Stealing Afghanistan’s ancient treasure

An Afghan warlord is making a fast buck at the expense of his country.

Lapis-lazuliThe Royal Tombs of Ur, located near the Euphrates River and excavated in the late 1920s, contained more than 6,000 beautifully crafted lapis lazuli carvings of birds and deer, as well as dishes, beads, and cylinder seals. These artefacts were undoubtedly made from material mined in northern Afghanistan.

Later Egyptian burial sites dating before 3,000 BCE included thousands of jewellery items, many of lapis. Powdered lapis was favoured by Egyptian ladies as a cosmetic eye shadow and in later years it was used as a pigment for ultramarine (which means “from across the seas”). Pliny the Elder described the stone as “a fragment of the starry firmament”.

Lapis is an intense dark blue. The finest is lightly dusted with small flecks of golden pyrite – fool’s gold. The stone mainly comes the remote Badakhshan area of Northern Afghanistan (formerly Persia) where the Sar-i-Sang mines have been in continuous operation for over 6,000 years. Marco Polo visited the area in the 13th Century and wrote “there is a mountain in that region where the finest azure [lapis lazuli] in the world is found. It appears in veins like silver streaks.”

Ebih-IlLapis lazuli is mentioned in one of the oldest known works of literature, the Mesopotamian poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh” (17-18 BCE). The irises on the Louvre’s strange 2400 BCE alabaster statue of Ebih-II (photo left) from ancient Mari (modern Syria) are made of lapis lazuli as are the eyebrows on the funeral mask of King Tutankhamun (1341-1323 BCE). Cleopatra may have used very finely powdered lapis lazuli for eyeshadow.

Sapphires are mentioned several times in the Old Testament, but most scholars agree that the references are actually to lapis lazuli. The King James Bible reads “As they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone” (Exodus 24:10), which the New International Version renders as “Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.”

According to “Corruption soils Afghanistan’s bright blue treasure” by Justin Rowlatt (BBC News, 6 June 2016), today all mineral resources in Afghanistan are the property of the government. But two years ago the lapis mines of Badakshan were seized by a warlord called Abdul Malik, who now “owns” the mine and is earning millions of dollars a year by charging illegal miners for access to the ancient shafts.

Malik pays the Taliban to keep their noses out and he is protected by top politicians, who also receive cash from the warlord. The campaigning NGO Global Witness estimates that the mining areas controlled by Malik contributed some $20 million to armed groups in 2014 – the same amount the government earned from the entire mining sector in 2013.

Fool’s gold indeed! Afghanistan’s President Ghani has promised to crack down on fraud in the context of a police and judiciary that turn a blind eye to corruption; the State’s failure to deliver basic services (blamed on corruption at all levels); and a lack of integrity among elected officials.

But faced with a multibillion dollar trade in heroin – and now a multimillion dollar trade in lapis lazuli – he has his work cut out. As the Afghan proverb has it, “You can’t hold two water melons in one hand.”

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