Alfred Nobel’s lesser-known Azerbaijan connection

The international accolade has an unusual affiliation with the Asian nation’s long-standing oil industry.

An offshore oil rig is seen in the Caspian Sea near Baku
Azerbaijan is known as 'the land of fire' because of its rich reserves of oil and gas [Grigory Dukor/Reuters]

The Nobel Peace Prize has been bestowed upon 131 laureates from around the world since it was first awarded in 1901.

But few people are aware that the international accolade – which will be handed out on December 10 in Sweden – has an unusual connection to Azerbaijan’s long-standing oil industry.

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish-born chemist after whom the prize is named, is perhaps best known for holding hundreds of patents and being the inventor of dynamite.

However, Nobel left a $265m endowment to fund the prize in his will when he died in 1896 – and a sizeable portion of that money came from the extraction of Azerbaijani oil, according to Togrul Bagirov, chairman of the Baku Nobel Heritage Foundation (BNHF).

‘Land of fire’

Located on the Caspian Sea in the South Caucasus region, Azerbaijan is known as “the land of fire” because of its rich reserves of oil and gas, which the government estimates total nearly three trillion cubic metres today.

Alfred Nobel’s older brother, Robert, first came to Azerbaijan in 1873. Another brother, Ludwig, had sent Robert over from Russia to find walnut trees that could be used to build the rifles the family was manufacturing for the Russian tsar’s army at the time, according to a New York Times report.

Their father, Immanuel, had moved his family to St Petersburg to produce military equipment to be used in the Crimean War from 1853 to 1956.

When the fighting ended, however, the family encountered financial problems and ended up bankrupt.

That is when Immanuel, his wife, Carolina, and Alfred returned to Sweden. There, Alfred and his father built a nitroglycerin factory, and soon after that, dynamite was born.

But it was Robert Nobel who saw the potential in Azerbaijan’s oil business.

Villa Petrolea

Robert bought a small refinery, and in 1879, with Ludwig, he established an oil extraction operation, the Baku-based Branobel oil company. 

Bagirov told Al Jazeera that archival documents showed that between 20 and 22 percent of the funds used to start the Nobel Foundation came from Alfred’s shares in the oil company.

The Nobel brothers also established petroleum storage sites around Russia. They helped Baku become a major source of oil and oil-related products, supplying markets in Europe, China, India and Iran, according to the Times.

Villa Petrolea after reconstruction in 2007 [Photo courtesy of BNHF] 
Villa Petrolea after reconstruction in 2007 [Photo courtesy of BNHF] 

In fact, the first prize established by the Nobel family came after the death of Ludwig in St Petersburg in 1888.

The Ludwig Nobel Award was established by the Imperial Russian Technical Society to honour advances in the oil and metallurgy sector.

The award was handed out three times before being discontinued due to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in the early 1900s.

The Branobel oil company’s headquarters, Villa Petrolea, was built in Baku, the capital, and the brothers lived there for about 45 years.

Today, after being restored by the BNHF, it serves as a museum that details the Nobels’ lives.

Improving his image

Nobel’s dual and seemingly contradictory legacy as the inventor of dynamite and founder of the peace prize has been a source of curiosity for many.

“Certainly the background of the prize was humanitarian: [It was] a wish to support science and innovations [and] also peace,” Bagirov said.

But another reason for the prize was that Alfred Nobel wanted to “improve his image and support scientists”, he said.

This year, the Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

Follow Ayseba Umutlu on Twitter @Ayseba_Umutlu

Source: Al Jazeera