Spotlight on the Precious Stones of Afghanistan

For centuries, Afghanistan has been a leading producer of lapis lazuli, a gemstone favored by the ancient Egyptians. The country is also rich in several other semi-precious stones—a recent joint study by the United States Geological Survey and the Pentagon estimating the net value of Afghanistan’s untapped minerals to be around $3 trillion.

In this article, we look at Afghanistan’s gem mining industry and the jewels it exports all over the world.

Lapis Lazuli

lapis lazuli

This royal blue metamorphic rock has been prized since antiquity for its vivid color. Mining this intense blue stone since 8000 BCE, Afghanistan has some of the oldest known lapis mines in the world.

A favorite of the pharaohs, lapis was used throughout ancient Egypt to make ornaments and amulets, such as scarabs. Lapis jewelry has also been discovered at predynastic Egyptian excavations.

Lapis was used to decorate the Pyramids of Giza, and when it was ground into a fine powder, it could be used as an eyeshadow, a favorite of the Ptolemaic ruler Cleopatra. The gem will forever be associated with ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, whose ornate gold funeral mask was inlaid with the stone.

Lapis lazuli was popular in ancient Mesopotamia, where the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Akkadians utilized the gemstone to make seals and artifacts, an abundance of which have been recovered from across the region.

In the Bronze Age, lapis was sought after by Indus Valley civilizations. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli became popular with the world’s most talented artists, who ground it into a powder, making the finest and most expensive of all blue paints: ultramarine. Renowned Renaissance and Baroque artists including Titian, Perugino, Vermeer, and Masaccio famously used the color. It was usually reserved for the clothing of a painting’s central figure, particularly the Virgin Mary.

While lapis lazuli is found in other countries, these deposits pale in insignificance when compared with the vast amounts found in Afghanistan. The stone was originally mined in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan district, where one mine has been continuously been producing lapis lazuli for the international market for more than 7,000 years.

Rubies and Sapphires

Just a few hours’ drive from Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, lies the mountainous region of Jegdalek, an area renowned for producing some of the brightest, most valuable rubies in the world.

Operational for more than 500 years, Jegdalek’s ruby mines produce high-grade stones that have been popular with royalty for centuries. Despite the region’s global reputation as a leading producer of high-grade rubies, most of the stones mined in Jegdalek today are sapphires. These come in a range of different hues, from traditional blue to semi-transparent pink.

Emeralds

emeralds

Lying due north of Kabul, the Panjshir Valley is home to more than 172 separate emerald mines. Panjshir emeralds boast a distinctive bluish-green hue. They are rapidly becoming one of Afghanistan’s most prized gemstones.

Aria Gems is a new startup established by Habib Mohebi. Speaking with CNN, the entrepreneur recounted hearing about emerald mines as a young boy growing up in Kabul. Years later, Mohebi used his knowledge to reconnect him with his homeland, opening a mining operation in Afghanistan and exporting emeralds across the world. Headquartered in New York, with a gem cutting and processing center in North Dakota, Aria Gems transforms rough stones into high-end polished emeralds.

Since the company’s incorporation in 2013, Aria Gems has grown to become a leading supplier of Panjshir emeralds, shipping more than 30,000 carats of this highly sought-after stone all over the world.

Aquamarine

This blue-green member of the beryl gemstone family is prized the world over, with colors ranging from almost transparent to vivid cerulean blue. Afghan aquamarines tend to be paler in color.

Unlike emeralds, which usually feature flaws and inclusions, many aquamarine crystals are faultless. Duller, greener stones can withstand heat treatment at extremely high temperatures to achieve striking shades of sky blue. Indeed, many of the gemstones found on the market today are enhanced through heat treatment.

Tourmaline

Tourmaline

Over the past few decades, Afghanistan has grown famous for its spectacular tourmaline finds. The stone ranges in color from green, to blue, to vibrant raspberry pink, with a variety of shades in between. Like aquamarine, many tourmalines are virtually flawless in clarity.

Bi-colored tourmalines of blue-green or pink-green are occasionally found and are greatly sought after.

Other gemstones

Other gemstones commonly found in Afghanistan include red garnet, topaz, kunzite, fluorite, and quartz. Gemstone mining throughout the country is typically an artisanal activity, with high-quality stones entering the international market and sent overseas for precision cutting.

The World Bank estimates Afghanistan’s uncut gem trade to be worth around $2.75 million. With other institutions placing its value considerably higher, the government of Afghanistan is working to formalize the industry, expanding education in gemology, stonecutting, and polishing, and creating quality standards to govern Afghanistan’s blossoming gemological industry.

