The Rubies and Spinels of Afghanistan
– A brief history
Whenever possible, quotations found throughout this article have been faithfully transcribed from the original source. The only corrections made have been minor changes in punctuation. As a result, readers may encounter inconsistencies in spelling, etc. My approach has been that, when doubt existed, the original would stand as printed.
Certain quotations are quite lengthy. Rather than rewriting or paraphrasing what others have found (and, in the process, claiming it as his own), the author believes that history is better served by repeating their words exactly. Hence the extensive use of quotations from the primary literature (including the original footnotes). In so doing, the danger of misinterpretation is lessened. My own thoughts on the meaning of such quotes follow. This approach allows readers to make up their own minds on the original authors' intent. 
Some may question the need for such extensive historical detail. I include it in an attempt to show the threads of wisdom connecting us with our past. In today's modern world it is easy to believe that anything worth knowing has resulted from recent study. Such is not the case and I hope that this article can open readers' eyes to the glories (and excesses) of human tradition and history.
The great enigma: Afghanistan's ruby/spinel mines
Afghanistan's ruby/spinel mines are one of the great mysteries of gemology. Historically, rubies and red spinels have been produced from four areas: Burma, Sri Lanka, the Thai/Cambodian border (ruby only; no red spinel) and Afghanistan. While extensive accounts exist regarding the other deposits, in the twentieth century, little has been written about the rubies/spinels of Afghanistan. Indeed, many are totally unaware of the Afghan occurrences.
While the author has visited Afghanistan and has examined many rubies from Jagdalek, he has not personally visited either of the two major deposits described. Thus the following has been assembled from historical sources, with much of the primary research on inclusions in Jagdalek stones coming from the author's own research.
EARLY HISTORY: 1000–1895 AD
Afghanistan's ruby/spinel mines were mentioned in the Arabic writings of many early travellers, including Istakhri (951 AD), Ibn Haukal (978 AD), al-Ta'Alibi (961–1038 AD), al-Muqaddasi (ca 10th century), al-Biruni (b. 973; d. ca 1050 AD), Teifaschi (1240 AD), and Ibn Battuta (1325–1354 AD).
Mohammed Ben Mansur, writing in the 12th century, stated during the time of Abbaside (caliphs who ruled from 750 to 1258 AD), a hill at Chatlan was broken open by an earthquake and within a white rock in the fracture was found the 'Laal-Bedaschan' (balas ruby). Women of the neighborhood apparently tried to extract dye  from the red stones, and failing, threw them away. Later a jeweler recognized their value (Ball, 1931).
Although Marco Polo (ca 1254–1324 AD) apparently did not visit the mines, he passed nearby. In Henry Yule's definitive version of Marco Polo's travels is the following (with Yule's and Henri Cordier's notes following a translation of Polo's text):
…It is in this province that those fine and valuable gems the Balas Rubies are found. They are got in certain rocks among the mountains, and in the search for them the people dig great caves underground, just as is done by miners for silver. There is but one special mountain that produces them, and it is called Syghinan. The stones are dug on the king's account, and no one else dares dig in that mountain on pain of forfeiture of life as well as goods; nor may any one carry the stones out of the kingdom. But the king amasses them all, and sends them to other kings when he has tribute to render, or when he desires to offer a friendly present; and such only as he pleases he causes to be sold. Thus he acts in order to keep the Balas at a high value; for if he were to allow everybody to dig, they would extract so many that the world would be glutted with them, and they would cease to bear any value. Hence it is that he allows so few to be taken out, and is so strict in the matter.*
The account of the royal monopoly in working the mines, etc., has continued accurate down to our day. When Murad Beg of Kunduz conquered Badakhshan some forty years ago, in disgust at the small produce of the mines, he abandoned working them, and sold nearly all the population into slavery! They continue to remain unworked, unless clandestinely. In 1866 the reigning Mír had one of them opened at the request of Pandit Manphul, but without much result.
