Lapis lazuli (or ladjword, or azure) mines in Afghanistan, near Russian border: the route to them
by horseback was east from Balkh by Kunduz (in the Kunduz river plain) into Badakhshan, south
up Kokcha river past Faizabad to the mine-site. This was the only ancient source of lapis lazuli--high up in the valley of the River Kokcha, in the Hindu Kush mountains. In ancient Seistan
(adjacent to the mines) fragments of lapis lazuli seem to have been used for foreign exchange.
This area was mentioned by Hsien Tsang as the tiny state of Koran; Arab geographers also
In the 1870's, one Captain John Wood--an European traveler exploring the backwoods of
Afghanistan--hiked in to the mine-site and explored. The spot could only be reached on foot, as
an earthquake in 1832 had destroyed the road.
Where the lapis deposit occurs, the Kokcha valley is about 200 feet wide; the mine entrance was
in the face of the mountain, on the right bank of the stream, about 1500 feet above the Kokcha
river in a formation of black and white limestone. It was only the latest of a whole series of lapis
mines. Entering (Wood writes) he walked down a sloping shaft to the gallery; this was about
eighty paces long and descended gently, terminating in a hole twenty feet around and twenty feet
deep. The mine's roof was about twelve feet above the floor, but no pillars or bracing had been
put in, and earthfalls and accidents were sadly frequent; in some places the roof had fallen in so
badly that a visitor needed to crawl forward on hands and knees. Wood remarked that the roof
was formed by detached rocks wedged together, and appeared very dangerous.
Extracting the lapis was simply done. Under the spot to be quarried, a fire of furze was kindled. When the heat softened the rock, the workmen went in with hammers and beat the mine-face, knocking off flakes till they discovered a piece of lapis. They then grooved the area around the lapis, cutting deeply, and used crow-bars to break off the stone and its matrix. The mine was worked in the winter, by compulsory labor; the local miners, also being local farmers, had to tend their fields during the summer. The workings were more-or-less abandoned in 1832 (at the same time that the nearby balas ruby mines lapsed into disuse). When Wood was in the area, lapis was still being mined sporadically, but the local sheikh no longer bothered to organize parties of miners and make them work, because the yield was too low to merit the effort.
The lapis miners listed the qualities of the lapis or ladjword stone, from finest to worst: neeli, or
indigo color; asmani, or light blue; and finally susvi or green. They said that the richest colors
were found in the darkest rock, and the nearer the river they delved, the purer the stone they
Apparently from this one area, lapis was exported all the way to Egypt; this was the source of all
Egypt's lapis, according to the Egyptians themselves. No other source was known to the
antique world. Nor was this a small thing, to bring the lapis to Egypt! Look at an atlas. The
Egyptians loved lapis lazuli; they used it in their jewelry and artwork literally since the beginning
of history, buying it at a town known to them as Tefrer. Tefrer has been identified by
Egyptologists as the ancient city of Sippar in Mesopotamia; the lapis sold at Sippar came from
Bactria, which is to say, the mines in Afghanistan. It would have been shipped down the Indus
and hence to the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and then brought upriver to Sippar.
The 'boats' on which it traveled might have been the ancient Mesopotamian wooden barges which
were buoyed up by dozens of inflated goatskins. The other routes from Bactria are all overland,
in which case the lapis shipments would have traveled via donkey-back, over mountains and
There is a stele in the Louvre museum which tells a tale from Egypt's New Kingdom. The date:
around 1400 B.C. Egypt's Pharaoh (there is some debate as to which Pharaoh, but it was
probably Tuthmosis IV) received a visit from no less a dignitary than the King of Bakhtan (or
Bactria) offering both magnificent gifts and also the hand of his daughter in marriage; the king
sought an alliance between Egypt and Bakhtan. Pharaoh accepted the gifts, the alliance, and the
princess . . . and, some time later, an envoy from Bakhtan came to Thebes, with a plea for
Pharaoh; the princess' sister, in their home kingdom far away, was sick and required an expert
physician. (At this time, the services of Egyptian doctors were eagerly sought outside Egypt.)
