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lapis lazuli - stone of rulers

in the smugglers' stronghold
Lapis has one of the longest histories of any decorative rock or gem and Afghanistan sits on the world's richest lode.

pack train in high, desolate terrain above the kokcha river; kokcha valley
photo: pierre bariand

In rugged mountainous terrain so remote one can hardly get there even today, the Sar-e-Sang lapis mines in the Kokcha valley of Badakhshan province in Afghanistan's far northeastern corner have been worked for at least the last 6,000 years -- an unequaled record in the gem world.
After motoring as far as Hazarat-Said, the mines can only be reached by traveling at least a day, if not more, over a rutted wreck of a track that can scarcely be called a road -- after which one must spend another full day on horseback.
if you don't wish to die...
On behalf of the East India Company, British Army Lieutenant John Wood hiked into the Sar-e-Sang mine site in 1837, which at that time could only be reached on foot. The latest iteration of a series of mines, it was located in the face of a mountain in the Kokcha Valley (at that point only about 200 feet wide), about 1500 feet above the Kokcha River.

It must have been one heck of a trip because later, recollecting his 'adventure' in Journey to the Source of the River Oxus, John Woods wrote, "If you do not wish to die, avoid the Valley of Kokcha."
Peter Bancraft, in his classic book, Gem and Crystal Treasures says of the mines:

"The route to the lapis mines in the Kokcha Valley is long, tortuous, and dangerous... The lapis is mined on the steep sides of a long narrow defile sometimes only 200 meters wide and backed by jagged peaks that rise above 6000 meters. Sparsely populated and covered with snow for much of the year the barren region is inhabited by wild hogs and wolves. The summer sun is scorching, but temperatures drop below freezing at night."

sophisticated sumer
When lapis began leaving Kokcha -- possibly as early as 4000 BC -- historians believe that one of its primary destinations was the prosperous city-state of Ur in Sumer (Mesopotamia), a richly diversified ancient culture between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers.
A sophisticated and cosmopolitan civilization along the lower Euphrates River in the plain of southern Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq), Sumerian writing is generally regarded as the first written language (although some recent discoveries are pointing to the Egyptians).
In Ur (modern Tall al-Muqayyar, Iraq), lapis objects figure significantly from around the time of the Early Dynastic period (2900 BC - 2370 BC). In fact, lapis had such significance in Sumerian culture that it assumed a metaphorical role in Sumer's literature, being synonymous with wealth and gleaming splendor -- an attribute of gods and heroes.
Of Sumer, Bancroft says:

"The ancient royal Sumerian tombs of Ur, located near the Euphrates River in lower Iraq, contained more than 6000 beautifully executed lapis lazuli statuettes of birds, deer, and rodents as well as dishes, beads, and cylinder seals. These carved artifacts undoubtedly came from material mined in northern Afghanistan."

blue as the nile
As a prosperous city-state of Sumer, Ur had developed a thriving trade in lapis as early as the fourth millennium BC, shipping much of its product to Egypt, a country who knew the stone as khesbed or khshdj which meant "joy and delight."

lion-headed eagle pendant, ca. 2400-2250 bc; "treasure of ur," lapis, gold, bitumen, & copper alloy
photo: mma

Excavated Egyptian burial sites dating before 3000 B.C. have yielded thousands of jewelry items, many of them lapis.
The Egyptians would have purchased their lapis at a town known to them as Tefrer which has been identified by Egyptologists as the ancient city of Sippar in Mesopotamia (present day Abu Habbah, Iraq), situated near the Euphrates River.
Ostensibly an amuletic stone, lapis was worn primarily to provide its wearers with good luck and ward off evil spirits and injury. But there is no doubt, given lapis lazuli's extraordinary role in Egyptian artistic endeavors -- its common coupling with gold, as well as its role in the elaborate preparations for the afterlife -- that it was also highly valued and prized for its beauty, making it a favorite stone with which to adorn the body in this life.