The locality of the mines is on the right bank of the Oxus, in the district of Ish Káshm and on the borders of Shignan, the Syghinan of the text. (P. Manph.; Wood, 206; N. Ann. des. V. xxvi. 300.)
[The ruby mines are really in the Gháran country, which extends along both banks of the Oxus. Barshar is one of the deserted villages; the boundary between Gháran and Shignán is the Kuguz Parin (in Shighai dialect means "holes in the rock"); the Persian equivalent is "Rafak-i-Soumakh." (Cf. Captain Trotter, Forsyth's Mission, p. 277.) – H.C.]
Henry Yule, 1920, The Book of Ser Marco Polo
The famous Moorish traveller, Ibn Battuta (Batuta) (1325–1354 AD), mentioned the following:
People generally attribute the lapis-stone [lapis lazuli; Arabic lazward] to Khurasan, but in reality it is imported from the mountains of [the province of] Badakhshan, which has given its name also to the ruby called badakhshi (pronounced by the vulgar balakhshi)…
H.A.R. Gibb, 1971, Vol. 3, The Travels of Ibn Battuta
In 1832, James Prinsep published a fascinating paper in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. This contained abstracts of three different oriental works, translated into English by Raja Kalíkishen,  some of which covered the ruby/spinel deposit of Badakhshan:
Corundum or Spinelle Ruby
In a manuscript history of Cashmír and the countries adjacent, by Abdúl Qádir Khan, Benares, 1830, is the following description of the manner of extracting rubies from the Badakshan mines: it professes to be taken from an oral account by Mirza Nazar Báki Bég Khán, a native of Badakshán, settled at Benares.
Having collected a party of miners, a spot is pointed out by experienced workmen, where an adit is commenced. The aperture is cut in the rock large enough to admit a man upright: the passage is lighted at intervals by cotton mashúls placed in niches; as they proceed with the excavation, the rock is examined until a vein of reddish appearance is discovered, which is recognized as the matrix of the precious gem. This red colored rock or vein is called rag-í-lál, or, the vein of rubies; the miners set to work upon this with much art, following all its ramifications through the parent rock. The first rubies that present themselves are small, and of bad colour: these the miners called piadehs (foot soldiers): further on some larger and of better colour are found, which are called sawars (horse soldiers); the next, as they still progress in improvement, are called amirs, bakshis, and vazirs, until at last they come to the king jewel, after finding which, they give up working the vein: and this is always polished and presented to the king. The author proceeds to describe the finest ruby of this kind that had ever fallen under his observation. It belonged to the Oude family, and was carried off by Vizir Ali; he was afterwards employed in recovering it from the latter: it was of the size of a pigeon's egg, and the color very brilliant; weight, about two tolas; there was a flaw in it, and to hide it, the name of Julál-ud-dín was engraved over the part; hence the jewel was called the lál-i-jaláli. A similar ruby to this, but considerably larger, is in the possession of Runjit Sinh, and has the names of five emperors engraved upon it.
* The Manaif-ul-ahjár dates this occurrence "350 years ago," but the date of the work is not given: the lâl is not mentioned by Zakarya. Since the above was written, Mr. H.H. Wilson has favored me with a sight of another work on jewels, entitled Khawás-ul-hejár, translated by himself, in which the lâl is treated of under the name of balaksh (Balakshan being synonymous with Badakshan). This leaves no doubt as to the origin of the word Balas…
James Prinsep and Raja Kalíkishen, 1832
The inscriptions mentioned on the ruby owned by Ranjit Singh ('Runjit Sinh') suggest that this was the Timur ruby now in the personal collection of the British monarch (see box).
