"Man puts an end to the darkness;
he searches the farthest recesses
for ore in the blackest darkness.
From where people dwell he cuts a shaft,
In places forgotten by the foot of man,
far from men he dangles and sways.
The earth, from which food comes,
Is transformed below as by fire;
sapphires1 come from its rocks,
and its dust contains nuggets of gold.
No bird of prey knows that hidden path,
No falcon's eye has seen it.
Proud beasts do not set foot on it
No lion prowls there." (Job, 28:3-28:8)
The 'place of sapphires' as mentionend in Job, are the remote lapis lazuli mines of the Afghan village Sar-e-Sang (literally the ‘fountain head of stone’). Their history is impressive: the mines are the oldest operating mines in the world. For over 6000 years, it is the only place where lapis lazuli of the best quality is found, a deep blue precious stone that has long ago been praised by the ancient inhabitants of the Orient for its alleged spiritual powers. Since the late middle ages, lapis lazuli has been grinded into the costly pigment ultramarine blue, a colour praised as “illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colors” by a fifteenth century artist, “one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass.”2 Since its first appearance, lapis lazuli and ultramarine have continued to play a significant role in European visual culture. Over the past centuries, the stone and the pigment have become the protagonists of an intricate history of wealth and conspiciousness, a spectacle on display in major museums near you. While the precious blue stone has become omnipresent in our world, its origin in the Sar-e-Sang has always been surrounded by mystery.
It was not until the age of late colonialism of the 19th century that the darkness 'forgotten by travelers, far away from mankind' was partly uncovered. It was the start of a period of what I would call 'visual colonization': a foreign attempt at capturing the unfathomable and profound darkness of the mines by means of maps, depictions and descriptions. This particular episode in a worldwide time of exploration strikingly shows the perpetual failure to truly capture what a foreign object, in this case the source of blue wealth from Afghanistan, means for the Western world.
Anno 2010, it is easy to find that the Lapis mines are in the Hindu-Kush mountain range, situated approximately 150 miles North-East of Kabul. With a comfortable flight of 'Google Earth' one can effortlessly visit the mine area. (Tip: start in Feyzabad, Badakhshan and follow the Kokcha river upstream.) After a journey through a breathtaking landscape you will find yourself in the mine village of Sar-e-Sang. Up in the naked mountain slopes your screen will show the entrances of the mines, recognizable by the white streams coming out of the black holes. If you try to fly into the darkness you will get the strong impression you are truly entering the cave. To no avail. Turn around and you will find yourself on a slippery hill slope of pixels.
An actual venture into the darkness of the caves is not an easy job, to understate the matter. The hardship is partly due to the inhospitable Hindu Kush region, where the only road leading to the mine is frequently sealed off by heavy snowfall and landslides. The unknown poet quoted by Wood already warned us:
'If you wish not to go to destruction
Avoid the narrow valley of Koran'3
Yet, it is really the political landscape encompassing the Lapis lazuli deposits that makes the Hindu Kush impassable. Those in control of the mines have always heavily protected the mines as their precious source of blue revenue.
Due to the treacherous terrain in which the mines are situated, there have so far been only a handful of primarily written accounts of people who entered the mines. Up to that time, Lapis lazuli mines had only been the topic of speculation and imagination. Marco Polo, without ever visiting the mine complex, mentioned a “mountain where azure (Lapis lazuli) is found, it is the finest in the world and is got in a vein like silver”4. Until the mid-nineteenth century, no eyewitness reports of the mine where recorded, only the name of the blue pigment ‘ultramarine’ (from beyond the sea) hinted at the colour’s mystical origin. For a long time, the inhospitable landscape of Badakshan with its narrow valleys and steep mountain slopes carefully helped to preserve the mystery of the Sar-e-Sang.
The ‘visual colonization’ of Afghanistan was launched during the 'The Great Game', the famous rivalry between Russia and England to gain supremacy over Central Asia. Inevitably, once foreign powers drew near, the mines became located and described. In 1838, cartographer and lieutenant of the British-Indian navy John Wood was the first to give a personal and detailed account of the spatial properties of the mines and the architecture of its darkness.
"Where the deposit of Lapis Lazuli occurs the valley of the Kokcha is about 200 yards wide. On both sides the mountains are high and naked. The entrance to the mine is in the face of the mountain on the right bank of the stream and about 1500 feet above it's level. (…) The path by which the mines are approached is steep and dangerous (…) The shaft by which you descend to the gallery is ten square feet and is not as perpendicular to prevent you walking down. The gallery is eighty paces long, with a gentle descent; but it terminates abruptly in a hole twenty feet in diameter. The width and height of the gallery, though irregular, may be estimated about twelve feet; but at some places where the roof has fallen in it's section is so contracted that the visitor is forced to proceed on his hands and knees."5
In 1841, his book A personal Narrative of a Journey to the Source of the River Oxus was published in London, accompanied by a black-and-white illustration titled Shaft.Gallery.Drop. The picture shows a tube-like structure, an archetypical cylindrical cave. This abstract simplification of the darkness constitutes the first somewhat clumsy representation of the mines. Nevertheless, this simple sketch started an age of visually capturing, encapsulating and confining this dark and precious object of investigation. Lieutenant Wood’s exotic trophy from the Orient was immediately decorated with a 'Patron's Medal', the most prestigious prize of the Royal Geographic Society.
