41. lapis lazuli, lazurite
Hebrew: sappÓr. Exodus 24:10, 28:18, 39:11; Job 28:6, 16; Song of Solomon 5:14; Lamentations 4:7; Isaiah 54:11; Ezekiel 1:26, 10:1, 28:13.
Greek: sappheiros. Revelation 21:19.
Lapis lazuli is the most likely identification of the Hebrew sappÓr, a gemstone that can be carved with a sharp tool, in allusion to its use in signet rings and scarabs. The resemblance of sappÓr and "sapphire" is a false cognate, and ancient descriptions of sappÓr, including Job 28:6, fit lapis lazuli.
Lapis lazuli is, strictly speaking, a contact metamorphic rock consisting of a mixture of lazurite, calcite, and pyrite. Lazurite (Na4-5Al3Si3O12S) rarely forms euhedral isometric crystals but typically occurs in compact granular masses in a matrix of calcite. Typical specimens have a deep blue color and vitreous luster. Its hardness is 5.5 and its specific gravity is 2.38 to 2.42.
Lapis lazuli is the product of alteration of crystalline limestones by contact metamorphism. It usually includes a fraction of sodalite and diopside. Specks of pyrite give the stone a gold-flecked appearance that evokes the stars of heaven and must have contributed to its popularity in Mesopotamia and Egypt during the fourth and third millennia BC.
Sumerian artistry in lapis lazuli reached its peak at Ur in the fourth millennium. In Sumerian mythology, Ereshgikal, the goddess of the underworld, dwelt in a palace of lapis lazuli. Trade in the uncut stone must have begun at least a thousand years earlier. The Akkadians called it uqnŻ. Isolated finds of lapis lazuli beads date back to the seventh millennium, but it occurs regularly in north Mesopotamian sites of the fourth millennium. Trade seems to have fallen off in the second millennium because lapis lazuli finds become rarer and many pieces have been remade from older objects. Assyrian demand restored the popularity of lapis lazuli in the first millennium.
Lapis lazuli, turquoise, and carnelian were the three favorite precious stones of the Egyptians, although they had no source of lapis lazuli themselves and had to obtain it by trade or tribute from Mesopotamia. Lapis lazuli (chesbet) and turquoise stood for Horus, their sky god, and they often portrayed their divinities with golden skin and lapis lazuli headdresses. They placed scarabs of lapis lazuli, inscribed with incantations from the Book of the Dead, over the hearts of mummies as symbols of eternal life. The Egyptians eventually learned to make dark blue glass to imitate lapis lazuli.
About 2150 BC, Gudea of Lagash recorded his imports of blocks of lapis lazuli and carnelian from the land of Meluhha. Marco Polo visited the best documented ancient source of lapis lazuli for cylinder seals, jewelry, statuettes, carvings, inlays, and ultramarine pigment in the Kochka river valley in Badakshan. The valley lies north of the Hindu Kush range of northeast Afghanistan. A layer of white and black cipolin marble overlies a gneiss on one wall of the narrow valley, and it is mineralized with veins and patches of lapis lazuli and pyrite. Associated metamorphic minerals include pyrite, phlogopite, forsterite, diopside, green apatite, scapolite, and tremolite.
The Persians recognized three varieties of lapis lazuli: assemani, or pale blue; nili, or azure blue; and sabz, or green lapis lazuli. Ancient writers often confused azurite and turquoise with lapis lazuli.
A Neo-Assyrian text reads, "A seal of lapis lazuli portends that he shall have power; his god shall rejoice over him."
Following the depletion of the historic Afghanistan mines, the Russians opened new mines in Siberia during the eighteenth century. These mines of the Malaya Bistriya district, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) west of Lake Baikal, produce deeply colored lazurite mixed with pyrite, mainly from nodules and veins in fractured marble. This host rock has been altered by a mineralized solutions during syenite intrusion. Other modern sources of lapis lazuli include Angola, Burma, Canada, Chile, Pakistan, and the United States.
Bariand, Pierre, 1972. Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan. Mineral Digest; 4: 6-14.
Hogarth, D.D., 1970. Mineral occurrences in the Western Lake Baikal District, U.S.S.R. Mineralogical Record; 1-2, 58-64.
Hurlbut, 1952, op. cit.; 340.
Lucas & Harris, op. cit.; 398-400.
Pittman, op. cit.; 1589-1603.
Jolyon, Ralph, 1993-2004. http://www.mindat.org/show.php?id=2330
Schumann, op. cit.; 172-173.
Copyright 2004, 2005, 2006 by Richard S. Barnett, Virtual Curator of