Recent reports offer a possible ray of hope on the outlook for one of the world’s most significant archeological excavations at Mes Aynak, the future of which has hung in the balance for decades amid instability and conflict in Afghanistan, and due to strong international interest in the commercially and strategically valuable mineral deposits that lie deep beneath the ancient site.
According to a report by the Associate Press, the Taliban are now determined to ensure the survival of the ancient Buddhist heritage at Mes Aynak, in the hope that it will encourage mining investment worth billions of dollars.
The Mes Aynak Logar copper project is located in a barren region of Afghanistan’s Logar Province, some 40 kilometers from Kabul. According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, the site is home to the world’s second-largest copper deposit, reportedly representing estimated reserves of some 5.5 million tonnes of high-grade copper ore (Mes Aynak means “little source of copper” in Pashto).
However, the site is also home to one of the world’s most significant archeological excavations: the ancient settlement of Mes Aynak, once a city on the fabled Silk Road network of trade routes that facilitated the exchange of commodities, cultures, and spiritual traditions across the ancient world. This remarkable historical treasure trove, which French archaeologist Philippe Marquis has described as “probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road,” (The Sydney Morning Herald) includes more than 400 Buddhist statues, stupas, and a 40-hectare monastery complex, along with forts and a citadel spread over 19 separate archaeological sites.
Following the chaotic and ignominious retreat of American and allied military forces from Afghanistan last year, negotiations between Afghanistan’s new Taliban government and China’s state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp. (MCC) have resumed over mining activity at Mes Aynak, media sources report. A Chinese delegation was scheduled to travel to Kabul this month, at the Taliban’s request, to discuss the mining project, which is based on a deal signed with Afghanistan’s previous Western-backed government in 2008.*
“Protecting [the artifacts at Messages Aynak] is very important to us and the Chinese,” said the Taliban’s head of security at the heritage site, Hakumullah Mubariz. (AP)
In 2008, the administration of then-president Hamid Karzai granted a 30-year mining lease to MCC for US$3 billion, the largest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan by any country. MCC had planned to extract more than US$100 billion worth of copper that lies directly beneath the ancient city, however various factors at the time—among them a decline in the market price for copper and a deteriorating security situation—led to repeated delays in the extraction (originally scheduled for January 2013), which would have meant the complete destruction of the archaeological site.
More recently, dozens of Chinese mining companies have expressed interest in inking deals for this other mineral extraction opportunities across Afghanistan—alongside hopeful bids from Iran, Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere—with untapped mineral resources in the country estimated to be worth some US$1 trillion. Afghanistan’s acting Minister for Mining and Petroleum, Shahbuddin Dilawar, has held two virtual meetings with MCC in the last six months, according to MCC and ministry officials. And AP reports that Dilawar has urged MCC to return to the mine with no changes to the terms of the original 2008 contract.
All of the interested parties are “in a great hurry to invest,” said Ziad Rashidi, the ministry’s head of foreign relations. He added that Chinese interest was “extraordinary.” (AP)
What remains less clear today is how Afghanistan and China will ensure the preservation of this ancient and irreplaceable cultural heritage once mining and copper extraction activity is underway. Relocation may be an option for thousands of removable relics, but the site as a whole consists of a wealth of remains of ancient settlements, monasteries, and other vulnerable monuments to Afghanistan’s historical legacy.
Dilawar is reported to have expressed a firm intention to preserve the site, which would preclude open-pit mining—the cheapest and easiest method of pulling the copper ore from the ground, but which would also completely raze the site. The alternative route of underground mining, however, has been dismissed by MCC as too costly and impractical. In the meantime, Afghanistan’s Culture Ministry has been called on to provide a plan to relocate relics from Mes Aynak, most likely to the Kabul Museum.