In 1836, Captain John Wood began an epic journey to trace the headwaters of the Oxus river. He did attempt to visit the ruby mines in Badakhshan, but due to inclement weather was unsuccessful. The following is his account:
The ruby mines are within twenty miles of Ish-kashm, in a district called Gharan, which word signifies caves or mines, and on the right bank of the river Oxus. They face the stream, and their entrance is said to be 1,200 feet [366 m] above its level. The formation of the mountain is either red sandstone or limestone largely impregnated with magnesia. The mines are easily worked, the operation being more like digging a hole in sand, than quarrying rocks…. The galleries are described as being numerous, and running directly in from the river. The labourers are greatly incommoded by water filtering into the mine from above, and by the smoke from their lamps, for which there is no exit. Wherever a seam or whitish blotch is discovered, the miners set to work; and when a ruby is found it is always encased in a round nodule of considerable size. The mines have not been worked since Badakhshan fell into the hands of the Kunduz chief, who, irritated, it is supposed, at the small profit they yielded, marched the inhabitants of the district, then numbering about five hundred families, to Kunduz, and disposed of them in the slave market. The inhabitants of Gharan were Rafizies, or Shiah Mohamedans, and so are the few families which still remain there.
John Wood, 1841, A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus
A mention of the Badakhshan mines was made by Pandit Manphúl, in a report dated 1867. His report is important for, unlike most others, he seems to have examined actual specimens. Manphúl said:
The Ruby Mines are situated in Ishkásham, bordering on Shighnán…. The Ruby mines have not been worked for the last twenty years and upwards. They were then given up in consequence of the labour spent on them not having been sufficiently rewarded; whether the mines had been exhausted, or whether the workers were unskilful, or managed to steal the more precious stones, is not certain. The present Mír, who had one of the mines worked last year (a.d. 1866), at my request, made over to me some of the best specimens brought to him. They are not the best of their kinds, unless the one encased in a nodule turn out to be so. The Mír, depreciating the skill of the present workers, who are natives of the country, and, according to an established usage, labour for nothing, is anxious to secure the services of competent miners… It is believed that the mines are still stealthily worked by the people living near them, with, or without the countenance and connivance of the servants of the Mír charged with their management. The mines are known to have yielded rubies of six different colours, viz. red, green, white, yellow, violet, and rosy. The specimens with me are white, violet, and rosy.
The ruby (lál) has given Badakhshan a lasting celebrity in the world of Oriental poetry.
The Sohanmakkhi* also comes out of the Ruby
Pandit Manphúl, Badakhshán and the Countries around it (see Yule, 1872)
Valentine Ball (1881), Irishman extraordinaire, former head of the Geological Survey of India and author of Tavernier's Travels in India, also remarked on the mines, under the topic of spinel:
Afghanistan. – In the year 1879 the so-called ruby mines of the late Amir of Afghanistan, Shir Ali, which are situated near the village of Jagdalak in Kabul, were visited by Major Stewart of the Guides. Two specimens of stones, called yakut by the natives, and samples of the matrix, were forwarded to the office of the Geological Survey for examination. The stones proved to be spinel, and the matrix a crystalline micaceous limestone. Major Stewart* states that the Amir kept a strict guard over the mines and only allowed particular friends of his own to work them.
Badakshan. – The balas ruby mines of Badakshan are situated
on the banks of the Shighnan, a tributary of the Oxus. They have
been known by reputation for very many centuries, and the name balas
is derived from Balakshan, another form of writing the name of the
country or from Balkh the capital town.** This may possibly be the
origin of the common mistake made in English works on precious stones,
namely, that these mines are situated in Balochistan!…
Valentine Ball, 1881
Ball claimed that the Jagdalek stones were spinel. While spinel could possibly also occur there, a later analysis reported by FR Mallet (1887) proved that the two specimens collected were, in fact, rubies.
An early mention of the rubies of Badakhshan is found in the writings of the Spaniard, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, who visited the court of Timur,  at Samarkand in the years 1403–1406 AD.
The lord [Timour] caused all the Meerzas and nobles in the land of Samarcand to come to this festival; amongst whom was the lord of Balaxia, which is a great city, where rubies are procured; and he came with a large troop of knights and followers.
The ambassadors went to this lord of Balaxia, and asked him how he got the rubies; and he replied that near the city, there was a mountain whence they brought them, and that every day they broke up a rock in search of them. He said that when they found a vein, they got out the rubies skilfully, by breaking the rock all round with chisels. During the work, a great guard was set by order of Timour Beg; and Balaxia is ten days journey from Samarcand, in the direction of India.
