Immersed up to her neck in a dark viscous liquid, Sulfiya smiles in delight, confident that the fetid substance will cure her painful condition.
Sulfiya, a Russian woman in her 60s, has travelled to Azerbaijan’s north-western city of Naftalan in the hope that crude oil baths at a local sanatorium will end her years of suffering from polyarthritis, a disease affecting the joints.
“This is so pleasant,” she enthuses, despite the reek of engine oil.
Her naked dip in oil heated to just above body temperature lasts 10 minutes, after which an attendant scrapes the brown oil off her skin and sends her into a shower.
The native of Russia’s Tatarstan region said she and her friends “have long dreamed of coming” for treatment in Naftalan.
The petroleum spa resort in the oil-rich Caucasus country is a draw for visitors despite its proximity to Nagorny Karabakh, a region disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia in a long-running armed conflict.
After 10 days of bathing in crude oil Sulfiya says she now feels “much better” and has even reduced her medication for the polyarthritis that she has had for 12 years.
“It is a gift from God,” agrees 48-year-old Rufat, an Azerbaijani journalist and opposition party member who is undergoing treatment in the sanatorium called Sehirli, or “magic” in Azerbaijani.