Origin of Name
The Samarian Spinel gets its name from the ancient Hebrew city of Samaria, in central Palestine, presently situated in northwest Jordan. The city was built in the 9th century B.C. as the capital of the northern Hebrew kingdom of Israel, also known as Samaria. The ancient kingdom of Samaria was bounded by Galilee on the north and Judaea on the south, the Mediterranean Sea on the west and the Jordan River on the east. The extent of the kingdom was about 65 km from north to south and 56 km from east to west. The city was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. It was destroyed in the 2nd century A.D. and later rebuilt by King Herod the Great, who renamed the city Sebaste in honor of the Roman Emperor Augustus who was known as Sebastos by the Greeks.
According to legend the gemstone once adorned the Biblical Golden Calf, mentioned in Exodus 32. The Hebrews escaping from Egypt in the 13th century B.C. asked Aaron, the brother of Moses to fashion a golden calf, an idol that was worshipped by ancient Hebrews, so as to offer prayers for the safe return of Moses from Mount Sinai. Moses later came down from the Sinai carrying with him the tablets containing the ten commandments, revealed by God Almighty, and seeing his people worshipping the golden calf ordered its destruction. However, the worship of the Golden Calf continued up to the 10th century B.C. till the age of Jeroboam I, King of Israel.
Characteristics of the gemstone
The Samarian Spinel is the world’s largest spinel weighing 500 carats, and is part of the Iranian Crown Jewels, displayed at the Museum of the Treasury of National Iranian Jewels, at the Central Bank of Iran, in Teheran. The stone which is blood-red in color, is irregular in shape and has been polished in the rough with a hole on one side, indicating it was used as an adornment at one time.
The world’s largest spinels
Like all other large spinels in the Iranian Crown Jewels, the Samarian Spinel was also at one time considered to be a large ruby. But, now we know that all the so called large rubies in the crown jewels of monarchies around the world are actually spinels and not rubies. The world’s second largest spinel weighing 398.72 carats, is part of the Russian Crown Jewels and is mounted on the Great Imperial Crown of Catherine the Great, presently exhibited in the Museum of the Kremlin Diamond Fund. The 3rd largest spinel in the world is the 361-carat Timur Ruby, bearing Persian inscriptions in the Arabic script, and is presently part of the British Crown Jewels. The 270-carat spinel shown on the right of the photograph above is the 4th largest spinel in the world and also belongs to the Iranian Crown Jewels.
Chemical and physical properties of spinels
The chemical composition of spinel is Magnesium Aluminium Oxide, with the chemical formula MgAl2O4, and it crystallizes in the Isometric crystal system, forming cubic and octahedral crystals. Spinels occur in a variety of colors commonly at both ends of the visible spectrum, such as red, pink, violet, purple and sometimes as blue, green, yellow, and rarely as black and brown. In red spinel the red color is caused by chromium and iron. Spinel has a hardness of 8 on the Mohs scale, and a refractive index of 1.71 to 1.83. The specific gravity of spinel varies from 3.57 to 3.63. Spinels have a medium dispersion of 0.02.
Identification of spinels as a separate mineral from rubies
Rubies and red spinels have almost similar physical and chemical properties, and occur together in the same gravel mines. Because of this close resemblance the two minerals were not identified separately until recent times. Thus most red spinels were considered to be rubies in ancient times. It was in 1783 that the French mineralogist Louis Rom de Lisle identified spinel as a separate mineral from Ruby.
Chemically, while ruby is Aluminum Oxide-Corundum-(Al2O3) spinel is Magnesium Aluminium Oxide (MgAl2O4). While rubies crystallize in the hexagonal crystal system forming trigonal crystals, spinels crystallize in the isometric crystal system forming cubic and octahedral crystals. The hardness, specific gravity and refractive index are slightly higher for rubies than spinels, but this difference is significant enough to produce a separate identification. In fact it is the difference in hardness and weight (sp. gr.) that helped ancient gemstone cutters in Sri Lanka and Burma to differentiate between ruby and spinels even before the development of Gemology as a Science.
Why spinels in ancient times were polished in the rough ?
The hardness of ruby on the Mohs Scale is 9 and that of spinel is 8. Even though the hardness on the Mohs scale shows a difference of only one, in terms of absolute hardness Ruby is almost twice as hard as spinel. The absolute hardness of ruby is 400, whereas the absolute hardness of spinel is only 200. Thus spinels were actually much softer than rubies and quite difficult to work with than rubies. Perhaps this may be one reason why the ancient cutters and polishers preferred to polish the spinel gemstones in the rough instead of attempting to cut it.
