Lazurite, variety lapis lazuli, w/pyrite and calcite. 3NaAlSiO4*CaSO4. Locality: Kafiristan, Afghanistan. Housed in the Dartmouth College Earth Sciences department’s Mineralogical Collections.
Over nine thousand years ago, preceding the construction of the pyramids at Giza and the ancient city of Babylon, high, high up in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan a blue stone was discovered nuzzled between strata of marble and schist. This stone was a color humans had only previously seen in the sea and sky, but not on the earthly plain. Finding a stone of such a rich and striking blue—lazurite—the observer couldn’t help but wrest it from the earth. The deep blue stone, laced with the calcite white of clouds and the pyrite shine of the stars must have boggled the minds and imaginations when first discovered, cleaned up, polished, inlaid and carved. Miners carried supplies 1,100 feet along a zig-zag path up a steep mountainside, which had to be reconstructed each spring after its annual erasure by rain and snow. The mine shafts yawned open 100 feet high, shrouded in the black dust from extractions past. Miners lit small fires on the cool, sooty rock face until this seemingly immutable material fractured from the marble matrix, and fell into the hands of miners keen on obtaining the precious mineral.
Some evidence exists of ancient Afghanis crafting the stone into their own artwork. Lapis lazuli ornaments from the late 4th millennium BC were unearthed in Mudiak, Afghanistan. But it was in fact in its exchange, in its high aesthetic, cultural, and religious valuation from far-away civilizations—Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Mediterranean Europe—that lapis lazuli proliferated so substantially throughout our material culture, and remains the reason why it is so widespread today. From the mines, lapis was transported on trails to the north or to the south, following the Kokcha River and through the Iranian towns of Jurum and Faizabad, later coming to join the Great Khorasan highway at Balkh, a road which eventually became a fragment of the Silk Road. From this road, lapis was then transported to the great civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Mediterranean. In Ancient Mesopotamia, the earliest recorded specimen of lapis lazuli appeared in the late Ubaid period, around 3500 BC, and in Egypt, the first lapis appeared at the beginning of the fourth millennium.
Thus, lapis formed the material foundation for a complex geopolitical entanglement that connected these ancient civilizations. Not only was the trade of lapis lazuli affected by changes in national policies between nations, but it was also used as a gift to mediate relations between nations. Its threads of export and trade, therefore, were also a means of tracing wealth, leisure, and power. Mesopotamian kings dispatched emissaries to acquire the stone in foreign trade missions. Other ancient texts refer to 22kgs of unworked lapis found in the third millennium at the palace of Ebla in Egypt. The trace of lapis in the archaeological record, how it winnowed out, and alternately, proliferated, also showed how interconnected and interdependent the matrix of trade and wealth was in the ancient world. Lapis, for example, disappears from the archaeological record in both Mesopotamia and Egypt at the exact same time, then promptly reappears again, showing the cascading effects of a clog in the supply chain from its origins in Afghanistan.
Other minerals also circulated throughout the ancient world during this time period. In the late Ubaid period of ancient Mesopotamia, turquoise, amethyst, agate, jadeite, and beryl were also common minerals. However, most of these stones were mined on the Iranian plateau, while lapis, a rarer mineral, had to be transported all the way from Afghanistan. This distant origin of lapis didn’t seem to curb its popularity; in fact it seemed to only enhance the allure and exoticism of this stone.
Perhaps because of the geographically distant origin of lapis, many texts from antiquity seem to confuse the true origin of the lapis specimens they describe. The account of one Persian official writes of lapis mines in Persia, although evidence from the National Iranian Oil Company seems to suggest that there is no evidence of metamorphic limestone in that area. Some Assyrian texts suggest that lapis originated in the mountains, though which mountains they are is never specified. “Lapis-lazuli occurs in the territory of Arieni in Media,” writes German medieval scholar Agricola in his Naturalis Historia. Media, however, is another region in Iran in which lapis is not known to originate. Ole Worm, in his famous catalog of his early modern cabinet of wonders writes that lapis, in its powdered form of ultramarine, comes from an “eastern” region “overseas,” and is “more precious than gold.”
Due to the mysterious distant geographical origin of lapis, ancient thinkers across the Mediterranean basin were able to conjure alternate identities for the stone. Lapis was frequently associated with the divine realm, the mineral said to be both created by and constituting the bodies of deities. Lapis was thought to occupy this strange, in-between space, bordered on one side by humans, and on the other side by the heavens. In ancient times, for example, lapis was associated with the ‘middle heavens,’ and, alternatively, the break of day. This led lapis to become associated with notions of birth and rebirth, both in a physical and a metaphorical sense. The etymology of the word lapis gives important insight into where ancient people thought lapis originated. Lapis is the Latin word for stone, and lazuli is the genitive form of the medieval Latin lazulum, which finds its origin in turn from the Arabic and Persian words for “sky” or “heaven.” So, lapis lazuli translates to “stone of/from the sky,” or, alternatively, the “stone of/from heaven.” This mystical blue mineral therefore, is well-named, considering where ancient cultures believed lapis to originate.
