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.

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.

10 Things You Might Not Know about Afghanistan

In this article, we look at 10 interesting facts about Afghanistan, its culture, and its people—from the country’s love of poetry to the national sport of buzkashi.

1. Afghanistan’s capital city is Kabul.

Kabul, Afghanistan’s largest city, is located in the country’s eastern section. The only city in Afghanistan with a population of more than 1 million, Kabul is home to around 4.114 million people.

Nestled in a valley of the expansive Hindu Kush mountains, Kabul’s elevation of approximately 1,790 meters makes the city one of the world’s highest capitals. First mentioned around the era of the Achaemenid Empire, the city of Kabul is said to date back more than 3,500 years.

2. The national sport of Afghanistan is buzkashi.

Afghans have petitioned for buzkashi, known as the world’s wildest sport, to be recognized as an Olympic sport.

buzkashi

Buzkashi, or goat-grabbing, involves horseback riders grabbing at a goat carcass, galloping clear of their rivals, and dropping it within a chalked circle. The game has been played on the northern steppe for centuries, and was once the sport of rich rival warlords. Today, it is largely funded by mobile telecoms companies and private airlines.

3. Alexander the Great’s wife, Roxana, was born in Afghanistan.

She was described as one of the most beautiful women in the whole of Asia. Roxana’s Afghan name, Roshanak, means “little star” in Persian.

Although Alexander the Great’s marriage to Roxana was politically motivated, it is widely noted that she was his greatest weakness. Married in 327 BC, Alexander was so charmed by Roxana’s beauty and wisdom that the couple were inseparable, much to the annoyance of some of his soldiers.

Following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, Roxana gave birth to Alexander IV. She was murdered in Macedonia in 320 BC by Alexander’s former ally.

4. Approximately 90 percent of the Afghan population has mobile coverage.

After the Karzai administration gained office in 2001, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology rapidly expanded the country’s wireless, internet, radio, and television industries.

tower

In 2006, the Afghan government signed an agreement with ZTE of China, striking a deal worth a reported $64.5 million. Under the agreement, ZTE would lay the country’s optical fiber cable, improving telephone, internet, radio, and television services throughout Afghanistan.

By 2014, approximately 90 percent of Afghans had access to communication services.  Today, Afghan Wireless keeps Afghanistan connected, providing unparalleled speed, freedom, and reliability.

5. Poetry is an integral part of Afghan culture.

Afghans have been telling tales in verse for more than a millennium. In the western city of Herat, locals celebrate “poetry night” every Thursday, with men, women, and children gathering together to share both modern and ancient verse, enjoying traditional Herati music, and indulging in pastries and sweet tea well into the evening.

6. Afghanistan is a landlocked South Asian nation.

The country is bordered by Iran to the west; India and China to the east; Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan to the north; and Pakistan to the south. The terrain is dominated by rugged mountains, with flat plains in the north and southwest.

7. The country is twice the size of the UK, but has half its population.

Afghanistan’s current population is estimated at almost 39 million. The majority of Afghans live in rural locations within tribal and kinship groups. Approximately 10 percent of Afghans live in Kabul. The nation’s second largest city is Kandahar, with just under 400,000 residents.

8. Afghanistan is semi-arid, with hot summers and cold winters.

shepherd

Afghanistan has a dry continental climate, comprising all four seasons. In Afghanistan’s lowlands, temperatures can peak at 50⁰C in the height of summer, dropping to around 20⁰C in the wintertime. In mountain regions, winter temperatures often fall as low as -25⁰C, with some isolated areas dropping considerably lower than this.

9. Afghans celebrate the new year on March 21.

The Afghan new year is marked by celebrations lasting around 2 weeks, culminating in Nauruz, or Farmer’s Day, which is celebrated on March 21.

In the city of Mazar-i-Shar, the Red Flower Festival forms an integral part of the new year festivities, celebrating the blaze of red tulips growing on plains surrounding the city.

In Mazar, up to 200,000 Afghans gather for Jahenda Bala on the first day of the new year. High ranking officials gather for a religious ceremony at the Blue Mosque, the site of the tomb of the 4th Calif of Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib.

10. Agriculture is big business in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is self-sufficient in terms of around 95 percent of its rye and wheat supply. The country’s agricultural sector more than meets the country’s needs for potatoes and rice. Agriculture accounts for around 23 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and 44 percent of the country’s labor force.

Afghanistan produces around 1.5 million tons of fresh fruit every year, and experts predict this sector could expand significantly in years to come. The country is gaining a reputation for producing some of the world’s finest grapes, cherries, apricots, melons, peaches, and figs.