Source of the Samarian Spinel assuming the legend associated with it to be true
If the legend about the Samarian Spinel is true, it has a history dating back to at least the 10th century B.C. The main source of rubies, spinels and other gemstones during this period was Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, which are the most ancient sources of gemstones in the world. Afghanistan has a history of gem mining dating back to 4,000 years, and was the main source of Lapis Lazuli in ancient times. Sri Lanka has a history of gem mining that dates back to at least 3,000 years.
The origin of the legend associated with the Samarian Spinel
The Legend of the Samarian Spinel is actually based on a diary entry made by the court physician to Nasser-ed-Din Shah who reigned between 1848 to 1896. According to this entry it was Nasser-ed-Din Shah who related to the physician the story of the spinel adorning the biblical Golden Calf during the period of Moses. But, Nasser-ed-Din Shah’s source for this information is not known. Possibly it was a legend that was passed down from generation to generation of the long line of Shahs of Iran.
A second possible way of how the large spinel entered the Iranian Crown Jewels
Another possibility of how the enormous 500-carat spinel entered the Iranian Crown Jewels is the well known route by which most of the present Crown jewels of Iran entered; viz. after Nadir Shah invaded Delhi and Agra, the capital cities of the Moghul Emperors, in 1739, during the rule of the Moghul Emperor Muhammad Shah. It is said that Nadir Shah brought in several chests full of diamonds, emeralds, pearls, and rubies, besides other treasures such as the Peacock Throne of Shah Jahaan, and the famous diamonds like Koh-i-Noor, Darya-i-Noor and Nur-ul-Ain. The 361-carat Timur Ruby also was brought in this way. The Timur Ruby bore the inscriptions of four of the Moghul Emperors of India, and particularly that of Jahangir Shah, who was notorious for engraving his name on diamonds and other gemstones. His line of thinking was that such engravings would propagate his name in the future, when everybody else would have been forgotten. Given the attitude of Jahangir Shah, it is very much surprising how the so called Samarian spinel escaped his attention, if at all the spinel passed through the hands of the Mogul Emperors. Thus the fact that not a single inscription appears on the 500-carat spinel, seem to indicate that it did not pass through either Delhi or Agra.
A third possible way of entry of the large spinel
A third possibility was that the 500-carat spinel entered the Iranian Crown Jewels directly from its source in Badakhshan after Nadir Shah’s death in 1747, possibly during the time of Fath Ali Shah (1797-1834), who is credited with enriching the crown jewels by adding a lot of new acquisitions, and also using his craftsmen to turn out several masterpieces of jewelry using the gemstones brought in by Nadir Shah.
The 4th largest spinel in the world – also part of the Iranian Crown Jewels
The 4th largest spinel in the world, weighing 270 carats and polished in the rough, is also part of the Iranian Crown Jewels, and is shown in the photograph below But, fortunately there is no doubt about the origin of this spinel as it bears an inscription that ascribes the ownership of the stone to the Moghul Emperor Jehangir Shah (1605-27), son of the greatest of all Moghul Emperors Akbar the Great (1556-1605) and father of the equally famous Shah Jahaan, the builder of the renowned Taj Mahal. It is believed that Nadir Shah used this spinel as an armband during his reign.
This spinel might also have originated in the Badakhshan mines of Afghanistan as all other large spinels in the various crown jewels, and probably entered the Moghul treasury directly. Jehangir Shah who was fond of getting his name engraved on large gemstones and diamonds, did not leave this stone untouched. According to a legend when Jehangir Shah was criticized for spoiling the beauty of a rare “ruby” by inscribing his name on it, he is said to have replied “This stone shall make my name more famous than the entire dynasty of Tamerlane.” Tamerlane’s dynasty had already died out in 1506, when Jehangir Shah is supposed to have made this statement, between 1605 and 1627. But, Jehangir Shah’s name has been immortalized by the inscription on this gemstone, and several other gemstones and diamonds in the Iranian treasury and other museums around the world.
1) The Rubies and Spinels of Afghanistan – A brief history – Richard W Hughes.
2) The Crown Jewels of Iran – Dr Victor E. Meen
3) Ruby and Sapphire – Richard W. Hughes
4)History of Palestine and Syria to the Macedonian Conquest (1931)-A.T. Olmstead
5)The History of Ancient Israel (1984)-Michael Grant