How China funds the Taliban

Ultramarine stones are unusual source of beauty – and terror

China is well-known as a consumer of rare ornaments, herbs and
antiques.

lapis-powder
Lapis lazuli was commonly ground up to make the pigment ultramarine for European paintings

For this reason it may come as little surprise that China has ended up as a market destination for a rare stone, lapis lazuli, found almost exclusively in Afghanistan. The only catch: these mines are controlled by the Taliban, and the Chinese market grants them an estimated $20 million per year to fund their radical political operations. While this stone currently finds itself at the site of violent strife, it is important to look back on the fabled 6,000 year history of lapis lazuli in human society, before it became a Taliban tool.

The color blue is one of the richest in the semantic and semiotic roles it plays within the art world. It is a color that speaks great volumes regarding sanctity, emotions, royalty and wealth. Arguably the most revered blue is ultramarine. This pigment is one of the oldest and most expensive colors used by artists. The revered color is ubiquitous in biblical illustrations, paintings that touch deeply on feelings and emotions as well as depicting wealth and royalty in portraiture. The name of the pigment denotes not only the origin of the pigment but also its sublime opaque color. A blue that is beyond all blues – and more expensive than all blues. The rock mineral that gives ultramarine its deep striking colour comes from lapis lazuli.

The stone lapis lazuli is one of the oldest sources of the blue pigment in the art world. For the past 6,000 years, the mountains of Afghanistan has been mined to cull the sought after stone. Lapis lazuli has been mined in Afghanistan since the 6th century and was historically traded along the Silk Road. It made its way into the Western world through the Venetian ports beginning in the 11th century. From that point onwards in the Western art world, lapis lazuli provided artists with the means to paint with extreme tonality and became the most expensive pigment in Renaissance times, more valuable than gold. Renaissance artists such as Titian, Masaccio and Rubens used ultramarine in painting the robe of the Virgin Mary or in the backgrounds depicting the sky, symbolizing the sanctity of the subject in iconographical paintings. While it may be in vogue in China today, lapis lazuli has also made immeasurable contributions to Western culture and society through antiquity.

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