By Philip Mandelker

(installment one of a series)


The Bible has been the principal source of inspiration to hundreds of millions of people through the ages. Many Jews and Christians believe the Bible to be the absolute Word of God and strive to derive significance from every word of the text. For these individuals, the Land of Israel, within whose borders most of the events told of in the Bible unfold is the Holy Land – ארץ הקודש – the Promised Land – and, as such, has been and continues to be a source of wonder and fascination.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Land of Israel again became readily accessible to European and American Christians and Jews. Jews began to return to the Land, then called Palestine, to resettle it, first in small bands of Zionist pioneers and then in larger and larger groups of immigrants. Christians came mostly as pilgrims to visit and pray at the Holy Sites, but also as scholars. Others came to settle as the Templars; and still others simply as tourists to explore and wonder – who can forget Mark Twain and his Innocents Abroad. But they all came with Bible in hand as their guidebook eager to uncover the Land’s past and present secrets. The scholars established learned societies – the British Palestine Exploration Fund, the American School of Oriental Research, the German Deutscher Verein zur Erforschung Palaestinas. They came as archaeologists, as geographers, as ethnographers, as geologists, as agriculturalists; others came as seekers of fortune, as artists, as poets, as mystics. Some, inspired and guided by the words of the Bible, came to explore for oil.

Oil?! What have the Bible and the Land of Israel to do with oil? Israel may be the Land of Milk and Honey, a land even of olive oil – but petroleum? Everyone has heard of the famous quip that, when coming out of Sinai, Moses mistakenly turned left to Canaan (Israel), the only land in the Middle East without oil, when he should have turned right to Midian (modern Saudi Arabia). Yet there have been oil and gas discoveries in Israel. The Heletz oil field was discovered in 1955 and is still producing, if only marginally, today some 50 years later. The Zohar gas field was discovered near Arad in 1958 and is still in marginal production. Major world class gas discoveries (with estimated reserves of over 3 trillion cubic feet) were made in 1999 and 2000 in the Mediterranean Sea off the coasts of Israel and Gaza.

Indeed, hydrocarbons in the form of tars and asphalts have been known and mined in the Dead Sea region of the Land of Israel since Neolithic times 11-12,000 years ago (Mithen, S., After the Ice, [Phoenix, London, 2003], at pp. 74-75). The Bible in Genesis 14:10 refers to wells of tar or slime as the basis for the wealth of the Cities of the Plain, including Sodom and Gomorrah. Strabo the famous Greek geographer writing at the beginning of the 1st Century of the Common Era (C.E. = A.D.) extensively describes the tar and asphalt seeps in the Dead Sea and the surrounding canyons. (Strabo, Geography, vol. XVI, Chap. 2, paras 42-45.) Josephus in The Jewish War, writing towards the end of the 1st Century of the Common Era discusses the Dead Sea asphalts towards the end of Excursus V.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that in the 1830s, the Austrian mining engineer, Josef von Russeger, conducting a geological survey for the Egyptian government, should report on asphalt seeps from rocks on the southeastern shores of the Dead Sea. The German traveler Rothe describes asphalt seeps and small oil impregnated pools in the Nahal Arnon canyon on the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea in 1874. Similar sightings were made by various geologists and travelers in the late 19th Century and early years of the 20th Century in canyons along the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea (particularly in Nahal Heimar, where tar seeps can be seen even today) and at various other sites in the rift valley from the Dead Sea in the south to the Yarmuk River Valley just south of the Sea of Galilee in the north. (See Lavi, B., Ha’zahav Ha’shachor b’Eretz Yisrael (Black Gold in the Land of Israel) [Carmel, Jerusalem, 1999] [“Black Gold in Israel”], at pp. 24-27 and the sources cited there.)

Serious commercial interest in petroleum exploration in the Land of Israel goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. The Socony Vacuum Company, predecessor of Mobil Oil, received exploration licenses in the years preceding World War I, though the first well was not commenced until 1947 by the British-dominated Iraqi Petroleum Company which had discovered the major oil fields in northern Iraq. This first well, known as the Huleikhat Well, was abandoned shortly after its commencement as a result of increasing violence in the area preceding Israel’s independence. The well (renamed the Heletz #1 and still in marginal production) was reentered by two small Israeli oil exploration companies in 1955 and led to the Heletz field discovery. Regrettably though, essentially for geo-political reasons, following Israel’s independence, the large international oil and gas companies which had been involved in the area since before World War I withdrew from Israel and have since steered clear of the Land and refused to participate in oil and gas exploration activities there, preferring to protect their interests in the Arab and Islamic world.[1]

[1] At the end of the 1990s, following the discovery of the Mari field by the Israeli-American Yam Tethys (the Delek group and Noble Energy) consortium, British Gas, a large multinational natural gas company extensively involved in Egypt, got involved in off-shore exploration in the Mediterranean Sea off the Israeli coast. In early 2005, British Gas, after failing over a period of several years to interest other international oil and gas companies to participate in the project, returned almost all its rights to the Israeli government for a combination of geo-political and commercial reasons while retaining its Palestinian and Egyptian interests.

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