The Brilliantly Blue Lapis Lazuli: Precious Gem Prized by Elites
In the recent past, a gem that is thought to be more precious than even gold, the elusive lapis lazuli, has received a bad reputation for being a source of illegal mining by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The brilliant, beautiful blue stone, mined from a small area of the Kokcha River valley in the remote Afghani province of Badakhshan for nearly 10,000 years, has repeatedly featured in history’s grandest civilizations – from the Indus Valley to Egypt.
The Etymology and Science of Lapis Lazuli
The name lapis lazuli comes from the Latin word lapis, which means stone, and the Persian word lazhuward, meaning blue. In Arabic, lazaward, means heaven or sky. The Romans called it sapphirus, which was in reference to the blindingly blue stone. In fact, the English word azure, Portuguese azul and the Italian azzurro are cognates of the same, rooted in the blue of lazuli.
This vivid, dark blue stone occurs in nature, like the twilight sky or the deepest ocean depths. It is sometimes graced with specks of pyrite, or fool’s gold, which sparkle like tiny stars. Lapis occurs in crystalline marble due to contact metamorphism, and the same Afghani mine in operation today was responsible for supplying lapis to the ancient Sumerians, Harappans, and Egyptians.
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Crystals of lazurite (the main mineral in lapis lazuli) from the Sar-i Sang mine in Afghanistan, where lapis lazuli has been mined since the 7th millennium BC (Didier Descouens / CC BY SA 4.0)
Lapis Lazuli’s Worldwide Trade
The presence of lapis at these sites helped confirm that some form of international, inter-continental trade occurred as far back as 2000 BC – around 4,000 years ago. From the Sar-e-Sang mine deposits in northeastern Afghanistan, the lapis traveled all over the world, eventually reaching even the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The ancient Egyptians were able to obtain lapis by trading with the Mesopotamians. During the height of the Indus Valley (Harappan) civilization, a trading colony for lapis was established near the lapis mines in Shortugai, close to the Oxus River.
This was the northernmost settlement of the Harappan civilization, with archaeological remains of beads made of lapis found here, among other artifacts. The artisans of the Indus Valley civilization made beautiful carvings out of these, and merchants would trade them with distant lands and civilizations.
In ancient Egypt, it was a favorite stone for amulets and scarabs, among other ornaments. In fact, Egyptian burial sites before 3,000 BC contain thousands of jewelry items made of lapis. Wealthy Egyptian women would use powdered lapis as eye shadow. Reportedly, it was Cleopatra’s favorite eye shadow color. Additionally, it was used as inlays for outlines, eyebrows, and a collar of beads around the neck on the mask of Tutankhamen.
The famous funerary mask of Tutankhamun, 18th-dynasty ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, utilized large amounts of lapis lazuli (Roland Unger / CC BY SA 3.0)
There is a reference to lapis in the 140th chapter of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a seminal ancient funerary text written on papyrus. According to this chapter, lapus lazuli in the shape of an eye set in gold was considered an amulet of great power. On the last day of every month, an offering was made before the symbolic eye, as they believed a supreme being placed an image on his head on this very day.
Egyptian Wedjat eye, or Eye of Horus, amulet of lapis azuli, circa 664-332 BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain)
In nearby Mesopotamia, near the Euphrates River in lower Iraq, the ancient royal Sumerian tombs of Ur contain a huge lapis treasure trove. Lapis statuettes of birds, deer, and rodents, along with dishes, beads, cylinder seals were found, displaying exquisitely carvings and craftsmanship.
The ornate ‘Standard of Ur’ is one of the many impressive pieces from the Royal Tombs of Ur. It is a hollow wooden box inlaid with scenes of war and peace, using lapis lazuli. Peace side shown. (Public Domain)
“In ancient Sumer,” wrote Scott Cunningham in his Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem, and Metal Magic, “lapis lazuli has timeless associations” with royalty and deities. People believed the stone contained “the soul of the deity, who would ‘rejoice in its owner.’”
