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.

Spotlight on the National Parks of Afghanistan

National parks protect some of the world’s most important wildlife habitats and rare species that dwell in them. In this article, we look at a selection of protected areas in Afghanistan and endemic wildlife such as snow leopards, jackals, wolves, and bears.

Wakhan National Park

Encompassing alpine grasslands, soaring mountains, and a unique selection of wildlife, Wakhan National Park is located in northeastern Afghanistan. The region is inhabited by several tribes who seek to preserve its culture and traditional way of life.

Wakhan National Park
Image courtesy USAID | Flickr

Recognized as one of the last truly wild regions in the world by Prince Mostapha Zaher, the director general of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, Wakhan National Park lies in a narrow corner of Afghanistan and is bordered by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and China to the east.

The Amu Darya River, which begins in Wakhan National Park, is also the point where the Pamir and Hindu Kush Mountains converge.

The wildlife in Wakhan National Park are incredibly diverse and encompass an array of snow leopards, lynx, wolves, brown bears, ibex, and red foxes, as well as the elusive Pallas’s cat. Wakhan National Park is also home to the famous Marco Polo sheep, which are characterized by their distinctive long horns that stretch almost 2 meters from tip to tip.

Ab-i Istada National Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary

Ab-i Istada, which translates as “standing water,” is located in the Nawa District, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. This endorheic salt lake lies within a large depression in the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush that was formed by the Chaman Fault System.

With a surface area of around 130 square kilometers, Ab-i Istada is relatively shallow, at around 3.7 meters deep. The lake encompasses two small islands near its southeastern shore: Kuchney ghundai and Loya ghundai.

The Nahara and Sardeh Rivers also drain into Ab-i Istada from the northeast. When the lake reaches a high level, the overflow drains into the Lora River, a tributary of the Arghistan River.

Outside of visits from nomads from Kandahar who pass through the region each summer, the area has remained unpopulated until relatively recently. At the start of the 21st century, the Tarakai tribe began settling near the lake, establishing eight villages within a 10-kilometer region housing a total population of approximately 5,000. Today, local communities engage in a variety of activities such as agriculture; timber collection; and the trapping of peregrine and saker, which are both highly prized falcon species.

The Ab-i Istada National Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary is visited by more than 120 migratory species, including vast flocks of greater flamingos and Siberian cranes.

Bamyan Plateau Protected Area

The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan created this 4,200-square-kilometer national park in November 2019. Located in the Hindu Kush Mountain Range, the Bamyan Plateau Protected Area represents Afghanistan’s second largest protected area after Wakhan National Park.

Image by Hadi Zaher | Flickr

Bamyan Plateau is geographically diverse and features high-altitude grasslands, jagged rock formations, and deep gorges. Its pristine rangeland and gigantic, deep canyons are home to a plethora of flora and fauna, including the rare Persian leopard, Himalayan ibex, lynx, foxes, pikas, and marmots.

The Bamyan Plateau is the only known area of Afghanistan to be inhabited by boreal owls and Asian badgers.

Nuristan Nature Reserve               

Starting to the west of Kabul and ending at Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, the Nuristan Forest encompasses multiple communities, including Nilaw, Arandu, Sao, Kunar, Pasenta, Nangalam, Kamdesh, and Naray, as well as the region’s capital city, Parun. Cities, towns, and villages in the Nuristan region are home to approximately 140,000 people, with settlers first populating the area about two centuries ago.

The Nuristan Forest is world famous for its outstanding natural beauty. The region is believed to be Afghanistan’s most biologically diverse due to the regional humidity created by Indian Ocean monsoons.

Recent biological surveys carried out in Nuristan Nature Reserve reveal that several species, including gray wolves, leopards, and Asiatic black bears continue to thrive throughout the region. Species commonly observed in the area include Indian crested porcupines, red foxes, rhesus macaques, yellow-throated martens, and golden jackals.

Band-e Amir National Park

Translating as the “Commander’s Dam,” which is believed to be a reference to the Muslim Caliph Ali, Band-e Amir National Park is home to the Hazaras people, who constitute approximately 10% of the total population of Afghanistan.

Recognized as a World Heritage site in 2004, Band-e Amir became a national park in 2009. By 2013, 6,000 tourists were visiting the region annually. Protected by park rangers, Band-e Amir features six separate lakes, the largest of which is Band-e Haibat, or the “Lake of Grandiose.”

Wildlife spotted in the region include urial sheep, wolves, lynx, red foxes, Pallas’s cats, and ibex wild goats. Visitors are drawn to the region by the purported healing properties of the local lakes. In addition, pilgrims frequent the area to visit Prophet Ali’s holy shrine.

