National Geographic News
by Marianne Lavelle
with research by Amanda Rivkin
June 8, 2011
The landlocked Asian nation of Azerbaijan forged a powerful connection to the West five years ago with the first delivery of oil through one of the most ambitious energy projects of a generation—a $4.2 billion, 1,100-mile (1,800-kilometer) pipeline to the Turkish Mediterranean coast.
When the deal was originally struck in 1994 for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) Pipeline, the late Azerbaijan President Heydar Aliyev called it “the Contract of the Century”—the first time a former Soviet state had signed a deal for its oil to reach international markets without going through Russia.
It was also hailed as a major policy success for the United States, which had engaged in years of intensive diplomacy to build an avenue for Caspian oil wealth that did not rely on Moscow.
The BTC has the capacity to deliver 1.2 million barrels of oil per day to the Turkish port of Ceyhan from the giant offshore Azeri-Chriag-Guneshli field, and the revenue Azerbaijan earns from this single project is a major driver of the nation’s economy. In the first quarter of this year, the pipeline was delivering oil at a rate one-third below capacity, about 800,000 barrels per day.
In the BTC era, Azerbaijan is literally and figuratively a nation between East and West. More than 99 percent of its population is Muslim, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And yet, the government of Ilham Aliyev, son of Heydar Aliyev and president since 2003, has encouraged a more secular society. In the view of some analysts, he has fostered warm relations with Western governments, despite accusations of corruption, by positioning his country as a bulwark against Islamic radicalism and, of course, as a source of oil.
A young woman dressed in Western garb, above, hastily adds the required head covering before entering the Shi'a Icherishahar Djuma Masjid, or Innercity Mosque, for Friday prayers in the old city of Baku, Azerbaijan. It is one of a series of photos taken by National Geographic Young Explorer Amanda Rivkin in a summer 2010 journey to document life along the route of the pipeline.