This giant lake, this gentle sea
Images of the Caspian
In approximately 340 BCE, writing his general principles and observations on the terrestrial world, Aristotle concluded that the “Caspian [has] no connection with the outer ocean and [is] inhabited all around and so [its] sources would have been observed if [it] had any anywhere” (Meteorologica 354a). Aristotle was correct in asserting that the Caspian is a landlocked body of water. Even though there is dispute about whether the Caspian should be designated a lake or a sea, at an area of 149,000 square miles (386,000 square km), it would be the world’s largest lake or inland sea.
Positioned between the continents of Asia and Europe, the Caspian Sea is estimated to be 30 million years old. Archaeological evidence suggests that the coastal areas were inhabited as early as 75,000 years ago, sustained by the abundant marine life that is still characteristic of the waters. But the early inhabitants were also aware of the most precious commodity of the Caspian, oil, and as early as the 3rd century BCE had used pots of flaming oil in defense against the advancing armies of Alexander of Macedon.
By the 7th century CE there is evidence of primitive oil extraction methods in the Western shores of the Caspian and the world’s first oil well was dug near Baku in 1846. By the turn of the 20th century, the immense potential of the natural resources that lie beneath the surface of the Caspian was becoming clear. In 1901, when Rudyard Kipling coined the phrase “The Great Game” to describe the competition between Russia and Britain for dominance over Central Asia, a large part of that rivalry was the desire for access to the Caspian’s riches.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, five countries, Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, border the Caspian Sea and lay claim to its hidden treasures. The immense, untapped offshore resources of the Caspian have created a tense geopolitical situation among the five countries who cannot agree on where to demarcate maritime borders. Offshore reserves are approximated at 48 billion barrels of oil and 8.7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Furthermore, another resource that has caught the attention of the countries is uranium. Since the Caspian basin does not drain into other bodies of water, it registers higher concentrations of naturally occurring radioactive elements than other seas, including 5-7 times the levels of uranium.
Other than the mineral wealth that resides under the Caspian, there is an unsung jewel of the waters—caviar—the other “black gold,” that pound for pound is the most precious product of the Caspian Sea. Among the species of sturgeon whose roe is considered a delicacy, the most sought-after caviar is of the beluga, which can fetch thousands of dollars per kilo. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the record for the most expensive caviar ever sold belongs to an Iranian albino beluga found in the warmer southern waters of the Caspian. 1 kg of this infamous “almas” (diamond) caviar sold for a staggering $35,000.
In 2018 the five bordering countries signed an agreement establishing rules for acknowledging each other’s territorial waters and fishing zones. But as of yet, no final decision has been made on dividing the resource-rich seabed where most of the oil and natural gas resides.
The unique environment of the Caspian coast, its surrounding territories, and the people who inhabit them has been brought to life by the photography of Chloe Dewe Mathews who spent five years travelling and documenting the coastal areas of the Caspian Sea. The result, Caspian: The Elements (Aperture/Peabody Museum Press, 2018), is an impressive collection of images, through which Dewe Mathews has composed a photographic narrative of the sea and the people who live around it. Sean O’Hagan, one of the essayists for the book, sees Dewe Mathews’ work as a “kind of metaphorical documentary photography, in which an acute eye for observation is merged with an almost sculptural attention to arrangement and composition.”
Caspian: The Elements, as the book is aptly named, engages the geological building blocks that make up this fascinating body of water and explores the deep bonds that connect the people of the Caspian to their ecosystem. “While wandering slowly through the region,” says Dewe Mathews, “I saw the prized resources playing subtle but important roles in people’s everyday lives. Materials like oil, gas, rock, salt, and water appeared to exert an almost gravitational pull on the local population, assuming religious, symbolic, and even mystical functions.” The photographs are a record of life that unfolds on different planes, material and spiritual, personal and national. Caspian: The Elements takes the viewer on a dizzying journey of immense scope and variety, from the oversized monuments erected to celebrate the nouveau [oil] riche of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to the therapeutic oil baths of Naftalan, Azerbaijan; from the Nowruz Chaharshanbeh Suri (festival of fire) in Ramsar, Iran, to the Feast of the Epiphany on the frozen Volga in Astrakhan, Russia.
Chloe Dewe Mathews is the recipient of the 2014 Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography, awarded annually by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University “to a photographer who has demonstrated great originality working in the documentary vein.” In 2019, Caspian: The Elements was awarded First Prize in Books in American Alliance of Museums’ annual publication design competition.
The publication of Caspian: The Elements coincides with an exhibition at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, that runs from April 2019 through September 7, 2020.
SASSAN TABATABAI is guest editor of MizanPop