Lapis, additionally, wasn’t seen just as a stone that was associated with powerful forces, but, rather possessing its own power, almost like it was a deity inhabiting the stone itself. From Mesopotamia to early modern Europe, the deep blue lapis held a powerful charge of its own, deeply embedded within various ancient concepts of purity, fertility, and divine communion, and many cultures believed that the stone itself could bestow powers such as these upon the user, if one were to touch stone to skin. It was a vehicle through which one might talk to the gods, a magical object that could bestow fertility upon the wearer; an amulet that gods would use to protect themselves in journeys to the underworld. Indeed, in ancient days lapis seemed to be the stone that strutted the boundaries between life and death, between conception and birth, between day and night, between the divine and the human, and between heaven and the underworld.
Maybe the mysterious, easterly origin of lapis helped inspire these divine associations. As French Egyptologist Sydney Aufère writes:
“Lapis lazuli does not come from the deserts bordering Egypt; it is a stone imported from Afghanistan. Egypt has undoubtedly borrowed with this midnight blue mineral its procession of symbols relating to fertility widespread throughout the Near East where precious stones are particularly appreciated and are the subject of a particular approach revealed by cuneiform literature. Coming from the East… it proceeds from the moon, capricious and wandering, which disseminates abroad the precious minerals with which it is filled… which underlie its because minerals are minerals are, as a text from Edfu specifies, the precious minerals from the god, namely the divine members unknown to foreign countries. Its name, hsbd... could originate… from the region where it was mined: Badakhshan… which underlie its deeper meaning, beyond its nocturnal value, reflects the idea of birth or rebirth.” (Aufère 1991)
Ancient thinkers knew that lapis originated somewhere toward the east, and therefore were able to ascribe to the stone a profound association they had with that cartographical direction: the significant daily passage of night to dawn. Egyptian tradition attributes lapis this exact quality (see section 3); the sun-god Ra, which guides his solar chariot over the sky, is made of pure lapis and gold.
This association between lapis and the East may also help us understand various interpretations of the stone's materiality. Lapis, unlike other stones, is difficult to describe. While other stones were easily likened to botanical elements ranging from leeks to lemons, lapis is devoid of any earth-borne analog. Instead, the richness of the blue, the glinting pyrite (so prized among ancient civilizations) called to mind the deep blue sky before dawn, a sentiment that extended from the ancient Mesopotamians all the way to humanist Georgius Agricola, who writes in his De Natura Fossilium, “Lapis lazuli especially resembles the heavens because of the golden points which represent the stars.”
Lapis occupies a liminal space between the mortal and the divine, between day and night, between birth and rebirth; between empirical science and mythically-embedded observation. But because the appreciation of lapis lazuli straddles the overlap between the two, it seems to endow a much richer narrative on this blue stone than almost any other gemstone. Lapis permeates space and time, from the burial grounds of Ur to the eyebrows of King Tut to the rings of ancient Romans; from the depths of the underworld to the middle-heaven; put simply, the discovery of lapis lazuli changed the way we see the world, and challenges the strict boundaries with which we describe the geological world in science today.
Selected Works Cited
Aufère, Sydney. “L'Univers minéral Dans La pensée égyptienne.” Le Caire : Institut français d'archéologie Orientale, 1991.
Herrmann, Georgina. “Lapis Lazuli: The Early Phases of Its Trade.” Iraq, vol. 30, no. 1, 1968, p. 21., https://doi.org/10.2307/4199836.
Huang, He. “The Route of Lapis Lazuli: Lapis Lazuli Trade from Afghanistan to Egypt during Mid-Late Bronze Age.” Proceedings of the 2018 4th Annual International Conference on Modern Education and Social Science (MESS 2018), 2018, https://doi.org/10.2991/mess-18.2018.73.
Majidzadeh, Y. “Lapis Lazuli and the Great Khorasan Road.” Paléorient, vol. 8, no. 1, 1982, pp. 59–69., https://doi.org/10.3406/paleo.1982.4309.
Sarianidi, V.I., and Luba H Kowalski. “The Lapis Lazuli Route in the Ancient East.” Archaeology, vol. 24, no. 1, Jan. 1971, pp. 12–15.