Lapis lazuli is a deep blue semi-precious stone that has been highly prized for its vibrant color since ancient times. It is mined in Afghanistan, Chile, and Siberia, and has been used in jewelry, carvings, and as a pigment in art and manuscripts. The stone is made up of a number of minerals, including lazurite, calcite, and pyrite, and is often veined with gold-colored flecks.
In addition to its aesthetic appeal, lapis lazuli is thought to have medicinal and spiritual properties, and has been used in traditional medicine and in spiritual practices around the world. It is a durable and versatile stone that continues to be popular today, both for its beauty and its historical and cultural significance.
Heavenly Blue Lapis Lazuli
The deep heavenly blue of lapis lazuli has earned the affection of mankind since about the 7th millennium BCE. It's virtually impossible to cast our minds' eyes back that far into human history and place ourselves in the shoes of the men and women who walked the earth back then, though one thing remains constant - Our enduring love of the deep blue stone of royalty, lapis lazuli.
This gemstone has a heavenly blue color, often with gorgeous golden flecks throughout due to the pyrite inclusions. This pairing of heavenly blue with gold has meant that lapis lazuli has been associated with royalty, divinity, and high status since as far back as we can gather. The golden specks dotted throughout the blue stone resembles the night sky, something that was of utmost importance to civilizations that placed great value on astrology and regarded the skies above as the home of their gods.
Lapis lazuli has a myriad of uses ranging from simple beads and ornamental objects to household tools, religious/royal statues or icons, tablets bearing laws, amulets for protection, and at times, cosmetic uses too!
The Early Days of Lapis Lazuli
Artifacts possibly dating as far back as 7570 BCE were discovered at an archaeological site in Birhanna (present-day India). Mining of lapis lazuli began around 6000 years ago in what is today Afghanistan. This land is known for its incredibly formidable mountainous terrain. The terrifying heights and extremely unforgiving conditions were not enough to dissuade early miners from extracting these beautiful blue stones. Afghan deposits of lapis lazuli are probably the finest to be found anywhere on the planet, a constant that remains true even today.
Lapis Lazuli: The Cradle of Civilization
To call 'Sumeria' an ancient civilization is an understatement. This civilization began during the early Bronze Age around the banks of the Euphrates about 4500 years BCE and is regarded as one of the first 'great civilizations'.
Artifacts numbering in the thousands have been uncovered at archaeological sites during the 20th century, which points to widespread lapis lazuli usage. Works of art such as the Treasure of Ur (5000 years old or thereabouts) and other grave goods, as well as the frequent mention of lapis lazuli in surviving works of literature from the era show that the Sumerian people held lapis lazuli in very high regard. This continued throughout the centuries all over ancient Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean trade routes it was connected to.
All of the famous civilizations of the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians (amongst others) used lapis lazuli to create seals, fashion beads representing eyes in statues, or otherwise carve lapis lazuli to make amulets, dagger handles, and other ornaments. The Epic of Gilgamesh (written sometime around the 18th-17th century BCE), one of the oldest surviving works of literature makes repeated references to lapis lazuli.
Lapis Lazuli in Ancient Egypt
We cannot mention ancient civilizations without giving mention to Egypt, another one of the 'great civilizations' of the Bronze Age. The Egyptians also had a fondness for the blue stone and carved many of their famous scarab-beetle-shaped amulets from it. Lapis Lazuli was used to pay tributes to Thutmose The Great (died 1425 BCE), as evidenced by relief carvings found at a site called Karnak, near Luxor. The famous Pharaoh Tutankhamun, whose tomb was discovered in 1922, was buried in an impressive funeral mask made of gold, lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones.
Lapis lazuli was also used as cosmetic eye shadow, when ground into a powder it was applied to the eyes to add alluring azure hues. Cleopatra is said to have used this finely powdered lapis lazuli eyeshadow herself.
The Ancient Greeks and Lapis Lazuli
Egypt had an extensive trade network in its heyday, with both land and seafaring routes. The discovery of lapis lazuli goods at Mycenaean sites shows how old and extensive these networks were as well as the high demand for lapis lazuli!
"Ancient Greeks" is a bit of a catch-all term encompassing different civilizations and people groups spanning hundreds of years and existing in different regions. When Alexander the Great of Macedon died, he left a territory too large to be kept intact without his unifying presence. His many generals divvied up the lands for themselves and their descendants.
One such city-state was the Kingdom of Bactria, a Greek colony/enclave. It was an extremely large kingdom, spanning much of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. At the height of its power, it also included parts of Pakistan and Iran. Within the borders of Greco-Bactria, lapis lazuli was mined beginning around 700 BCE. This Afghani region is still the source of some of the highest-grade lapis lazuli available.
This Greek outpost in Afghanistan connected east with west, influencing and being influenced by all the great civilizations of the region such as the Indians, Egyptians, and Persians spreading lapis lazuli and other goods throughout the region.
Theophrastus was a Greek philosopher, and one of Aristotle's successors. His treatise On Stones refers to what he calls 'Sapphire', but describes it as being blue with veins of gold, which is a fitting description of lapis lazuli. This misnomer continued well into the middle ages.
Lapis Lazuli in Rome and The Classical Period
The Romans like the previous civilizations also used lapis lazuli to carve seals, amulets, pendants, and other ornaments. Pliny The Elder, likely influenced by Theophrastus before him, also wrote of 'sapphire' as being blue with gold flecks. The gemstone we know as 'sapphire' today is blue corundum, but it is widely accepted that during this period all references to 'sapphire' probably mean lapis lazuli.
This is true also of Hebrew and later Biblical texts, which often mention 'Sapphire', despite sapphire (blue corundum) not being known during before the Roman Empire period. Early Christians associated lapis lazuli with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Roman empire was heavily influenced by the Greek cultures they conquered and retained many of their customs and traditions. In turn, the Roman sphere of influence and their ideas and beliefs continued decades after the fall of Rome throughout Europe.
It was during the Middle Ages that the name 'Lapis Lazuli' came into use, deriving from an ancient Persian word 'lahzuward' meaning 'blue'. Indeed lapis lazuli began to be used as a blue paint pigment by artists starting around the middle ages. Famous explorer Marco Polo reportedly visited the Afghani lapis lazuli mines sometime in the late 1200s also.
Before the creation of oil paint and modern pigments, Renaissance-era painters began to use lapis lazuli to create the pigment needed for 'aquamarine'. This is the color of the sea, the skies, and of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Incredibly important for the religious-motifs present throughout all of the breathtaking works of art from the era, such as Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer also used lapis lazuli in his famous 'Girl With The Pearl Earring' painting dated 1665. We can thank lapis lazuli for making it all possible.
Lapis Lazuli Today
In modern times, lapis lazuli continues to be a popular choice for jewelry, and is also used in a variety of other applications and as an ingredient in traditional medicines. It is also used as an accent stone in watches and other luxury goods.
In addition to its use in jewelry, lapis lazuli has also found a place in modern home decor, with the stone being used to create decorative objects and figurines. Despite its ancient roots, lapis lazuli remains a popular and valuable gemstone in the modern world, with its uses and applications continuing to evolve and expand.
Afgani Lapis Lazuli
Afghan lapis lazuli was a highly sought-after trade item during the Middle Ages along the Silk Road and continues to be one of the most prized gemstones in the world. The intense blue of lapis lazuli is still a favorite stone highly prized by gem enthusiasts, casual jewelry wearers, and royalty alike.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" goes the old saying and it can definitely apply in this case. Afghani lapis lazuli remains the best quality lapis lazuli available to us today. We source all of our Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan and you can purchase your own Lapis Lazuli piece right here.