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Geological secrets behind eternal flames

The ‘eternal flame’ at the Zoroastrian Ateshgah ‘Fire Temple’ near Baku, Azerbaijan The ‘eternal flame’ at the Zoroastrian Ateshgah ‘Fire Temple’ near Baku, Azerbaijan Guisepe Etiope
20 May
2015
‘Eternal flames’ from ancient times should interest modern geologists

Oil and gas leaks from the ground lie behind many myths and legends in ancient cultures and societies. The Delphi Oracle, Chimaera fire and ‘eternal flames’ have been important for religious practices from Indonesia and Iran to Italy and Azerbaijan.

For the Zoroastrian religion, fire represents spiritual purity. One hundred fire temples still exist in India, and 27 more around the world, according to the Times of India. Historically, the Zoroastrians worshipped ‘Pillars of Fire’ near  Baku in Azerbaijan.

Modern geologists, as well as oil and gas explorers can learn much by delving into the geomythological stories about the religious and social practices of the Ancient World, according to Guiseppe Etiope of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy.

‘Knowing present-day gas fluxes from a seep and knowing that a seep was active and vigorous two thousand years ago, we can estimate the total amount of gas that has been released to the atmosphere thus far. What can be measured today is probably also valid, at least in terms of orders of magnitude, for the past,’ writes Etiope.

He suggests that this information can help in calculating atmospheric methane budgets, and the leak potential from petroleum systems.

shutterstock 89878897Mount Chimaera was a place in ancient Lycia, notable for volcanic phenomena (Image: Dimos)

Gas and oil seeps have been long-observed. Pliny the Elder, who lived two thousand years ago, reported such events in the Mediterranean area. These included Chimaera, a large burning gas seep in modern Turkey. In ancient times, the temple of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, was built next to it.

In Iraq, it has been speculated that the Baba Gurgur seep was the ‘burning fiery furnace’ into which King Nebuchadnezzar cast the Jews. A Roman legend reports crude oil issuing from the ground around 38BC. This became a meeting spot for the first Roman converts to Christianity, and is now the site of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

‘Knowing that a certain ‘eternal fire’ observed today was already active in Biblical times indicates that it was not triggered by the recent drilling and production of petroleum,’ adds Etiope.

Etiope writes that hydrocarbon seeps also influenced the social and technological development of many ancient populations. It not only contributed to global civilisation, but was often the source of wars. In fact, hydrocarbons have been causing problems for humans for a long, long time. The first evidence of petroleum usage comes from Syria, where Neanderthals used natural bitumen on stone tools 40,000 years ago.

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