The route to the ultramarine lapis lazuli mines in the Kokcha Valley is long, tortuous, and dangerous. From Feysbad, capital of Afghanistan’s northeast province of Badakhshan, a poor road stretches southward through tiny hamlets of mud-walled huts standing on uneven ground wracked by the earthquake of 1832. After motoring as far as Hazarat-Said, the traveler must spend another full day on horseback before reaching Kokcha Valley. The small Kokcha River is the eastern tributary of the River Oxus which Marco Polo traversed and wrote: “There is a mountain in that region where the finest azure [lapis lazuli] in the world is found. It appears in veins like silver streaks.”
This lapis lauzuli was also the source of a very expensive pigment for paint in Medieval and Renaissance times. The three purest colours were ultramarine, gold, and vermillion. Ultramarine was described by Cennino Cennini, the 15th century Italian artist who wrote on the techniques of the great masters, as “illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colors”. Artists reserved it for the most revered of subjects. The ultramarine used in Europe was imported from the mines at Badakshan, in what is now Afghanistan.
Later Egyptian burial sites dating before 3000 B.C. contained thousands of jewelry items, many of lapis. Powdered lapis was favored by Egyptian ladies as a cosmetic eye shadow and in later years it was used as a pigment for ultramarine paints. Pliny the Elder described the stone as “a fragment of the starry firmament.”
The Sar-e-Sang mine also has reserves of high-grade lapis lazuli and possibly more of the very rare lapis crystals. But political instability in Afghanistan clouds the future for both mining and distribution of the noble blue gem.