9 Interesting Animals Native to Afghanistan

Afghanistan is home to a myriad of animal species, including more than 100 different types of mammal. From snow leopards to Marco Polo sheep, here are some of Afghanistan’s wildlife and the regions they inhabit.

Lynx

The Eurasian lynx is a medium-sized feline that inhabits temperate forests of Afghanistan, living in altitudes of up to 5,500 meters. The lynx is widely distributed throughout Europe and Asia, with an estimated 10,000 individuals left in the wild.

In Central Asia, lynx are found in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Mongolia, Nepal, India and Pakistan. Lynx fossils also have been excavated in the Japanese archipelago.

Eurasian otter

Eurasian otter

The Eurasian otter is a protected species in Afghanistan. Also known as the Old World otter, common otter, or European otter, this semiaquatic mammal is indigenous to parts of Asia and Europe.

Commonly found in coasts and waterways, the Eurasian otter mainly eats fish. Eurasian otters can be extremely territorial. They are considered endangered in some regions, though in others, numbers appear to be recovering.

In winter months, the otters sometimes turn to other food sources. Eurasian otters have been known to eat crustaceans, amphibians, insects, birds, small mammals, and even juvenile beavers.

Asiatic black bear

This medium-sized bear species is characterized by its white chest. Indigenous to regions of Asia, the species is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable.

Asiatic black bears are excellent climbers, and sometimes nest in trees. Every fall, they prepare a den for hibernation, where they remain until the following spring. These dens may be made in holes in the ground, caves, hollow logs, or trees.

Markhor

The markhor is a goat species with very large, corkscrew-shaped horns.

In Afghanistan, the species is found in the mountainous forests of Nuristan and Laghman. The name markhor comes from the Persian mâr meaning serpent, and khor meaning eater, since in ancient folklore the goat species was reputed to kill and eat snakes.

Markhor measure up to 115 centimeters in height and weigh up to 110 kilograms. They are specially adapted to the mountain terrain, growing a thicker, longer coat to keep them warm in the depths of winter.

Long-tailed marmot                                                   

The long-tailed marmot is indigenous to Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India, and China. This large, sturdy rodent has a body length of up to 80 centimeters and can weigh up to 9 kilograms.

Long-tailed marmots form monogamous relationships and live in communities with up to seven adults. The marmots live in burrow systems, hibernating in September and emerging in April or May.

Geoffroy’s bat

This medium-sized bat species has long, woolly fur, and feeds primarily on flies and spiders. Geoffroy’s bat typically inhabits Afghanistan’s grassland and scrubland regions, although it is sometimes found in plantations. These bats often roost in manmade buildings or underground.

Marco Polo sheep

Marco Polo sheep
Image by Cloudtail the Snow Leopard | Flickr

Named after the famous Italian explorer, the Marco Polo sheep is a subspecies of the argali breed. They populate mountainous regions throughout Central Asia. Marco Polo sheep are characterized by their impressive, spiral-shaped horns, which can measure up to 140 cm, making them the longest horns of any sheep species.

The majority of Marco Polo sheep live in the Pamir Mountain region, near the borderlands of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan. They survive at elevations of up to 4,800 meters above sea level and generally live in flocks as large as a few dozen.

Snow leopard

Afghanistan’s mountainous regions are estimated to be home to around 200 adult snow leopards today. Despite being notoriously elusive, the snow leopard is listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. Conservationists estimate the global snow leopard population is less than 10,000 today, a figure predicted to decline.

Snow leopards are indigenous to the Badakhshan Province’s Wakhan District, in eastern Afghanistan. Their characteristic thick fur coat protects them from harsh winters at high altitudes. Snow leopards are solitary animals that are most active at dawn and dusk.

Although the leopards are carnivorous and are accomplished hunters, there are only two recorded instances of snow leopard attacks on humans.

Pallas’ cat

This species of wildcat is much smaller than the snow leopard or lynx. It inhabits the grasslands and high-altitude steppes of Afghanistan and is classified on the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened.

With a body length of up to 65 centimeters and weighing up to 4.5 kilograms, the Pallas’ cat is around the same size as a domestic cat. It is a stocky feline, with long, dense fur.

Pallas’ cats are extremely solitary. They feed primarily on small animals like voles, pikas, and gerbils, and sometimes young marmots.

The Pallas’ cat has been legally protected in Afghanistan since 2009, with hunting and trade in the animal illegal throughout the country.