clasp of a bracelet of princess khnumet; eye of horus
photo: cairo museum

A stone that appears in many passages of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, lapis -- often in the shape of an eye set in gold -- was considered an amulet of great power as it represented the eye of the Sun God Horus (son of Osiris and Isis).
The Eye of Horus was believed to ward off sickness and bring the dead to life, which is why it was often placed in the wrappings of mummies over the incision where the embalmers had removed the internal organs.
It was also common practice to place a lapis amulet, engraved with a chapter of the Book of the Dead, over the area where the heart had been removed, prior to the sealing of the sarcophagus.
life-giving lapis
Lapis lazuli was thought to possess life-giving powers in ancient Egypt. The Book of the Dead describes Horus, the hawk-like son of the God Osiris destroying all evil. After his deed he appears in the heavenly firmament in the form of a hawk and his torso is made of "blue stone."

pendant in the form of a hathoric head, 22nd dynasty reign of osorkon ii (874-850 bc)
photo:cairo museum

Blue was considered a prestigious 'divine' color and 'blue frit' -- a synthetic pigment made by firing silica, copper and an alkali together -- was used in conjunction with lapis lazuli for painting the eyes, hair and crowns of the pharaohs' statues and sarcophagi. Hathor, goddess of love, music, and beauty was also "lady of lapis lazuli."

Both lapis and its color were associated with the night sky. The rising sun was sometimes called the "child of lapis lazuli." The stone and the color were also were associated with the primordial waters. The Nile -- arguably the single most important element of ancient Egypt -- is rendered in blue color on grave paintings so blue is thought to represent fertility. Blue colored hippopotamuses produced by artisans were popular as symbols for the life-giving river.

It was also said that the gods had hair made of lapis lazuli. In a tomb painting of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, depictions of both the mummy and Anubis are shown with blue hair.

scarab heart pectoral
photo: discovery channel

One widely repeated 'fact' about lapis is that Egyptian judges wore carved lapis versions of Ma'at, whose likeness is first seen as a jewelry motif during the reign of Thutmose III (reign 1504-1450 BC).
As the goddess of truth, balance and order -- a concept fundamental to Egyptian life and the rule of the Pharaohs who portrayed themselves constantly as "Beloved of Ma'at" and "upholders of the universal order" -- the goddess is said to have had a strong association with law codes and practice, but this conclusion is based on just one speculative instance (known as the the 'Saite example') and is thought not to be generally true.
sapphire or sapphirus?
Popular with another Middle Eastern people, the Israelites, lapis is generally acknowledged by Biblical scholars to be one of the breastplate stones of the High Priest ("...and in the second row a turquoise, a sapphire, and an emerald...") It's also noted as a foundation stone of the New Jerusalem (Revelations).
Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel, in his "Breastplate stones and tribal affiliations," cites discussion and differences regarding the identity of the ancient sapphirus:

"[The] Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390- 405 C.E..) translates this stone as sapphirus; Pliny describes sapphirus as 'refulgent with spots like gold.

"It is also of an azure color, though sometimes, but rarely, it is purple; the best kind being that which comes from Media [present day Afghanistan]...

"In no case, however, is this stone transparent.' Both Pliny and Theophrastos, a Greek scholar, were of the view that the sapphire of ancient times was really the lapis lazuli."

lapis in latin america
In the New World where lapis has been mined for well over a thousand years in what is now northern Chile, the Moche, a culture that thrived on the desert-like coast of northern Peru from 200BC - 800 AD, were skilled metalworkers, producing body ornaments of gold, silver, copper, and alloys, often inlaying them with lapis, turquoise, quartz, amethyst, seashell or bone. (The Moche are named after the northern Peruvian coastal valley in which their civilization was discovered by a German archeologist in 1889.)

gold head bead with lapis eyes; chimu, royal tombs of sipan, northern peru; ca. 300 ad
photo: museum of the americas