CR Markham, 1859
Bauer (1904) describes both the Jagdalek and Badakhshan deposits. Of the latter, Bauer said:
The ruby mines of Badakshan were famous in olden times, and they supplied some of the vast store of treasure amassed by the Great Mogul. They are situated in Shignan, on the bend of the Oxus river, which is directed to the south-west, in latitude about 37°N. and longitude 71.5°E. They lie between the upper course of the Oxus and its right tributary the Turt, near Gharan, a place the name of which is said to signify "mine," sixteen miles [26 km] below the town of Barshar, in the lower, not the higher, mountain ranges…
It is possible that the rubies and spinels which have recently come into the market through Tashkent, and which, according to the merchants, were mined in the Tian-Shan Mountains, are in reality from these same mines. There is no reliable information as to the existence of ruby mines in the Tian-Shan Mountains or in Tibet, so that the 2000-carat ruby recently received by Streeter, and said to come from Tibet, may also have been found in these mines on the Oxus.
Max Bauer, 1904, Precious Stones
After Barthoux, discussion of Afghan rubies was restricted to the Jagdalek mines. During the Soviet occupation, mining of all Afghan gem and mineral deposits was controlled by the state (Boa, 1987). However, since many mines lay in inaccessible areas, such mining became an important source of income for the rebels. With the Soviet pullout, modern exploration and exploitation might become possible, thus increasing the output from Afghanistan.
OTHER AFGHANISTAN LOCALITIES
Streeter (1892) did mention a ruby of 10.5 cts brought to England from mines at Gandamak, about 20 miles (32 km) from Jagdalek. Due to the proximity of these localities, it is possible that the stone actually came from Jagdalek. Griesbach (1892) reported rubies 20 miles (32 km) west of Tatang in a coarse, micaceous marble.
Gary Bowersox reported that gem-quality ruby had been found northeast of Kabul (Koivula, 1987). No further details are available. Ghaggi has also been reported as a source of ruby. About 1986, American dealer Dudley Blauwet purchased a large, euhedral yellow sapphire crystal said to have originated from Dharipiche, Kunar Province, northeastern Afghanistan (pers. comm., Sept. 19, 1994).
In the late 1980s, large reddish spinels were reported from the Pamir mountains of what is now Tajikistan. One 532-ct rough yielded cut gems of 146.43 and 27.81 cts (Bancroft, 1989, 1990). It is not known if the mine that produced these specimens is the same as the Badakhshan mine described above (Peter Bancroft, pers. comm., June, 1994). Ruby was also reported in eastern Tajikistan, near the border with China, in the early 1980s (Bank and Henn, 1990; Henn et al., 1990). The mine is said to be located at Turakuloma, some 40 km northwest of Murgap, at 4500 m above sea level, in a mineralized zone of marbles. However, this deposit is far from the Afghan border.
The above accounts clearly describe two separate mines for ruby and/or spinel. One, located at Jagdalek (spelled variously, Jagdalak or Jegdalek), 51.5 km (32 miles) east of Kabul, and another further north in Badakhshan, on the banks of the Shignan, a tributary of the Oxus (Amu Darya), near Gharan, just north of Ishkásham. According to Alexander Fersman (1946–47), noted Russian mineralogist/gemologist, "From the mines at the mouth of the Kuga-Lial River, the East for a thousand years has been getting its red stones – bright rubies and pinkish-red spinels, called lal."  Gary Bowersox has told the author that the Afghan name of the Badakhshan mine is Kuh-i-lal ['the place of ruby/spinel'] (pers. comm., July 1, 1994). Undoubtedly the localities described by Fersman and Bowersox are identical.
Political difficulties and rugged terrain make Afghanistan a difficult country to explore, and Tajikistan is no better. Until someone manages to visit the Badakhshan mines, and lives to tell the tale, we must be content with mere speculation.