8 Things You Might Not Know about Herat

Located in western Afghanistan, Herat is an ancient city sometimes known as “Nagin Aseeya,” or the “Diamond of Asia.” In this article, we look at the history and culture of the city, as well as its reputation as one of Afghanistan’s largest and richest cities today.

1. The city’s origins date back to Achaemenid times (circa 550-330 BC).

The ancient Greeks called the city Artacoana, the capital of Aria. In 330 BC, Alexander the Great and his army invaded the region, destroying Artacoana and rebuilding another city nearby, which he named “Alexandria in Ariana,” which forms the basis of the modern city of Herat.

After him came the Sassanians, who called the city Harēv. In 660 AD, the Arabs took Herat, establishing it as the center of the Muslim world.

In 1221 AD, Mongol invaders seized the city, and it was subsequently destroyed under the orders of Genghis Khan. In 1393 AD, the Turkic conqueror Timur invaded, and Herat enjoyed arguably its greatest era.

As the capital of the Timurid empire, Herat became a celebrated center of science and culture. During this time, the city underwent significant growth, with the construction of many fine buildings, developing a vibrant court life famed for its music and artistry.

2. One of Afghanistan’s oldest mosques, Masjid Jami, lies within the city of Herat.

Masjid Jami
Image courtesy Nico Crisafulli | Flickr

Also known as the Friday Mosque or the Great Mosque of Herat, this ancient building dates back to 1200 AD. It was built under the rule of Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad Ghori and passed down through generations of Timurids, Safavids, Mughals, and Uzbeks, all of whom carefully maintained this iconic building. It is believed that the Masjid Jami took its present form in the late 1400s.

The Masjid Jami has not always been Herat’s largest mosque. A much bigger mosque and madrassa complex once existed in the northern part of Herat, called Gawhar Shad, but were destroyed by the British Indian Army in the late 1800s.

3. Herat was famous around the world for its distinctive miniature paintings.

During the 15th Century, the Herat school of painting flourished under the patronage of the Timurids. Timur’s son, Shāh Rokh, founded an art school in Herat, with his son Baysunqur Mīrzā subsequently developing it into an important center of painting, attracting artists from across Afghanistan, Persia, and beyond.

The miniature paintings of Herat were sometimes painted on silk. They were often used to illustrate manuscripts and poetry. Popular literature of the time, therefore, governed the subject matter of Herat school paintings, with many scenes originating from the Persian epic, Shāh-nāmeh, or Book of Kings, many examples of which survive to this day.

4. The city owes its existence to the nearby Hari River.

Spanning more than 1,000 kilometers, the Hari River begins in Afghanistan’s central Hindu Kush mountains, running all the way to Turkmenistan, where the river ends in the Tejend Oasis, swallowed up by the Karakum Desert.

The Hari River Valley around Herat has been renowned for centuries for its fertility and cultivation. Today, the region is famous the world over for its plethora of rare bird species, including cranes, waterfowl and various endangered migratory species.

5. Herat is Afghanistan’s second-largest city.

The capital, Kabul, is Afghanistan’s biggest city by far, with a population believed to be around 4 million.

The next biggest city is Herat, with an estimated population of more than 670,000. Persian is the most commonly spoken language in Herat today, and Sunni Islam is the most popular religion.

6. Herat lies on ancient trading routes linking the Middle East with Asia.

Herat
Image by Todd Huffman | Flickr

Today, the city remains an important regional hub, with roads from Herat to Turkmenistan, Iran, and other regions of Afghanistan remain strategically important.

Regarded as the gateway to Iran, Herat boasts its own international airport. The city traditionally linked trade routes from the Mediterranean to China and India. It was once noted for its luxurious textiles, arts, and crafts. Herat was world famous for its bronze goods, often featuring ornate designs often inlaid with precious metals and gems.

7. Herat enjoys a hot, semi-arid climate.

Precipitation is generally low, with most rain falling in the winter months. Despite its lower elevation, Herat has a more temperate summer climate than Kandahar, although the winters in Herat are generally colder. From May to September, a northwesterly wind blows through Herat, sometimes with considerable force. During the wintertime, eastern sections of the Hari River freeze solid, with locals treating it as a road.