After the demise of the Moche, the Chimu who followed them created a a powerful, aggressive military state which dominated northern Peru from about 1000-1460 AD (after which time they were absorbed by the Incas). With a highly developed knowledge of metallurgy, the Chimu carried on the tradition of using lapis to enhance ceremonial objects and personal ornaments.
priest king, prester john
Back in medieval Europe, lapis increasingly became identified as an emblem of chastity. Starting sometime in the twelfth century, troubadours began telling tales of a legendary eastern priest-king, Presbyter John or Prester John, believed to be the Christian king of an idealized Christian stronghold, who remained chaste by sleeping on a bed of sapphirus -- even though he had multiple wives.
In a text attributed to "Sir John Mandeville," written ca. 1366, the priest-king's life is ruled by abstinence:

"... The frame of his bed is of sapphirus, well set in gold to make him sleep well and to destroy lustful thoughts -- for he only lies with his wives on four set occasions in the year, and even then for the sole purpose of engendering children."

At times said to be located somewhere in central Asia, in the midst of pagans and closely associated with China -- or at other times to be somewhere in the hinterlands of Abyssinia, possibly Gondar -- from the fourteenth century on, Prester John's mythical kingdom was increasingly identified with Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and the Coptic Christian rulers of that nation were said to be his descendents.

abyssinia, home of the mythical prester john

'Facts' about Prester John grew increasingly far-fetched. According to one source, in 1402, Venice received an embassy

"...from Prester John, legendary Emperor of Ethiopia whose robes were woven by salamanders and laundered only in fire, who was attended by 7 kings, 60 dukes, 360 viscounts, 30 archbishops, 20 bishops, who was descended from Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazor, and around whose hospitable table 30,000 guests could eat at a sitting."

power stone of the middle ages
In addition to its power to effect chastity, lapis was the "power stone" of the Middle Ages in other ways.
Thought to confer ability, success, divine favor, and ancient wisdom as well as cure sore throats, according to William Rowland, translator of The Complete Chemical Dispensatory in the 1600's, lapis:

"...purgeth chiefly melancholy, cures quartans, apoplexies, epilepsies, diseases of the spleen, and many forms of dementia. It is worn about the neck for an amulet to drive away frights from children; it strengthens the sight, prevents fainting, and abortion [miscarriage], but it must be removed near the time of delivery lest it keep up the child."

the pricey pigment
Used as a pigment most extensively in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the secret behind some of the most beautiful Renaissance-inspired paintings was ground lapis lazuli. Florentine painter Cennino Cennini (1370-1440), author of a craftsman's manual ca. 1390, describing painter's pigments and how they might be obtained, made and used, said:

"Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass."

ground ultramarine, finished product
photo: ultramarine

Mixed with oil to create a vibrant blue hue known as ultramarine, lapis was the main ingredient in the prized pricey pigment used in the Sistine Chapel -- or anywhere else painters needed vivid sea and sky colors up to the nineteenth century.
Science writer, Philip Ball explains:

"Ultramarine was precious not just because it was a rare import, but because it was extremely laborious to make.

"Most mineral pigments were made simply by grinding them up: this was how a green was made from the copper ore malachite, for instance. But if you grind up lapis lazuli, it turns a disappointing gray color because of the impurities it contains.

"These impurities have to be separated, which is done by kneading the powdered mineral with wax and washing the wax in water - the blue pigment flushes out into the water. This has to be done again and again to purify the pigment fully."

revenge, best served cold
Catherine-Th�r�se de Matignon (1662 - 1699), Marquise de Lonray, veuve de Seignelay, instructed the painter Pierre Mignard (1612-1695) -- First Painter to Louis XIV -- to portray her as the sea-nymph Thetis. The Marquise had been widowed the year before the portrait and cruel court gossips had spread word that she was bankrupt, ruined, through at court.

The painting's brilliant effect depends in large measure on the vast expanse of Thetis' best ultramarine-blue cloak, contrasting wonderfully with the coral and pearls in the Marquise's hair, as well as the mauves and greens of Achilles' garments.