Characteristics of Afghanistan ruby (Jagdalek)
Nothing exists in the literature regarding the gemological characteristics of rubies or spinels from Badakhshan, primarily because no twentieth-century eyewitness accounts exist of the mines. In addition, gemological descriptions of the important specimens of history, such as the Timur ruby and the Black Prince's ruby, have never been published.
The situation at Jagdalek is somewhat better. Material has filtered out throughout the 1980s. In the early part of that decade, the author acquired a number of faceted and rough specimens from Jagdalek. The following is based on his first-hand studies, supplemented by those of Bowersox (1985), Barthoux (1933), Beesley (1986), Brückl (1937) and Themelis (1988).
Afzali (1981) has reported the Jagdalek mine to lie in Kabul province at 34° 26' N, 69° 49' E. For those who read German, the most complete description of the mine is that of Brückl (1937). The rubies are said to occur embedded in a regionally-metamorphosed marble cut by granitic intrusions of Oligocene age.
Table 1: Properties of Jagdalek (Afghanistan) ruby
Rubies from Jagdalek are only rarely encountered in faceting quality, but when clean can be magnificent. In terms of color, Jagdalek rubies resemble most the gems of Vietnam, Burma and Sri Lanka, being strongly fluorescent and often of a slightly pinkish or raspberry-red hue similar to rubellite tourmaline. A small percentage are of violet hue.
Various types have been found in Afghan rubies. Common are colorless blocks displaying rhombohedral cleavage, most likely of calcite. Inclusions of calcite are not surprising, considering the fact that Jagdalek rubies are found in a marble matrix, just as in Burma. Transparent plates and books of hexagonal outline are also seen. Due to their anisotropic character between crossed polars and prominent basal cleavage, they are most likely mica. Other platelike inclusions consist of irregular distorted shingles which are opaque and black or slightly gold in color. These also display a somewhat micaceous appearance. Additional solid inclusions seen were rounded colorless grains of low relief and, in one specimen, corroded blocks of a yellow color. Several specimens examined by the author contained deep red-orange prisms of square outline and submetallic luster. Some were knee-shaped twins with obvious reentrant angles, indicating rutile.
Both primary and secondary liquid inclusions are seen, the latter being responsible for the lack of clarity which most of these rubies display. Irregular, liquid-filled cavities with jagged edges (much like those in Colombian emeralds) are also found. However, the cavities of the Jagdalek rubies are somewhat thicker. The fingerprints and feathers which fill these stones often show a ragged appearance, as well, with coarse tubes that can easily be confused with the flux inclusions in flux-grown synthetic rubies.
Color zoning in Jagdalek rubies is extremely sharp and narrow, forming in the typical hexagonal pattern when viewed parallel to the c axis. The most distinctive feature of Jagdalek rubies are the small spots or zones of a sapphire-blue color. At times, these blue zones may be hexagonal in outline while in other cases they consist of narrow bands, but all show a sharp division between red and blue. Similar blue zoning is seen in Vietnamese rubies and in Burmese rubies from Mong Hsu.
Rhombohedral polysynthetic twin lamellae are seen in most specimens, inevitably accompanied by long white boehmite needles meeting at 86.1/93.9°.
While exsolved rutile needles have not been found, clouds of tiny exsolved particles of what may be rutile have been seen. The lack of true silk means that star rubies are not produced. Cabochons may show a silvery sheen, though, from reflection off the particles. Exsolved boehmite needles are common at the junctions of intersecting rhombohedral twin lamellae.
The author would like to give thanks to those who have assisted with this article. First, to Bob Frey, a prince of a man, who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in both editing and helping the author locate obscure references. May all his dreams come true. Secondly, to Paul Picus, of rapier wit and red pen, whose advice has been a constant source of joy. And finally, to Gary Bowersox, American-born, but doubtless an Afghan in a previous lifetime.
This article was based in part on an excerpt from my book, Ruby & Sapphire. It was published in 1994 in the Journal of Gemmology (Vol. 24, No. 4, October, pp. 256–267).
Title photo: Gary Bowersox
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