8. The Citadel of Herat dates back to 330 BC.

Also known as the Citadel of Alexander, it dates back to the arrival of the Greek conqueror’s army following the Battle of Gaugamela. Many civilizations have used the strategic post over the course of the last 2,000 years, and it has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. Today, the historical site is managed by the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture and is open to the public.

Everything You Need to Know about Afghanistan’s Textiles Industry

The Afghan government is currently implementing initiatives to revive the country’s textile industry. In this article, we look at the history of cotton, silk, and cashmere production in Afghanistan and potential future growth in the textile sector.

Afghan Cotton

Afghanistan produces more than 59,000 tons of cottons per year. Despite this, the country’s lack of processing factories presents significant challenges. In the past, Afghanistan boasted several major textile factories in Balkh, Kabul, Baghlan, Kandahar, and Parwan provinces employing around 30,000 people, but the industry declined over the last few decades.

cotton

Currently, only 6 percent of Afghan land is being cultivated. Afghanistan is a rugged, mountainous country. Just 12 percent of the nation is composed of arable land. Despite this, more than 80 percent of Afghans rely on agriculture to make a living.

As Afghan Finance Ministry spokesman, Ajmal Hamid Abdul Rahimzai explained to the Fashion Network website, industrialists have recently campaigned to have their recommendations to revive Afghanistan’s textile industry discussed by the high economic council. Revitalizing this valuable economic sector could create economic growth throughout Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and India entered into a Memorandum of Understanding regarding textiles production. As per the memorandum, both countries have pledged their commitment to cooperating, developing closer economic relations, and strengthening bilateral ties in the production of textiles, cotton, clothing, handlooms, and man-made fiber.

Afghan Silk

located on the Silk Road, the Afghan city of Herat has a long history of silk production. After years of decline, Afghanistan’s silk industry is currently experiencing a revival. Silk thread is produced by silkworms. The creature is indigenous to Herat, thanks to the abundance of mulberry bushes found there. These plants provide the insects with a plentiful supply of food.

Silkworms use the silk thread they produce to build a cocoon around themselves. When unraveled, the silk fiber from just one cocoon can measure up to a mile in length. Just 8 kilograms of silkworms can produce up to 48 kilograms of cocoons. Silk collectors earn up to $140 biannually from collecting cocoons. This is a significant income in Afghanistan.

Spinners purchase silk cocoons from gatherers, using the fibers to spin silk thread. Historically, this was performed by hand. Since the process is somewhat protracted, this significantly limited a spinner’s income. Nevertheless, the advent of modern technology has led to largescale mechanization in the trade. A spinner with more than 30 years’ experience, Azatullah Amidi, explained to the Guardian that he was able to double his production thanks to the implementation of mechanized spinning equipment.

Once the thread is transferred onto bobbins, it is transported to other regions of Afghanistan, such as Mazar, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city. Another celebrated stop on the ancient Silk Route, Mazar remains an important commercial trading center.

Afghan Cashmere

The cashmere goat is one of many native animals in Afghanistan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Mongolia, and China. It takes a single goat up to 12 months to produce enough wool to make just one cashmere scarf. For hundreds of years, farmers in Herat have collected the thick undercoat shed by the goat every spring, throwing it on the fires used to cook food and heat their homes. It is only relatively recently that some isolated Afghan communities have learned that this fluff could be refined and spun to make a luxury product.

Cashmere

The discovery was life-changing for Mohammad Amin, a goat herder with a flock of 120. Every springtime, after his nanny goats have kids, they shed cashmere in huge handfuls. As Amin explained to AP News, buyers travel from far and wide to buy premium quality cashmere. He sells the surplus at market. With each animal yielding up to 250 grams, Mohammad Amin can earn more than $1,100 each season. This represents a sizeable income in a country where the national average is under $700 annually.

According to statistics published by the World Bank working in collaboration with the US Agency for International Development, despite the fact that 95 percent of Afghanistan’s 7 million cashmere goats could be used in cashmere production, as few as 30 percent are currently being combed for cashmere in this way. The majority of raw Afghan cashmere is purchased by Chinese intermediaries supplying low-cost clothing manufacturers.

Afghanistan ranks third in the world in terms of cashmere production. Mongolia comes second, producing 15 percent of the world’s cashmere, lagging far behind China, at 70 percent. In recognition of this lucrative market, the Afghan government recently unveiled a Cashmere Action Plan targeting the high end of the cashmere market, where just one sweater can cost anywhere up to $1,000. The strategy forms part of broader efforts enacted by the Afghan government designed to breathe new life in the country’s textile industry.