For The Love Of Lapis
Rock&Gem Magazine|March 2020
The saga of Afghan lapis lazuli
Steve Voynick

In July 2019, military forces of the Taliban (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) wrested control of Badakhshãn Province from the western-backed central government of Afghanistan. A rugged mountain province in northeast Afghanistan, sparsely populated Badakhshãn has relatively little economic significance—except for the remote upper Kokcha Valley, where Sar-e-Sang (or Sar-i-Sang) is the world’s premier source of lapis lazuli.

Just a few years earlier, the Afghan government had launched a program to develop the Sar-e-Sang lapis lazuli resource in a manner that would benefit the nation. But that hope is gone, at least for now, and the fall of Badakhshãn is having many ramifications: The Afghan government has lost a potential source of income; all newly mined lapis lazuli is being smuggled into Pakistan, and the Taliban is reaping millions of dollars per year in profit.

LONG AND INVOLVED HISTORY

Afghanistan has long been synonymous with lapis lazuli. This central-Asian nation has produced roughly 95 percent of all the lapis ever mined throughout history. The only other commercially significant supplies come from Russia, Chile, and the United States, but lapis from these sources does not match the Afghan material in color intensity, pyrite glitter, and overall visual appeal.

The saga of Afghan lapis reads like an epic of historical fiction that James Michener might have written. It was the first gemstone ever to be systematically mined and one of the most prized commodities carried by the ancient Silk Road caravans that once culturally and economically linked Asia, Africa, and Europe. As a gemstone, pigment, and inlay material, Afghan lapis has played major roles in Egyptian, Islamic, and European art.

For the last 40 years, the tale of Afghan lapis has been a particularly volatile mix of warlords, military intervention, government corruption, international politics, and rampant smuggling. This complex drama is being played out beneath the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush range at what may be the most remote and forbidding gemstone locality on Earth.

Lapis lazuli is a metamorphic rock of widely variable composition that consists mainly of lazurite (basic sodium calcium aluminum sulfate chlorosilicate). Its other mineral components include calcite (calcium carbonate), pyrite (iron disulfide), sodalite (sodium aluminum chlorosilicate), augite (calcium iron magnesium silicate), and nosean (hydrous sodium sulfate aluminosilicate).

Lazurite, which imparts lapis lazuli’s striking deep-blue color, makes up 20 to 40 percent of lapis, with the higher percentages creating the most intensely colored and valuable stones. Lazurite crystallizes in the isometric system, but usually occurs in granular, massive, or compact forms, and only rarely as crystals. Brittle and showing an uneven fracture, a low specific gravity of 2.42.5, and a Mohs hardness of 5.0-5.5, lazurite is opaque with an azure-blue color and a dull-to-greasy luster.

Lazurite forms through contact metamorphism of silica-poor, marine limestone that contains sulfur and chlorine. The original basement rock at Sar-e-Sang was marine limestone, a sedimentary rock that consists primarily of calcite. The uplifting of the Hindu Kush massif some 30 million years ago provided the heat and pressure necessary for intense contact metamorphism to recrystallize parts of this limestone into marble.

Within a 1,200-foot-thick, mica-rich stratum of white marble, varying concentrations of lazurite occur in lens-shaped, horizontally oriented bodies 3 to 6 feet thick, 60 feet wide, and several hundred feet long. Along with calcite and lazurite, these lenses also contain the silicate minerals forsterite, enstatite, phlogopite, and diopside, and the aluminosilicate minerals augite and muscovite. Also present are sodalite, haüyne, nosean, and afghanite, all aluminosilicates with complex chlorine sulfur chemistries similar to that of lazurite. Varying grades of lapis lazuli, along with occasional lazurite crystals, are concentrated near the core of the lenses.

Despite its inaccessibility, Sar-e-Sang had a significant historical and geographical advantage—its relative proximity to a major Silk Road caravan route that linked the region to both China and the Middle East. Along with gold, spices, and silk, lapis lazuli from Sar-e-Sang was among the most valuable of all Silk Road trade commodities.

AFGAN LAPIS CAPTURES ATTENTION IN ANCIENT TIMES

Sporadic mining at Sar-e-Sang began in prehistory, and continuous, systematic mining was underway by 4000 B.C. Afghan lapis was widely traded, first to the Middle East and Egypt, and later to China and Europe where it was fashioned into jewelry and decorative items, and ground into pigments. The Egyptians were especially enamored of Afghan lapis, grinding it into eye-shadow powder and cutting it into inlay-mosaic pieces for ceremonial uses, most notably the prominent, royal-blue striping in the 3,300-year-old funeral mask of the ruler Tutankhamen (or Tutankhamum).

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