Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lapis on the Aegean

Passing several vendors selling souvenirs outside the Basilica of St. John in Ephesus, on present-day Turkey’s west coast, my husband and I stopped to look at some deep blue stone & metal jewelry. The metal work was cheap (silverplate over brass?), but the blue stone was beautiful. I’d read about lapis lazuli -- the exotic blue stone that tiled ancient Egypt’s royal floors and which was also used extensively in their jewelry – but I don’t think I’d ever see it in person.

Ephesus – what’s left of it -- is impressive. At its peak during the first two centuries CE, second in importance and size only to Rome, it was estimated to have 400K-500K inhabitants. However, despite repeated dredges during the city's history its importance as a commercial center declined as the harbor slowly filled with sedimentation from the Cayster River. A visit from the Goths in 263 CE didn’t help the struggling city. Today, the ruins are 5 km inland from the Aegean Sea.

Famed for the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), Ephesus is also home to the Library of Celsus (built to store 12,000 scrolls), a grand amphitheater capable of holding 25,000 spectators (still in use today, Sting, Yanni and Elton John are just a few who have performed there) and the Basilica of St. John, built in the 6th century CE under emperor Justinian I.

(left: lapis & 22K vermeil necklace from Glimmerdream.com) Under the fierce Mediterranean sun outside the Basilica, the haggling began. I ended up with a pair of lapis earrings and an impressive lapis necklace (which I eventually gave to a friend who admired it), and my husband with a blue glass "Nazar Boncugu" or "Eye Bead" on a leather cord, worn for protection against the ‘evil eye’ in Turkey.

At the time, I didn’t know that 95% of all the world’s lapis comes from Afghanistan (Chile produces some, but of poor quality), where it’s been mined for 6,000 years.

Turkey and Afghanistan have a long history of friendship. It’s been said that "Turkey is Afghanistan's closest neighbor without common borders." While 12% of Afghanistan's population is ethnic Turkic, and nearly 100% Muslim as is Turkey, historic ties also draw the two nations together.

In the 1920's during the time of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic, and Afghan King Amanullah (r. 1919 to 1929), relations grew tighter and trade flourished. Like Ataturk, Amanullah was reform minded and interested in following the path of secular Turkey. In fact, Afghanistan was the second country after the Soviet Union to recognize Ataturk's government. (Irony…)

Learn more about lapis at Glimmerdream.com

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