Heaven in the rock: The Lapis road.

Luxury in a mater of social convention, naturally driven by a commodity’s rarity and quality, but formostly on a given culture’s system of values, appreciation and symbolism. Different societies held different substances as highly valuable, while regarded other as mundane. The history of luxury goes back to the earliest well defined human cultures, altough a full understanding of its early social and commercial context is still incomplete due to the  obvious lack of written material and perishable nature of possible findings.  Prehistoric evidence  however do show, how as early as the Neolithic times, flints of unusual shades as well as sea shells were much valued merely for their rarity, thus traveling far and wide from their place of origin by the sheer force of human imagination, but a full understanding of the scope of this early netwrok is still missing.

After the Neolithic revolution, as human socities began to take complex social and political shapes, new apriciations and demands came into being. One of the well known luxury items of the earliest civilizations is a matter of curiosity, owing not only to its prestige as a commodity, but also due to the manner in which it traveled and came to be as such.

Lapis lazuli is a rock formed under specific metamorphic conditions, and contain considerable amounts of the blue mineral Lazuraite, as well as other minerals such as Calcite and Pyrite, which appear on the surface of the stone as spots and strikes of white and golden colour.  Lapis was appreciate in the ancient world for its intense Ultra-Marine colour, when specimens of pure-blue, free of impurities where the most sought after. The stone’s vivid colour, as well as its relative softness, made it a desired item among the cultures of the ancient near east, mostly in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where it was used for personal and monumental adornment. The origin of Lapis, however, is to be found no near these centers of early human culture.


There are very few known deposits of Lapis in the old world, and even though the ancient chronicles tell tales of Lapis mines in western Egypt and southwest Iran, the only modernly confirmed deposits lie next to the Baikal lake, in the Pamirs and most of all, in Afghanistan. Badakhshan, in what is today northeast Afghanistan was indeed the only significant source of Lapis Lazuli in the ancient world. From a few scattered mines high in the Hindu-Kush mountains, came the only supply of high quality Lapis Lazuli for the cultural centers of India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and later,  Greece.


lapis 1

The mine at  Sar-i-sang,  Kuran Wa Munjan District ,is perhaps the oldest yet active mine in the world, when its oldest shafts were most probably the ones supplying high quality Lapis to the tresurehouses of Ur, as well as for the burial mask of the child-Pharaoh, Tutankhamun. Active only few months a year due to harsh weather conditions, and historically exploited by simple means such as fire cracking , the mines had yield chunks of blue stone who where  chiseled out of the very mountain side, only to be dispatched in the rough far off to the their faceless consumers.

Standard of Ur CA.2600 BC. Lapis, Shell, Lime and Bituman,

Standard of Ur CA.2600 BC. Lapis, Shell, Lime and Bituman,

Not much is known about the exact trade routs linking the mines of Badakhshan with the early civilizations, the stone itself however, along with some reliable written sources can give some evidence of these long buried routs.

The ancient Sumerian accounts tell us of Arrata, a powerful kingdom to the north east of Sumer, which is noted not only as the home of the goddess of war, love and fertility, Inanna, but also as an exceptionally prosperous land, rich in precious metals and gems, as well as artisans qualified for processing them, one of the is Lapis Lazuli.

While modern scholarship failed to prove the very existence or location of Aratta, the mentioning of Lapis processing northeast of Sumer, indicate a possible trade route leading all the way from Badakhshan, through the Iranian highlands, to the city states of Mesopotamia. While this general direction is a matter of simple geographical sense, a firm confirmation of the exact route still had to be backed by archaeological evidence. However, the excavation of a few major Lapis processing centers on the Iranian plateau, gave a better understanding of the trade routes and how they functioned.  Teppe Hissar is a bronze age settlement south of Dāmḡān in northeastern Iran, where large deposits of Lapis waste flakes were found, indicates a major local industry.

Evidence suggest that  while the rough material was initially been cleaned off of  most of  the external impurities at the source in the Hindu Kush, in order to reduce the carrying expenses, most of the actual processing was made in specialised communities along the way from Badakhshan to Mesopotamia, when Teppa Hissar represent the largest center yet to be found on what might be described as the northern Lapis route, this route, probably continuing westwards south of the Caspian sea and down to Mesopotamia, was prominent well till the dawn of the third millennia BC, when it was mostly replaced by an alternative southern route, going through another important Lapis processing center in Shahar i sokht, then continuing south in the direction of Bandar Abbas on the Persian golf, before sharply turning north to Susa and onwards to the Mesopotamian city states.