Pharaoh sent one physician, and then a second (neither doctor succeeding to heal the patient) and
then, finally, the last resort: the image of the god Khonsou, master of destinies. The god was
embarked with a fleet of five Egyptian ships from Egyptian ports on the Red Sea; for a year and
five months he traveled, to reach the kingdom of Bakhtan. Here the god remained for a further
three years and eight months, and then--presumably, having healed the long-suffering royal lady--was sent home to Egypt, along with an escort of Bactrian soldiers on horseback, and many
presents from the grateful king. All told, from the first envoy's plea to Pharaoh to the god's
triumphant return, eighteen years had passed.
Sources: Journey to the Source of the Oxus, by Captain John Wood, first published in 1972;
Pierre Montet, Everyday Life in Egypt in the Days of Ramesses the Great.
Balas or balass rubies: these were spinels, probably, but have been known as balas rubies for a
long, long time. They were distinctive for their rose-red color, and used to be mined in
Afghanistan and sold throughout Europe and the Muslim empire. Eventually the name 'balas
ruby' became applied to any rose-red or pink gem.
The original source appears to have been the ruby mines of Gharan, on the right bank of the Oxus,
in old Badakhshan. They lay about 200 miles north and slightly west of the city of Chitral, on the
northern side of the Hindu Kush range; twenty miles downriver from a town called Ish-kashm;
about 200 miles due east of Kunduz. Marco Polo mentioned them, saying that their profit was
in the royal possession. The azure or lapis lazuli mines were about 100 miles distant, and in the
eighteen-hundreds one Captain John Wood was in the area, inquiring, and asked about them.
The word 'gharan' signified mines or caves. The mine entrances faced the river, but were said to
be 1200 feet above its level; the shafts ran back into a mountain of red sandstone or limestone,
and digging them was like digging through sand. The only drawbacks which miners faced were
a) water filtering into the shafts from above, and b) the smoke from their lamps, for which there
was no exit. The rubies were found in seams or whitish blotches; large stones always lay within
large nodules of matrix. The mines were abandoned, so Wood was told, within a century of his
visit to Afghanistan.
Source: Journey to the Source of the Oxus, by Captain John Wood.
Turquoises of the town of Nishapur, northern Persia. These were mined in the neighborhood,
and ground and polished in the workshops of the city. The unwrought stones were grey, only
acquiring their proper sky-blue hue after several polishings. Unfortunately, most travelers were
unaware that many of the turquoises of Nishapur faded a few days after being polished. The
inexperienced were often defrauded by this phenomenon; pilgrims who bought brilliant azure
turquoises in Nishapur, get home and threw away their faded trophies in disgust. Source:
Ancient gold mines in Uzbekistan. High up through tortuous goat-trails near the Ferghana
valley, Uzbekistan, were caves which the local Kirghiz nomads told legends about; they said that
the spirits hid vast quantities of gold in them. Count Pahlen, a Russian official touring the area,
visited them in 1909. He describes riding to a very high plateau, where his party found an
artificially enlarged entrance to a cave, and then a tunnel leading downward, terminating in a flight
of steep stone steps. Each step was well over a metre in depth. After descending some time
(holding candles high to light their way) they arrived at a narrow passage and then a second cave
with a domed ceiling. The ground was perfectly dry and the walls glittered like peacock ore--with red and blue veins running down them, and yellow streaks resembling gold. An Ukrainian
prospector led Pahlen there; he said he had been led to the cave by Kirghiz, had enlarged the
entrance and then discovered the stone steps leading down; miners at some unknown time had
already worked the caves. There was an old pick-head still lying on the ground, and the
remnants of a collapsed shaft. The pick worked like high-quality steel; the Ukrainian said he had
it analyzed and discovered it was an alloy of iron with uranium! At that time, the mine was
being worked for uranium, which was shipped to St Petersburg for refining. Pahlen and the
Ukrainian were of the opinion that the mine had been worked by Chinese colonists who used the
uranium to better their iron tools; the workings had been abandoned by them, perhaps due to
some political upheaval; Pahlen remarked that this must have happened at the time when the
Chinese were driven out by the nomads, approximately 2000 BC. (What history does he know
that Westerners don't?)
Source: Mission to Turkestan, by Count Pahlen; an account of the Count's official visit to
Uzbekistan on behalf of the central government in Russia, 1908-1909.
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Last Updated October 8, 2000 by Sylvia