“We have already transferred some [artifacts] to the capital, and we are working to transfer the rest, so the mining work can begin,” said Dilawar. (AP)
From a historical perspective, the Taliban’s eagerness to establish economic ties with China’s industrial giants and its history of intolerance and cultural destruction have done little to instill confidence. From 1996–2001, Taliban forces attacked and looted museums and libraries, while banning almost all forms of artistic and cultural expression. In 2001, the Taliban famously destroyed two sixth-century Buddha statues at Bamiyan, as well as numerous other statues and artifacts at the National Museum in Kabul. Over the course of the last 20 years of war and turmoil, countless cultural properties have been destroyed or removed from the country, and many cultural experts fear that even more irreplaceable monuments to the region’s distant past could be lost forever.
The tragedy of this clash of civilizations has been highlighted in heart-wrenching detail in the 2014 documentary Saving Mes Aynak by Brent Huffman, an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Saving Mes Aynak centers on the remarkable race against time by Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori to save the 5,000-year-old site near the border with Pakistan, which has so far been only partially excavated. Some believe future discoveries at the site could have the potential to redefine the history of Afghanistan and even the history of Buddhism itself.
Aside from the remarkable and extensive remains of an ancient Buddhist settlement that dates to the Kushan Gandhara period (roughly contemporary with the Roman Empire and China’s Western Han dynasty), further archaeological evidence points to civilizations in the area flourishing as early as the third century BCE. Discoveries at the site include clues pointing to an ancient monastic cult that revered Siddhartha Gautama before he was enlightened, and manuscripts mentioning the presence of troops led by Alexander the Great.
Mes Aynak would qualify as a World Heritage site if the government of Afghanistan were to apply for that status, said archaeologist and UNESCO advisor Tim Williams in 2017. “This is an outstanding and complex archaeological landscape, with astounding quality of preservation.” (CNBC)
Buddhism has played a significant role in shaping the history and culture of what is now Afghanistan, flourishing in the kingdoms that lay on the Silk Road trade routes with Central Asia. The conquests of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (r. c. 268–c. 232 BCE) and the subsequent Greco-Buddhist culture that blossomed under the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (256 BCE–100 BCE) and the later Indo-Greek Kingdom (c. 180 BCE–c. 10 CE) saw Buddhism establish deep roots that lasted for more than 12 centuries until the religion began to dissipate following Muslim conquests in the seventh century, and disappearing during the Persianate Ghaznavid dynasty (977–1186).*
A wealth of ancient Buddhist stupas, monasteries, caves, images of the Buddha, and other artifacts attest to this ancient and deeply rooted heritage. Ashoka’s territorial expansions, coupled with Greek influences in the mid-to-late fourth century BCE led to a unique cultural melting pot that saw the first known Buddhist statuary emerge in Gandhara—considered by many to represent the pinnacle of Buddhist art.
Now Taliban preserve Buddhas, with eye to China investment (AP)
Ancient treasures on shaky ground as Chinese miners woo Kabul (The Sydney Morning Herald)
China plans to destroy an ancient Buddhist city to get the copper buried there (CNBC)
Saving Mes Aynak
Related news reports from BDG
Now Taliban preserve Buddhas, with eye to China investment
Afghanistan’s Mes Aynak Archaeological Site Threatened as Mining Talks Resume
Future of Ancient Buddhist City of Mes Aynak, Afghanistan in Doubt Again after Taliban Takeover
Afghan Museums Fear for Ancient Buddhist Artifacts amid Taliban Takeover
From Bamiyan Buddhas to Museums, Taliban Seeks Legitimacy of Stewardship over Afghanistan’s Buddhist Heritage
British Museum to Return “Stunning” Gandharan Buddhist Artifacts to Afghanistan
Ancient Buddhist Artefacts from Afghanistan Restored in Japan
At UN Assembly, Sri Lanka Urges Environmental Efforts and Protection of Afghan Buddhist Heritage
Archaeologist Killed Near Buddhist Archaeological Site of Mes Aynak in Afghanistan
Is Time Running Out for the 5,000-year-old Mes Aynak Archaeological Site in Afghanistan?
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