Lapis lazuli: from Tutankhamun to the taliban


It's 100 years since Tutankhamun's tomb has been opened. Therefore, I wanted to revisit some details of the world's most famous treasure: the pharaoh's golden funeral mask adorned with blue lapis lazuli stone. I wrote about this in some detail in one of my first GondwanaTalks articles. Let's now use Tutankhamun as a starting point to ponder on the role of lapis lazuli in history and in the modern world. 

Author: Kathelijne Bonne.

Lapis lazuli in National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. (Kplans / Wikipedia).
Lapis lazuli in National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. (Kplans / Wikipedia).

Tutankhamun's lapis lazuli comes from the Sar-i-sang mines, which are the oldest mines in the world. They may date back seven thousand years, or more. Sar-i-sang, literally the summits of stone, is located in the Hindu Kush, present-day Afghanistan, nearly five thousand kilometers away from Egypt. The funeral mask hence reflects not only the great artisanal skills of the Egyptians, but also their extensive trade network. Indeed, the mines were an important production center of the Silk Road trade and a source of the finest and rarest gemstones.

Mining in the Hindu Kush continues until today, but it is controlled by Taliban. Revenues from lapis lazuli are unfortunately used to finance war and oppression. In this article, I wanted to cover, more briefly than in my first article, the natural history of lapis lazuli, its use in history and its conflict status today.

The Sar-i-sang mines

The Hindu Kush is a rugged mountain range in Central Asia. It consists of elongated, parallel mountain ranges intersected by deep valleys. The Sar-i-sang mines are located in the valley of the Kokcha River, on a branch of the Silk Road that connected the civilizations of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Far East, and was used for thousands of years. Lapis lazuli, carnelian, rubies, amber and other beauties were transported across this region via caravans.

Today there are also sources of lapis lazuli in Italy and Chile, among others, but the Hindu Kush is thought to have been the main source in ancient times.

High priests, queens and the great masters

Death mask of Tutankhamun (source: Pexels).
Death mask of Tutankhamun (source: Pexels).

In ancient times, lapis lazuli symbolized the sky full of stars, and high priests used it for all sorts of mystical ceremonies. This is not surprising, as the color is of an unfathomable blue and typically has golden specks. The name comes from the Persian lahzward, meaning blue or sky. Lapis lazuli is actually a stone composed of three minerals: lazurite, which provides the blue color, pyrite, the golden specks, and calcite, white specks. The more intense the blue the more valuable.

Lapis lazuli was used extensively in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In powder form, it was used as pigment, including for Cleopatra's eye shadow. The stone eventually made its way to Europe via the Greeks and Romans. Painters in Europe used it as a raw material for the color ultramarine, literally "from byond the sea,". At one point lapis lazuli was more expensive than gold. Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring is made with pigment derived from lapis lazuli from the Sar-i-Sang mines.

Brew of rare gemstones

Unusual or rare minerals are often created in complex geological environments, as in Afghanistan. Its jagged relief and many natural riches bear witness to a turbulent geological past. Lapis lazuli is formed when limestone is intruded by hot magma. 

The limestone that would eventually form the bluestone of Afghanistan, was already immensely old. It was deposited on the seafloor by bacteria, more than two billion years ago. Much later (in Jurassic times), the interior of Central Asia got uplifted due to the collision of a few tectonic plates. Actually, several small continents, i.e., islands about the size of Madagascar, had collided, creating the high mountains we see today.

Afghanistan is in the middle of all those crushed continents, and so is actually a big puzzle consisting of several blocks. The blocks are separated from each other by large faults. Because these are weak zones in the Earth's crust, rivers erode deep valleys along these faults. The Sar-i-Sang mines are also located in such a deep valley on a fault line, coincidentally where ancient limestone also lay.

Then began a period of volcanic activity. Magma rose along the faults, and hot hydrothermal fluids squeezed through fractures in the limestone. The molten rock reacted chemically with the limestone, creating a rich brew. The brew cooled and new minerals crystallized, forming an ore-rich deposit called skarn. Lapis lazuli is one of the many precious stones found in skarn.

Lapis lazuli: a conflict mineral

Lapis lazuli is truly one of Afghanistan's many treasures. But unfortunately, ordinary Afghans are not experiencing the benefits of it. The blue mineral from the world's oldest mines now fuels terror and repression. In 2016, lapis lazuli was labeled a conflict mineral after the advocacy organization Global Witness released a report. According to Global Witness, the lapis lazuli region (Badakshan province) is a strategic priority for the Taliban, and they were then said to have pocketed some $20 million a year from lapis lazuli revenues, allowing their power to grow. China, and western countries as well, have turned out to be good outlets for prized lapis lazuli.

Moreover, the Afghan people are sitting on trillions of dollars if you add up all their resources, including petroleum, gas and lithium. With that revenue, Afghanistan could become a prosperous country, but corruption, repression and extremism prevent those prospects from being developed, let alone in a non-polluting, human rights-respecting way.

Lapis lazuli turns red

And so mining zones remain sites of conflict, attacks, and violence. With Afghanistan again being run by the Taliban, no new information is available. Only one thing is certain.

In our times, lapis lazuli has turned red as it is stained with blood.

With this story in mind, I ask people not to buy lapis lazuli. Admire it in museums, in art treasures, in paintings, and in natural history museums. Even if the lapis lazuli comes from other parts of the world, there is little chance that the mining was done in a way that respected human rights and/or left nature intact. Read more on minerals and crystals that are sold everywhere around the globe in Roseanne Chambers article: the healing crystal conundrum.



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