Afghanistan Crossroads

Lapis lazuli: Afghanistan's blue treasure

KABUL — I’m in the back room of a gemstone workshop in Kabul. The owner of the store, Abdul Wasi, pulls off a large, dusty cardboard sheet and points to the pile of stones beneath it.

Raw, uncut, unpolished lapis lazuli, fresh from the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan.

Even covered with dust, the intense blue is visible. Wasi wets his finger and rubs it along the surface of one of the stones. It’s the bluest blue, a vibrant, intense shade of sapphire. Not shiny, but deep and glowing.

There are smaller deposits of lapis lazuli in other parts of the world: Siberia and Chile, for example. But Afghanistan is the mother lode of lapis. The country is the world’s leading producer of lapis lazuli from the Sary-Sang mine in Badakhshan.

It’s been mined there for 6,000 years, according to geologists at Kabul’s Museum of the Afghanistan Geological Survey. The ancient Egyptians used it for jewelry, decorative objects and even women’s cosmetics.

In Wasi's workshop, 20 employees take these hunks of lapis and turn them into a stunning variety of bowls, boxes, sculptures and jewelry.

They begin by cutting them with a diamond saw into smaller pieces, like pieces of mosaic. Making a bowl, they glue the pieces onto the metal base, maneuvering each one into a tight fit with the adjoining piece.

Hours, and sometimes days later, the piece is finished but still is in a raw state.

Now, it must be ground and rough-polished to make the surface smooth and even. Finally, a fine buffing to make the bowl or plate or vase gleam.

In the store he shows me an oval bowl. Its surface is smooth as saddle leather. The blue of the lapis lazuli is flecked lightly with a tiny dusting of golden pyrite. It’s the closest thing to gazing at a tropical midnight sky.

Boxes, statues, large vases, tiny toy animals — Wasi seems to have thought of everything to make out of lapis at his  Khisrawi Establishment store, all continuing ancient traditions but with a modern touch.

But one piece in particular catches my eye: an unfinished chunk of lapis about a foot high. Rough, lightly polished, just enough so the breathtaking blue is visible. It’s like a mountain stream, wild and blue, frozen in time — Afghanistan’s unique treasure.