Ultramarine was the costliest of pigments, more expensive than gold itself and for that reason seldom used by this date, and never in such quantities. Thus did Mme de Seignelay confound the rumors put about by 'mauvaises langues' (wicked gossips) that she was financially destitute.
lapis in the palace
Like labradorite, lapis lazuli's unique blue has made it a favorite architectural stone. Nowhere has it been more popular than in color-mad Russia where the bright blue stone has been used extensively in palaces, cathedrals, and public works in St. Petersburg and Moscow, often paired with bright green malachite.
russian mosaic
Russian craftsmen evolved a novel method of using thin layers of minerals such as lapis lazuli or malachite called "Russian mosaic."

Both lapis and malachite, which usually occur as huge boulders, were cut into thin slabs that would then be carefully fit together. Used to cover large surfaces, craftsmen were so skilled the end result gave an impression of solid stone.

This method was used to decorate many mantel-pieces in the Pavlovsk Palace, the Malachite Room in the St Petersburg Winter Palace, paneling and tables in the Catherine Palace, the columns of the iconostasis in St Isaacs's Cathedral and a great number of excellent malachite vases now in the Hermitage Museum.

One of the most splendid buildings in St. Petersburg is the magnificent Baroque-style Winter Palace on the bank of the Neva River, home to a series of czars until the Russian Revolution in 1917. Containing 1,786 doors; 1,945 windows; and 1,057 halls and rooms, the palace's stunning interior is gilded with tons of lapis, jasper, malachite and marble.
st. isaacs

two lapis columns in between larger malachite columns
photo: tickets of russia

The present version of St. Isaac's Cathedral is the fourth iteration, constructed 1818-1858. Its two-hundred foot gilded iconostasis (the icon wall that separates the altar from the rest of the church), is supported by ten massive columns, eight of which are lined with malachite and two of which are lined with lapis.

Once St. Petersburg's main church, St. Isaac's was designed to accommodate 14,000 standing worshipers and is the second largest church in Russia. (The recently rebuilt Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow is now larger but St. Isaac's is still the fourth largest single-domed cathedral in the world.)
stalin's soviet dream
Four hundred and thirty five miles to the east, in Moscow, is the 1930's art-deco wonder, the Moskva Hotel. Its mammoth restaurant, designed to seat 1,172 guests, is supported by a huge number of columns, each completely covered with either bright green malachite or dark blue lapis.
Unfortunately, for the historically minded, the Moskva, created as "a new wonder of the world" during the Stalinist period, is being gutted and renovated and there is no guarantee as to what will remain.
the people's palaces
Moscow's rightly world-famous underground Metro -- a grand paean to Russia's own natural-stone materials, executed with art-deco elegance and grace -- is more reminiscent of an Emperor's palace than a public works project; in fact, its stations, each with its own theme, have been called "the people's palaces."

Opening its first thirteen-station line in 1935, the Metro displays the best of Soviet architecture and design.

The Ploschad Revolutsii (Revolution Place) Station which opened in March 1938, has seventy-six larger-than-life bronze statues of soldiers, workers and collective farm workers set back in niches among its malachite- and lapis-faced columns and pillars.
vanished from the vaults
Meanwhile, not that distant yet worlds away, lapis is one of the few assets of a cash-strapped quasi-government in Afghanistan.

old building in the namak mandi
photo: gems-afghan

Unfortunately for President Hamid Karzai, soon after the Taliban collapsed in 2001, Afghanistan's new government discovered that ten tons of gem quality stone, amassed during the 1933-73 reign of former king Mohammad Zahir Shah, had mysteriously vanished from vaults at the old presidential palace.
Among the prime suspects in the theft are the Taliban, who fled Kabul ahead of U.S. ground troops in November 2001, and the Northern Alliance who raced to the capital on their heels, in their bid for power.
One of the biggest challenges to Karzai's weak government will be to gain control of lapis mines belonging to the state -- but which are now in the hands of regional warlords and their heavily armed militias. The warlords are thought to pocket up to a minimum of $5 million a year from sales of Afghanistan's ancient blue stone.