More expeditions followed: The Frenchman Barthoux visited the mines in 1929 and the German Brückl followed in 1936. His article in the Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie Brückl shows the first photographs of the area. Abbildung 7 depicts the mines, rather disappointingly, as little black holes in the distance. In 1943, one hundred years after Wood was “forced to proceed on hands and knees”6, a Soviet expedition headed by Czerski, was the first to map, methodically and with much detail, the architecture of the Sar-e-Sang.
Although we could look at Wood’s simple illustration of the mines as a descriptive victory over the mines and a printed capitalization of the unknown, we have to remember that his hunger for the Orient, served no other goal than to inform the Western public. However, the hand-drawn maps and diagrams of Czerski operated first and foremost as a visual political tool for the USSR’s economic dream. As the famous American scholar Benedict Anderson states in his renowned book Imagined Communities, “the map (…) profoundly shaped the way in which the colonial state imagined its dominion (…) the geography of its domain.”7 "Instead of merely being a scientific abstraction of reality, colonialism had changed the map into “a model for, rather than a model of, what it purported to represent (…). It had become a real instrument to concretize projections on the earth's surface. A map was now necessary for the new administrative mechanism (…) to back up their claim.”8
Czerski's document About Occurrences of Lapis Lasuli in Sar-i-Sang Area, Badakhschan, Afghanistan is now part of the library of 'The Geological Survey of Afghanistan'. It is one of the few accounts that has not been destroyed by thirty years of relentless wars or ruined by the moisture of the cellars used as hideaways. The document shows the projected claims of the Soviets. [The green 'projected adid' in image Czerski_2] This representation marks a turning point in the history of the mines. It embodies the transition from thousand years of slowly expanding darkness to a period of a Russian dark explosion. Initially, the excavation of the blue stones progressed little by little and the expansion of dark emptiness was slow-paced. As captain Wood observed, fire, steam and crowbars were used to weaken the rocks and break the good lapis lazuli away. Later, when Cserzki’s document heralded the Russian incursion into the region, pneumatic drills and dynamite ripped open the darkness with increasing speed.
Although Wood, Brückl and Cserzki have attempted to unclose the secret of lapis lazuli by delineating, quantifying and representing a specific Afghani region of rocks and dark holes, they have failed to grasp the actual location where the ‘blue beyond all colours’ is being produced. The colour acquires long after it has left the hole hit by the mineworkers. The darkness of the mine, containing nothing but chilliness and dust encloses an ever-expanding gallery of absent precious artifacts; the void of the shaft corresponds to the abundance of blue used worldwide. With their maps and drawings, Wood and Czerski gave shape to this darkness. Inadvertently, they created a model of what I would call a 'No-Show': a display of an impressive but invisible Diaspora of blue. It is the negative image of the blue cloaks painted by Giotto and Titiaan. The dresses of Vermeer's maids. The sky above the shrine of the Holy Ignatius. The death mask of Tutanchamon and the eye shadow of Cleopatra. The Lapis used by the Mesopotamians to carve a map for the starry heaven. Invisible to the eye, the dark shaft harbors an endless collection of stripped masterpieces. Eventually, it is this ubiquitous, universal use of blue that has rendered the darkness meaningful and plentiful in absentia. It is a significant darkness that could have never been demystified by the maps of Wood and Czerski, simply because their mystery has, for millennia, been generated elsewhere. This absent abundance of meaning gives shape to the true wealth of the mines. A fortune one cannot measure per kilogram. On the contrary: the value seems inversely proportional to the speed and the amount of lapis lazuli mined. Scarcity increases the price, we all know, but it also allows mystery and meaning time to settle down onto the stone. When the first little pieces of blue reached Europe, their origins were blurred during their long and breathtaking journey. The stones gained an immense significance compared to the tons imported over the last sixty years. Only one paragraph has recently been added to the 6000 year old glossary of meanings attached to the stone: lapis lazuli became the 'blood diamond' of the Mujahideen in their guerrillia war against the Soviets, who once taught them the mining techniques. The real treasure already escaped and dispersed in all directions long before Wood entered the darkness and heralded the late colonial era of demystification.
"But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Man does not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
The deep says, 'It is not in me,'
and the sea says, 'It is not with me.'" (Job 28:12-28:14)
1. Sapphires is the ancient name for Lapis Lazuli. It derives from the Hebrew sapir (ספיר) (via Greek sapphiros; σάπφειρος) meaning 'blue stone'.
2. Cennino Cennini, The Craftsmen's Handbook volume 2, translated from Il libro dell'Arte by D.V. Thompson, (Yale University Press, 1933), p. 36.
3. Lieutenant John Wood, A Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Source of the River Oxus, (John Murray, London 1841), p. 263.
4. Colonel Sir Henry Yule, The Book of Sir Marco Polo The Venetian; Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, (John Murray, London 1904), Book I, p. 150.
5. Wood, p. 263,264
6. Wood, p. 264.
7. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities; Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, (Verso 1983), p.164
8. Ibid. p. 173