• Tue. Mar 21st, 2023

The Brilliantly Blue Lapis Lazuli: Precious Gem Prized by Elites


Nov 12, 2022

Within the current previous, a gem that’s considered extra treasured than even gold, the elusive lapis lazuli , has obtained a nasty popularity for being a supply of unlawful mining by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The sensible, lovely blue stone, mined from a small space of the Kokcha River valley within the distant Afghani province of Badakhshan for almost 10,000 years, has repeatedly featured in historical past’s grandest civilizations – from the Indus Valley to Egypt.

The Etymology and Science of Lapis Lazuli

The title lapis lazuli comes from the Latin phrase lapis, which suggests stone, and the Persian phrase lazhuward, which means blue. In Arabic, lazaward, means heaven or sky. The Romans known as it sapphirus, which was in reference to the blindingly blue stone. The truth is, the English phrase azure, Portuguese azul and the Italian azzurro are cognates of the identical, rooted within the blue of lazuli.

This vivid, darkish blue stone happens in nature, just like the twilight sky or the deepest ocean depths. It’s generally graced with specks of pyrite, or idiot’s gold, which sparkle like tiny stars. Lapis happens in crystalline marble as a result of contact metamorphism, and the identical Afghani mine in operation at the moment was chargeable for supplying lapis to the traditional Sumerians, Harappans, and Egyptians.

Crystals of lazurite (the primary mineral in lapis lazuli) from the Sar-i Sang mine in Afghanistan, the place lapis lazuli has been mined for the reason that seventh millennium BC (Didier Descouens / CC BY SA 4.0 )

Lapis Lazuli’s Worldwide Commerce

The presence of lapis at these websites helped verify that some type of worldwide, inter-continental commerce occurred way back to 2000 BC – round 4,000 years in the past. From the Sar-e-Sang mine deposits in northeastern Afghanistan, the lapis traveled all around the world, ultimately reaching even the traditional Greeks and Romans.

The traditional Egyptians have been in a position to receive lapis by buying and selling with the Mesopotamians. In the course of the top of the Indus Valley (Harappan) civilization, a buying and selling colony for lapis was established close to the lapis mines in Shortugai, near the Oxus River.

This was the northernmost settlement of the Harappan civilization, with archaeological stays of beads made from lapis discovered right here, amongst different artifacts. The artisans of the Indus Valley civilization made lovely carvings out of those, and retailers would commerce them with distant lands and civilizations.

In historic Egypt, it was a favourite stone for amulets and scarabs, amongst different ornaments. The truth is, Egyptian burial websites earlier than 3,000 BC include 1000’s of jewellery objects made from lapis. Rich Egyptian ladies would use powdered lapis as eye shadow. Reportedly, it was Cleopatra’s favourite eye shadow colour. Moreover, it was used as inlays for outlines, eyebrows, and a collar of beads across 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)

The well-known funerary masks of Tutankhamun, 18th-dynasty historic Egyptian Pharaoh, utilized massive quantities of lapis lazuli (Roland Unger / CC BY SA 3.0 )

There’s a reference to lapis within the one hundred and fortieth chapter of the Egyptian Book of the Dead , a seminal historic funerary textual content written on papyrus. In response to this chapter, lapus lazuli within the form of a watch set in gold was thought of an amulet of nice energy. On the final day of each month, an providing was made earlier than the symbolic eye , as they believed a supreme being positioned a picture 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)

Egyptian Wedjat eye, or Eye of Horus, amulet of lapis azuli, circa 664-332 BC (Metropolitan Museum of Artwork / Public Domain )

In close by Mesopotamia, close to the Euphrates River in decrease Iraq, the traditional royal Sumerian tombs of Ur include an enormous lapis treasure trove. Lapis statuettes of birds, deer, and rodents, together with dishes, beads, cylinder seals have been discovered, 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)

The ornate ‘Commonplace of Ur’ is likely one of the many spectacular items from the Royal Tombs of Ur. It’s a hole wood field inlaid with scenes of struggle and peace, utilizing lapis lazuli. Peace aspect proven. ( Public Domain )

“In historic Sumer,” wrote Scott Cunningham in his  Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem, and Metal Magic , “lapis lazuli has timeless associations” with royalty and deities. Individuals believed the stone contained “the soul of the deity, who would ‘rejoice in its proprietor.’”

