The Deep History of Civilisation: the blue emerald of the Indus

In the high mountainous knot of the Pamirs in South Central Asia, in the Badakhshan region of north eastern Afghanistan, there is a small cave on the side of the hill. On approaching closer, one might hear the clink-clink of rock striking rock; one might see that the inside of the cave is lit with shimmering, greenish-blue light. This sight is not especially unique unless we also mention that we are at, roughly, 5000 BC.

There are men inside the cave, using rough stone pick-axes to extract a mineral of immense value in the ancient world. An emerald-blue stone called lapis lazuli.

These men are villagers who live in a small mud hut village close by. Most of them are clad minimally in rough clothes made from beaten flax, woven with grass. A few, however, seem to be more finely dressed and fat. They wear loose, flowing clothes; their ears and fingers are adorned with jewellery, studded with, well, more shiny stones. These men seem to be in command. They shout orders to the others, who are now emerging from the mouth of the cave, from where they will carefully climb down the side of the mountain on narrow, treacherous paths. The fat overseers shout rude commands at the miners, pointing again and again to the loads on these men’s backs: sackfuls of lapis lazuli.

The lapis lazuli is carried to the base of the mountain, where it is loaded onto carts pulled by massive bulls with enormous horns branching out from their vermillion anointed heads. The horns themselves are adorned with ribbons and tiny bells, almost as if the bullocks are venerated by the miners. At this stage in history, there are few domesticated animals, bulls are almost a minor divinity for these villagers. Some smaller carts will be pulled by teams of weary, sad looking men: a group different from the miners. The finer clad ones might sit on these carts, watching with hawk-like gaze their precious loads. In a day or two, the caravan will arrive at a small village of artisans who will break the stone and separate the mineral from the rubble. Here, the working men will have rest for a few days, eating their hearts fill, drinking late into the night sharing tales of gods, demons and other stranger things that walk the wilderness of this barely inhabited world. After a few days, finer, smoother bricks of lapis lazuli will be loaded onto other bullock carts, just arrived from the south, and the fat overseers will depart with this newly arrived caravan, further to the south, accompanied by another group of men, clad in thick leather hides, holding long, bronze tipped spears. The destination: a city-village of craftsmen on the banks of the River Indus.

As one might have guessed, we are witnessing an episode from the daily life of the denizens of what we now call the Indus Valley Civilisation. The IVC was, most likely, built on a foundation of agriculture and trade. While agricultural produce was, for the most part, grown and utilised locally in the ancient world, early trade networks were built around the exchange of luxury goods.

Lapis Lazuli was in high demand far and wide across the ancient world: used to adorn the bodies, homes and tombs of the ruling classes. We find intricately carved bowls in ancient China; we find, inlaid lapis lazuli in the tombs of early Egyptian rulers. The earliest much before the Age of Pharoahs, even before the civilisation we now know as ancient Egypt was united by a founding emperor, and in the lands around the Nile, were numerous warring kingdoms.

When speaking of ancient trading networks, the glamour of the east-west connections of the Silk Road connecting the far ends of Eurasia tend to stand out. The central arc of these connections, however, was built in a still older age when man had barely commenced a settled, urban life: around the trading networks of the IVC.

The civilisation of the Indus was at its largest extent spread far beyond the valley of its mother river. The northernmost IVC site discovered so far sits well within Central Asia, Shortugai on the Oxus River, near the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The southernmost sites straddle peninsular India. In the east, IVC sites touch the Ganga plains. In the west, most interestingly, IVC sites almost touch the Iranian plateau, and are not too distant neighbours to the civilisations of the Mesopotamian river valleys.

This web of IVC sites, linked with Egypt and the East African coast, the Mesopotamian civilisations, and through them further Western Asia, straddles the Indo-Mediterranean region, a vast melting pot of people and ideas since the beginning of settled human civilisation. From ancient times, this region has been linked through the movement of people, the circulation of trade and the exchange of ideas – back and forth – creating the foundational frameworks of politics, religion, mathematics, philosophy and science.

The further back in time one goes, the clearer it becomes how ephemeral modern day divisions, of polities or ideologies are. Ignorance of this deep past is also, I’d argue, the reason for so many of our conflicts today. Our past was common, so, logically, it follows, will be our future. These men of the past, the miners, the craftsmen, the traders, they built something for us which is remarkably resilient, yet also delicate. Civilisation.

In recent times, no idea has done more damage to public discourse than that of the clash of civilisations: popularised by Samuel Huntington and Osama bin Laden. An honest investigation of the roots of civilisation teaches us that, fundamentally, there is only one civilisation: a human civilisation. If its various branches build structures of cooperation, like the traders of the IVC, it prospers. If we listen, on the other hand, to merchants of hate, only one future awaits us, destruction.

Over the next few months, maybe years, I will be writing more about this deep, interconnected history. I hope I have something worthy to offer to this human story.

For now, let us return to the story of lapis lazuli. I mentioned that earliest traces were found in ancient Egypt. How was it transported there from the mines of Badakhshan? Through a labyrinth of trade routes, across land and sea. In the next essay in this series, I will begin tracing the history of these old routes.