The Baba Gurgur oil field was described as far back as Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC), the ancient Greek author, and some believe it to be the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel, of Old Testament, into which King Nebuchadnezzar (630-562 BC), King of Babylon, threw three Jews for refusing to worship his golden idol. The flames have a significant symbolic value for residents of Kirkuk. It is believed that the heat of the eternal flames was used by shepherds to warm their flocks during winter, and women would visit Baba Gurgur, asking to have a baby boy. This ancient practice probably goes back to the time of fire worshipping.
The burning flames are the result of natural gas and naphtha seeping through the cracks in the Baba Gurgur area's rocks.
A description of the area can be found in a 1939 issue of “The American Journal of Science”.
Near to the wells is a pool of muddy stagnant water, covered with a thick scum deeply tinged with sulphur. A few hundred yards to the east of the top of the same hill is a flat circular spot, 50 feet in diameter, perforated by 100 or more small holes, whence issue clear smokeless flames, smelling strongly of sulphur. In fact, the whole surface of this perforated spot of ground appeared as a crust of sulphur over a body of fire within; the surface being perforated by a dagger, a flame instantly issued, rising, sometimes even higher than the others.
Baba Gurgur became the first modern oil well in Iraq when the Turkish Petroleum Company struck oil on the night of 15 October 1927. The discovery soon turned into a major environmental crisis as thousands of barrels of oil gushed out inundating a depression known as Wadi Naft that carried water off the low foothills. Crude oil was escaping down to the open desert threatening the local inhabitants, their properties and risking the pollution of the water supply.
It took ten days from the first eruption to close the control valve and shut off the supply of oil. By the time the well was capped, over 95,000 barrels of oil a day had spewed into the desert. The approaching rainy season raised the spectre of another disaster: if the rains came and the wadi flooded, the oil would be carried down to the river and pollute water supplies across the whole country. Pumps were urgently installed to pump the oil back into the wells, but they made little impression. Desperate to remove the oil, large quantities were set alight. Eventually, when the rains came the area was clear of oil.