Lapis Lazuli Cylinder Seal recovered from the royal cemetery of Ur, Iraq 2550-2450 BCE (Mary Harrsch / CC BY 2.0)

Lapis Lazuli Cylinder Seal recovered from the royal cemetery of Ur, Iraq 2550-2450 BCE (Mary Harrsch / CC BY 2.0 )

Lapis in Standard Tradition and Lore

Lengthy earlier than the advance of recent drugs and medical science, lapis was thought of to have medicinal properties. To make it medicinal, it was floor down, blended with milk, and utilized as a dressing for boils and ulcers. Afterward, the traditional Romans believed that lapis had highly effective aphrodisiac properties (the Romans have been indiscriminate concerning the issues they thought of as aphrodisiacs).

By the point of the Center Ages (also called the Darkish Ages), lapis lazuli was believed to maintain the limbs wholesome, and the soul protected against malicious spirits that triggered error, envy, and worry. Unsurprisingly, even at the moment, it’s thought of an awesome emotional healer in plenty of cultures, seen as a non secular drive that helps struggle nervousness, melancholy, grief, and unhappiness.

Lapis lazuli ring stone from post-classical Rome (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain)

Lapis lazuli ring stone from post-classical Rome (Metropolitan Museum of Artwork / Public Domain )

One other proof from the time of the Mesopotamians is the point out of lapis within the Epic of Gilgamesh, typically believed to be the primary famous work of literature. Extraordinarily influential even for later writers, it was written round 1800 BC, and references lapis typically.

In one of many key scenes from the narrative, King Gilgamesh returned to Uruk after a battle; he was being pursued by Ishtar, the goddess of affection and struggle. Ishtar tried to woo Gilgamesh by providing him, amongst different issues, a chariot made from lapis lazuli with golden wheels.

After Gilgamesh spurned Ishtar’s advances, she despatched the Bull of Heaven to kill him. The bull was in the end slayed by the king and a companion of his. Vitally, the bull had horns made from lapis, which Gilgamesh admired, minimize off, and used to adorn his palace.

Lapis Lazuli in Artwork

Lapis lazuli was a extremely desired pigment when floor into finer mud by painters in Europe through the thirteenth and 14th centuries, used to make ultramarine. By the second half of the sixteenth century, massive objects carved from lapis began showing in Italy, with one of many facilities of manufacturing in Milan – the primary of many.

Craftsmen from Milan have been introduced into Florence within the early 1570s, with gorgeous and beautiful items showing all by the 1570s and 1580s in Florence. This was on the behest of the Medici household, the grandest patrons of the humanities and finance in that a part of the world. One of many Medici brothers, Ferdinand, had spent a few years in Rome, and bought a tremendous style for intricately laid tabletops.

Much more expert craftspeople have been employed to trend these tabletops, who have been in a position to absolutely exploit lapis and its pure patterns – enabling beautiful foam-flecked seas and skies with billowing clouds (seen in “View of the Port of Livorno” and “Tuscan Panorama”, amongst different notable works).

The colour blue was vital for a lot of causes within the classical Roman world. It was fastidiously averted as a result of it was related to the physique paint and apparel of the so-called barbarians. Nevertheless, as a result of its lack of connections with pagan non secular associations, the depiction of the Virgin Mary in blue grew to become in style from the twelfth century onwards. Ultramarine was used for this, famend for its distinctive colour and stability within the face of solar publicity.

One of the earliest examples portraying the Virgin Mary in lapis lazuli blue was the Wilton Diptych, circa 1399 (National Gallery UK / Public Domain)

One of many earliest examples portraying the Virgin Mary in lapis lazuli blue was the Wilton Diptych, circa 1399 (Nationwide Gallery UK / Public Domain )

At this time, lapis lazuli has sadly been tainted as a result of its affiliation with the Taliban. Over the previous decade, the Taliban has been illegally mining the stone, promoting it by extra-legal strategies, fueling an increase in mining. Whereas lapis lazuli stays treasured and extremely coveted, like so-called blood diamonds, commerce on this gem is approaching a degree the place moral sourcing needs to be a priority.

Prime picture: Unpolished lapis lazuli from Badakhshan province, Afghanistan. Supply: Björn Wylezich / Adobe Inventory

By Sahir Pandey

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