Have you ever wondered how was Lapis Lazuli first mined? From what we know, the Lapis Lazuli Mining Process has maintained the same since the prehistoric period t0 the 1800’s. In the 1900’s dynamite was introduced to the mining process. Here we’ll learn which was the mining technique used to discover the beautiful Lapis Lazuli.
Most of the mining process from the 1800 is described by Lieutenant John Wood. Wood was sent by his boss Alexander Burnes to that part of Central Asia where Russia, China and also British India met in uncomfortable proximity. He was dispatched to investigate all possible invasion routes from Central Asia (mostly by the Russians) into India.
Woods reached the mines at Sar-i-Sang (where the best quality lapis is found) where the Kokcha valley shrinks to a width of barely 200 meters. In that time there were complex of six mines (now several of them in disuse). The mines were dug warren-like into the mountain five hundred meters up a steep and dangerous path. Their roofs were unsupported and liable to collapse at any moment.
These mines have probably been worked since at least the sixth millennium BC (when lapis first appears in foreign graves) and most certainly since the fourth millennium when lapis became so sought after by the prosperous rulers of Mesopotamia.
Legends tell that the mines were guarded by a fortress built by Zubaidah, wife of Harun al-Rashid.
Miners come for the season. They live in stone huts at the foot of the “blue mountain” and climb up the steep slope to the mines. There is a series of corridors and caves, linked by narrow pitch-dark passages often only fit for crawling. It is well known near the mines that that the miners, who come from all over the country, were and are miserable, under-paid and half starved.
In Woods day winter was the main extraction season when there was no work to be done on the fields.
Nowadays is the other way round. The brief three months of summer is the main extraction season. It’s when the passes are clear and porters can carry it out. They usually take it to Kabul and on to Peshawar, the principal market, or also eastward to Chitral. The neighbors from the Chitrali valley talk about the regular summer caravans of donkeys and man loads of lapis lazuli wrapped in coarse sacks heading out of the mountains to the plains.
The miners had a dangerous work. They worked on hands and knees under the low roof of the shaft, lit fires with timber to soften the rock. The timber had to be carried up from a considerable distance for there is none in the area.
The rock is very hard to find but when you do you must separate the surrounding rocks and minerals from the Lapis Lazuli drilling a hole in the wall. Inside the hole they placed a whole lot of hot coals and covered them with the remaining rocks. Lapis Lazuli is also heat resistant so the other rocks get heated up while the lapis maintains a certain temperature.
The fires were then extinguished with cold water (also carried up from the bottom of the gorge) and the sudden cooling caused the rock to crack and making any excess rocks and debris fall from the Lapis Lazuli. The miners then beat the face with hammers and the rock flaked off.
Then the Lapis Lazuli is sorted according to color.
The mining process nowadays is also equal dangerous because of the dynamite they use. There is no kind of safety procedures like hard hats and goggles. Miners penetrate deep into the mountain along low, narrow passages, place their explosives, light the fuse and make a mad run for the exit before the blast fills the passage with falling rock and dust.
They wait for the dust to settle and then they go in to collect whatever has fallen. After they blow the mines, the men backpack the blocks of Lapis Lazuli to the camp. This is a very dangerous trip as well as the mountain is almost vertical.
The transport of the lapis takes about nine days. The mules carry approximately 40kg each. A large quantity of this material reaches West Pakistan. The mujahedeen charge 5-10 % tax and the Pakistani government also charge taxes at the border near Gharam Chashma usually as much as 20%. The miners would also protect the valuable locations of the mines.
Lapis Lazuli is found in three Persian colors: nili (dark blue), assemani (pale blue) and also sabz or suvsi(greenish-blue).
Afghan fortune seekers pay the mujahedeen for mining rights but local workmen do the actual digging.
After recovering their investment from the sale of the lapis, the investors who are usually Badakshis, split the profit with the miners.
It is always important to get to know every aspect of a jewel. Knowing the difficulty and the dangers mining Lapis Lazuli has, I have a renovated respect for this heavenly gem. I hope you enjoyed..