hence the idea of all the bodies of the Magi left at Baku being turned to stone, while only the true believer in Mohammed remained in the flesh.
Marco Polo, the famous traveler of the thirteenth century, makes reference to the burning jets of the Caucasus, and those fires are known to the Russians as continuing in existence since the army of Peter the Great wrested the regions about the Caspian from the modern Persians. The record of those flaming jets of natural gas is thus brought down in an unbroken chain of evidence from remote antiquity to the present day, and they are still burning.
Numerous Greek and Latin writers testify to the known existence of petroleum about the shores of the Mediterranean two thousand years ago. More modern citations may, however, be read with equal interest. In the "Journal of Sir Philip Skippon's Travels in France," in 1663, we find the following curious entries:
"We stayed in Grenoble till August 1st, and one day rode out, and, after twice fording the river Drac (which makes a great wash) at a league's distance, went over to Pont de Clef, a large arch across that river, where we paid one sol a man; a league further we passed through a large village called Vif, and about a league thence by S. Bathomew, another village, and Chasteau Bernard, where we saw a flame breaking out of the side of a bank, which is vulgarly called La Fountaine qui Brule; it is by a small rivulet, and sometimes breaks out in other places; just before our coming some other strangers had fried eggs here. The soil hereabouts is full of a black stone, like our coal, which, perhaps, is the continual fuel of the fire.... Near Peroul, about a league from Montpelier, we saw a boiling fountain (as they call it), that is, the water did heave up and bubble as if it boiled. This phenomenon in the water was caused by a vapor ascending out of the earth through the water, as was manifest, for if that one did but dig anywhere near the place, and pour water upon the place new digged, one should observe in it the like bubbling, the vapor arising not only in that place where the fountain was, but all thereabout; the like vapor ascending out of the earth and causing such ebullition in water it passes through hath been observed in Mr. Hawkley's ground, about a mile from the town of Wigan, in Lancashire, which vapor, by the application of a lighted candle, paper; or the like, catches fire and flames vigorously.
Whether or not this vapor at Peroul would in like manner catch fire and burn I cannot say, it coming not in our minds to make the experiment.... At Gabian, about a day's journey from Montpelier, in the way to Beziers, is a fountain of petroleum. It burns like oil, is of a pungent scent, and a blackish color. It distills out of several places of the rock all the year long, but most in the summer time. They gather it up with ladles and put it in a barrel set on end, which hath a spigot just at the bottom. When they have put in a good quantity, they open the spigot to let out the water, and when the oil begins to come presently stop it. They pay for the farm of this fountain about fifty crowns per annum. We were told by one Monsieur Beaushoste, a chymist in Montpelier, that petroleum was the very same with oil of jet, and not to be distinguished from it by color, taste, smell, consistency, virtues, or any other accident, as he had by experience found upon the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, in several places, as at Berre, near Martague, in Provence; at Messina, in Sicily, etc."