Reviewed By Andreas Zabczyk May 05, 2016 Updated Aug 16, 2017
Afghanistan, Ancient Eurasian Gemstone Source
Afghanistan: Ancient Source of Lapis Lazuli
The Central Asian country of Afghanistan is not just a war-torn nation, but is a place of beauty with a long and interesting history. Afghanistan stands between Asia and Europe and is bordered by Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. The Hindu Kush Mountain Range stretches from the northeast, from the border between Tajikistan and Pakistan, and divides Afghanistan into three main areas with the capital city, Kabul, situated in the east. In ancient times, Kabul was part of the First Persian Empire (also known as the Achaemenid Empire), which was invaded by Alexander the Great. Since Afghanistan is on the ancient Silk Road, it has been an important connection between civilizations for thousands of years. Part of the Silk Road is formed by the Khyber Pass, which connects Afghanistan to Pakistan through part of the Hindu Khush known as the Spin Ghar Mountains. The Afghanistan climate ranges from snow covered mountains, evergreen forest and almond and peach groves to arid desert. In addition to its diverse landscape and strategic location, Afghanistan is blessed with rich mineral deposits. The main sources of gemstone material in Afghanistan are located in the Hindu Kush Mountains to the north of Kabul. The areas in which gems are mined include the Panjshir Valley, Badakhshan, Jegdalek in Kabul Province and Nuristan.
One of the most historically significant gemstone materials of Afghanistan and the first that comes to mind is lapis lazuli; a blue rock that is mainly composed of lazurite, calcite and pyrite. The area of Badakhshan, where pistachio and almond nuts grow is a world-famous location for lapis lazuli and has been the leading supplier for over 6,000 years. The prized blue stone was used by the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians and the Achaemenids, who created the Oxus Treasure; a fantastic collection of golden objects found by the Oxus River, which lies between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, around 1877. The ultramarine pigment of lapis lazuli was described by a Medieval Italian artist as "the most perfect blue". Sary-Sang (also spelled "Sari-Sang") Mine in the Kokcha Valley of Badakhshan produces around 9,000 kg of the beautiful blue stone per year. Most of the lapis is then processed in Pakistan. Namak Mandi in Peshawar is where the Gem Exchange is located; a center for gemstone trade and exhibitions in Pakistan. From Pakistan, the gems are disseminated throughout the world. It is amazing that the lapis lazuli of Badakhshan has been sustained for so many years when other deposits have been depleted.
The Panjshir Valley to the southwest of Badakhshan is said to be a place of great natural beauty, with vineyards, apricot and mulberry orchards. The Panjshir River flows through the province, providing water for the people and flora. Gem mining in this area is not as well-documented or as high-volume as the activity in Badakhshan, yet fine emeralds may have been mined from the Panjshir Valley mountains for thousands of years. These are said to rival the very best Colombian and Zambian emeralds. However, the rudimentary way in which they are mined using dynamite tends to damage the crystals, which could be why large Afghan emeralds are extremely scarce. The deposits are in remote parts of the mountains which are peppered with land mines. Beryl that is not quite green enough to be defined as emerald is also mined in this area along with tourmaline.
To the south of Badakhshan is Nuristan Province which borders Pakistan in the southern region of the Hindu Kush. The people of Nuristan were not always devotees of Islam, and the area was previously known as "Kafiristan", or "Land of the Infidels" until they were converted in the late 1800s, when the name was changed to "Land of the Enlightened" - Nuristan (also spelled "Nooristan"). Despite being mineral-rich with deposits of gems including tourmaline, kunzite, hiddenite, aquamarine and morganite, this region of Afghanistan is largely impassable and most of the mining areas must be reached by foot. Nuristan lacks development and most of the people survive by farming goats or growing cereal and other crops such as pomegranate, walnuts, grapes and mulberries. Some of the gem-quality crystals mined in this area are very large indeed and highly sought-after by mineral collectors. The gemstone materials are high quality and show great variation in color. For example, tourmaline from Nuristan can be colorless, multicolored, green, pink, blue and other colors, including highly prized deep pinkish-red rubellite tourmaline. Moreover, spodumene gems (kunzite, yellow spodumene, hiddenite and morganite) from this region are said to be among the best specimens ever discovered.
Jegdalek is a mountainous area to the southeast of Kabul. Like the Panjshir Valley, the mountains are mined for gemstones, but in this area, it is not emeralds, but rubies that are found in the marbled mountains. Like the emeralds of Afghanistan, the rubies are of fine quality and their history is not as prolific or famous as that of lapis lazuli. This is surprising considering that Jegdalek is only about 60 kilometers from Kabul, though the journey is long and tortuous due to the difficult terrain; the road to Jegdalek is not a smooth, tarmacked one. Many of the rubies of Jegdalek are mined from trenches and then taken to be traded in Peshawar. The mining in this area is easier than more northerly regions because the lower altitude allows for less harsh weather and mining throughout the year in all seasons. The best gems are exported directly to Europe. Corundum that is too pale to be called ruby is traded as pink sapphire. Blue sapphire is also mined from Jegdalek in addition to kunzite.
As can be seen from the above, the mountains of Afghanistan contain a wealth of colored gemstones. If the gemstone industry in Afghanistan can be better developed and organized so that both miners and the government work together and support each other, it could bring financial benefit to the country and lead to an improved quality of life for the people of Afghanistan. With regard to colored stones, the country has some of the best quality products in the world, so the nation should be able to harness much-needed capital for supplying these valuable gems to the global market. Most of the gems of Afghanistan are transported as rough to Pakistan where they are sold at low prices; however, Afghan cutters are processing more stones in Kabul than in previous decades, including women. The Afghan government is committed to the development of the gem and jewelry industry, the future of which is bright. When it comes to Afghan gems, the past was blue and the future is multicolored and multifaceted.
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