Trade is highly sensitive to Geo-political changes such as warfare, political crises and  other calamities,and these can easily disturb, cease or divert commercial activity along a given path. As for the history of the Lapis trade, evidence show that unknown events in Iran had brought the Lapis trade into a complete halt during the early third milenia BC, depriving the fertile crescent and the nile valley from its supply of Lapis for some two centuries. These long lost events might echo in the Sumerian account known as Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.

“Let them..pure Lapis Lazuli from the slab…

Of the holy giparru where you established (your) dwelling.

May (the people of ) Aratta fashion artfully its interior”

(Enmerkar and the lord of Aratta, 38-64)

In this epic composition, Enmerker, king of Uruk, a Sumerian city state, wished to adorn a new temple for the goddess Inanna with the compulsory Lapis Lazuli, however the king of Arrata, said to be situated seven mountain ranges to the east of Sumer, had preferred to hoard the Lapis for himself instead of trading it with his remote neighbours, threatening to bring a real theological interior design crisis to the cities of Sumer. The account tells us that only after Arrata was struck by a famine sent by Inanna herself, and a subsequent aid of grains sent by Uruk, the export of Lapis from Arrata was allowed to continue.

This lovely story might lack a factual ground, but it might, as said ,reflect the Sumerian age-long thirst for the prestigious stone during these “Lapis dark ages”. The so called Lapis crisis of the third century BC, might brought much agony for the Mesopotamian elites, but also brought later fortune to another riverine culture, far to the east, and an opening of yet another trade route.

The Harappan culture, a well developed urban center, and part of the so- called Indus Valley Civilization was one of the most sophisticated early human cultures, and is known for its state of the art sewage systems, almost unrivaled until the modern age. The mysterious events in the Iranian plateau, disturbing the earlier land routs eventually let to the southbound flow of Lapis down to the Harrapan markets. Surprisingly enough, it appears the Harrapanians were not impressed by these brilliant blue stones, and rarely used them themselves, instead they where happy  to transfer them westwards, with the willing monsoon winds, over to their eager western neighbours in Mesopotamia.

The Maritime Lapis trade was done through another middlemen, the people of Dilmun, a small coastal entity on the eastern shore of the Arabian peninsul and modern Bahrain. The Dilmunites , described by the Mesopotamians as great seafarers, used their favoured location and knowledge of Monsoon winds in order to connect between the two great civilizations of the the Indus and Mesopotamia, while extracting considerable profits.

The Dilmunite trade is confirmed by Sumerian and later Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian accounts, and it seems the small kingdom was an important station on the ancient maritime trade routs for most of the few last millennia BC, acting as a portal for luxury goods arriving from the Indian cost and High Asia, as shown by findings of Lapis objects, but also Ivory, pearls, Carnelian, turquoise and other substances.

lapis map

A few good millenias have passed since the heydays of the ancient Lapis trade, the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians have all cleared way for other nations who held other appreciations. More importantly than an admiration of its artisitic and historical usaege, what the Lapis trade can give us is an understanding of way early Eurasian trade systems functioned . Being  mostly imperishable objects, Lapis beads, artifacts and fragments can help us identify trade patterns, ancient industrial centers and cultural connections, where other items such as textiles, foodstuff and other organic materials can not. It is important to emphasise that the idea of a “Lapis road”,  much the same as other famous “roads”, is valid as a framing term only,  useful for the definition of a trade system limited in time and space. Other resilient commodities such as pottery, metals and stones also help us to define an early world trade network, showing the so called Lapis road was merely a friction of an immense prehistoric and early historic network, connecting communities from Central Asia to the Indian ocean, from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean shore and even up north to the Baltic cost. These trade patterns were off course indirect, but they are a powerful testimony of early human connections, which in turn helped to redesign human establishments, imaginary and material culture.

The blue stone of the Sumerian myths might have long been fallen out of favour in face of other, more sought after gems, but its memory still echos in ancient chronicles, poems and masterpieces of the past, in a brilliant example of how human imaginary can even make rocks travel.



2 thoughts on “Heaven in the rock: The Lapis road.

  1. Interesting — again!! Lapis Lazuli is very beautiful. I was recently in Istanbul for a few weeks, and bought a Lapis Lazuli necklace from an Afghani trader named Serif, in the Grand Bazaar. I must say that the colour is not as bright blue, and duller than the ones shown in your photos, with this article… but still, it’s beautiful.He told me Afghanistan is the main source, but he said it is also found in Chile, South America. Have you read or heard that too? – Cynthia

    • Thanks Cynthia, and sorry for the late response, i was out of activity for a while.Glad to hear youve been to Istanbul, which is my favourite city in the world. Yes Lapis can be found in other places, however, as far as i know, these deposits are inferior in quality and lack the vivid blue colour of the Afghan one.

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