Lapis Lazuli Cylinder Seal recovered from the royal cemetery of Ur, Iraq 2550-2450 BCE (Mary Harrsch / CC BY 2.0)
Lapis in Popular Culture and Lore
Long before the advance of modern medicine and medical science, lapis was considered to have medicinal properties. To make it medicinal, it was ground down, mixed with milk, and applied as a dressing for boils and ulcers. Later on, the ancient Romans believed that lapis had powerful aphrodisiac properties (the Romans were indiscriminate about the things they considered as aphrodisiacs).
By the time of the Middle Ages (also known as the Dark Ages), lapis lazuli was believed to keep the limbs healthy, and the soul protected from malicious spirits that caused error, envy, and fear. Unsurprisingly, even today, it is considered a great emotional healer in a lot of cultures, seen as a spiritual force that helps fight anxiety, depression, grief, and sadness.
Lapis lazuli ring stone from post-classical Rome (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain)
Another evidence from the time of the Mesopotamians is the mention of lapis in the Epic of Gilgamesh, often believed to be the first noted work of literature. Extremely influential even for later writers, it was written around 1800 BC, and references lapis often.
In one of the key scenes from the narrative, King Gilgamesh returned to Uruk after a battle; he was being pursued by Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Ishtar attempted to woo Gilgamesh by offering him, among other things, a chariot made of lapis lazuli with golden wheels.
After Gilgamesh spurned Ishtar’s advances, she sent the Bull of Heaven to kill him. The bull was ultimately slayed by the king and a companion of his. Vitally, the bull had horns made of lapis, which Gilgamesh admired, cut off, and used to adorn his palace.
Lapis Lazuli in Art
Lapis lazuli was a highly desired pigment when ground into finer dust by painters in Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries, used to make ultramarine. By the second half of the 16th century, large objects carved from lapis started appearing in Italy, with one of the centers of production in Milan – the first of many.
Craftsmen from Milan were brought into Florence in the early 1570s, with stunning and exquisite pieces appearing all through the 1570s and 1580s in Florence. This was at the behest of the Medici family, the grandest patrons of the arts and finance in that part of the world. One of the Medici brothers, Ferdinand, had spent many years in Rome, and acquired a fine taste for intricately laid tabletops.
Even more skilled craftspeople were employed to fashion these tabletops, who were able to fully exploit lapis and its natural patterns – enabling exquisite foam-flecked seas and skies with billowing clouds (seen in “View of the Port of Livorno” and “Tuscan Landscape”, among other notable works).
The color blue was significant for a number of reasons in the classical Roman world. It was fastidiously avoided because it was associated with the body paint and attire of the so-called barbarians. However, due to its lack of connections with pagan religious associations, the depiction of the Virgin Mary in blue became popular from the 12th century onwards. Ultramarine was used for this, renowned for its exceptional color and stability in the face of sun exposure.
One of the earliest examples portraying the Virgin Mary in lapis lazuli blue was the Wilton Diptych, circa 1399 (National Gallery UK / Public Domain)
Today, lapis lazuli has unfortunately been tainted due to its association with the Taliban. Over the past decade, the Taliban has been illegally mining the stone, selling it through extra-legal methods, fueling a rise in mining. While lapis lazuli remains precious and highly coveted, like so-called blood diamonds, trade in this gem is approaching a point where ethical sourcing should be a concern.
Top image: Unpolished lapis lazuli from Badakhshan province, Afghanistan. Source: Björn Wylezich / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
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Kenoyer, J.M. 1992. Lapis Lazuli: Beadmaking in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ornament, 15(3). Available at: https://www.harappa.com/sites/default/files/pdf/Kenoyer1992_Lapis%20Lazuli%20Beadmaking%20in%20Afganistan%20and%20Pakist.pdf.
Morris, R.C. August 18, 2015. Lapis Lazuli and the History of ‘the Most Perfect’ Color. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/19/arts/international/lapis-lazuli-and-the-history-of-the-most-perfect-color.html.
Zhang, S. January 9, 2019. Why a Medieval Woman Had Lapis Lazuli Hidden in Her Teeth. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/01/the-woman-with-lapis-lazuli-in-her-teeth/579760/.