The nomadic Kuchis are potentially the largest vulnerable population in Afghanistan. For centuries their semi-annual migrations with their herds of sheep, goats, donkeys, and camels led to important contributions in terms of skins, meat, and wool to local communities. More than 80% of Afghanistan's land is suitable only for sparse grazing making this sort of seasonal migration ideal. After the war against the Soviet Union, the subsequent years of foreign-imposed war, drought, and ethnic tensions, however, the number of Kuchis, as well as the size of their herds, has dropped dramatically.
The Kuchis were once celebrated in the west as handsome romantic nomads adorned with silver and lapis jewellery. Traditionally, they have lived by selling or bartering animals, wool, meat, and dairy products for foodstuffs and other items with villagers. As they move from pasture to pasture, the Kuchis are able to escape the limits on the size of local herds, a restriction villagers are subjected to.
Since the fall of the Taliban, life for most Afghans has improved. However, this has not proved true for the Kuchis. Since the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s, the Kuchi population has now shrunk by 40 percent and many of them reside in refugee or displaced camps. The reasons are numerous. The demise of the Kuchi tradition is the result of continued war, destruction of roads, drought, air raids and Soviet bombing, as well as other war-related causes. This was further compounded by the fact that the drought from 1998 to 2002 caused the loss off 75% of the Kuchi herds. Pastures have still not recovered sufficiently. In addition, landmines and other unexploded ordinances have restricted the areas available for grazing. War also forced many Kuchis to flee their summer grazing lands in parts of central Afghanistan. When they returned they found that locals in the areas had converted much of their pastures to farming lands.
Consequently, some Kuchis have given up their nomadic lifestyle and have taken up residence on the outskirts of cities, working as labourers. Many express a desire to return to their traditional role, but many aid agencies, however, concentrate on short-term economic and humanitarian aid, rather than the sort of long-term aid the Kuchis would need to rebuild their herds.
"There is also in the same country [Afghanistan] another mountain where azure is found. It is the finest in the world and is got in a vain like silver."
Marco Polo (1271 A.D.)
In Afghanistan different kinds of gemstones can be found, and in particular lapis lazuli (blue gems), emeralds (green gems), and rubies (red gems). The most famous is lapis lazuli. Afghanistan is one of the world's biggest producers of this gem. The word "lapis" is the Latin word for stone, and the Arabian word "azul", denotes the blue colour.
This opaque, deep blue gemstone looks back at a long history. It was one of the first stones ever to be used and worn for jewellery. Excavations in the antique cultural centres all around the Mediterranean provided archaeologists with samples of jewellery left in tombs to accompany the deceased into the hereafter. Most frequently, this jewellery consisted of necklaces and objects crafted from lapis lazuli indicating that thousands of years ago the people in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome cherished deep blue lapis lazuli. It is reported that at the legendary city of Ur situated on the Euphrates River, there was busy trade in lapis lazuli as early as four thousand years BC. This lapis was discovered and mined in Afghanistan- making it the world's oldest source of commercial gemstones.
In other cultures lapis lazuli was also worshipped as a holy stone particularly in oriental countries it was considered a gemstone with mystical powers. To the Buddhists, lapis lazuli brought peace of mind and equanimity and dispelled evil thoughts.
Numerous seals, rings, scarabs and objects were crafted from the blue stone, which was introduced to Europe by Alexander the Great. The colour was called "ultramarine". In Europe , it was used as pigment for ultramarine in paintings dating back to the Middle Ages. The ultramarine colour was valued like gold in the art world. In fact the ultramarine blue paint used by the Grand Old Masters was finely ground lapis lazuli. It was ground and added to a mixture of binding agents, thereby turning the marble-like gemstone into a bright blue paint, suitable for watercolours, tempera and oil paintings. Before it became possible to manufacture this colour artificially (1828), the valuable ultramarine colour had to be made from real lapis lazuli, which still displays its splendour in many works of art of the time. In those days ultramarine blue was considered fine, rare and very expensive.
Contrary to all other material employed to create the colour blue, lapis lazuli has withstood the test of time in terms of its brilliance, while other compositions have long since paled. Currently the blue pigment derived from lapis lazuli is still used especially for renovations and restorations.
Lapis lazuli is the only important gemstone classified as a rock rather than a mineral. It is composed of several minerals. The main one is the blue lazurite that gives the actual blue colour to the gem. The amount of lazurite is significant in that the more there is, the deeper the colour blue. In addition to this mineral are the white calcite and the pyrite that usually appears as golden inclusions.
Many a cutter will make a face when cutting lapis lazuli, because as soon as the stone comes into contact with the cutting wheel, it will emanate a typical, slightly foul smell. An experienced cutter will recognize from the smell alone the satiation of colour shown by the stone.
Just like over 50,000 years ago, the best rough stones are still mined in Afghanistan. Lapis lazuli is found in the Yamagan Valley in the province of Badakhshan (north-east of Afghanistan). The most famous mine is called Sar-e-Sang and is located in this mountain valley on the upper part of the Kokcha River, a tributary of the Amu Darya River.
Extraction of lapis lazuli is quite difficult since the mines are located at an altitude of 3,700 meters to 4,300 meters. Moreover, it is only possible from June to November, since the mines are otherwise impassable during inclement weather.
For more information, see Lost Embroidery of Afghanistan by Keiko Nishigaki (Kanpodo.co, 2003).