An ancient Buddhist city is caught in a drawn-out battle between commerce and culture in Afghanistan
As the massive dust cloud finally settles, ears stop ringing, and tears dry, the gaping crater that was once an ancient Buddhist city slowly comes into view. Explosives have turned the 400,000-square-meter site into a football field–sized pit, the outer edges riddled with the deep-grooved tracks of bulldozers and SUVs.
This is the scene I had been dreading ever since archaeologists were told that December 25, 2012, was the final deadline for performing rescue archaeology at the ancient city in the Logar province of Afghanistan. At the end of December, the site—which holds major finds from the Kushan period including two large monastic complexes, dozens of temple structures, Buddhist monasteries, over 400 life-size Buddha statues, countless dwelling structures, ancient preserved wood, dozens of painted murals, hundreds of coins; and glass and pottery—was scheduled to be completely destroyed.
This ancient city is situated in Mes Aynak (“little copper well” in the Persian dialect Dari), an isolated mountainous region 25 miles southeast of Kabul. Today, this sprawling site is caught in the middle of a drawn-out war between commerce and culture in Afghanistan, a country plagued by over three decades of unrelenting war and high levels of corruption within the government.
Copper is an easily workable material used in building construction, heating, cooling, electronics, vehicles, and power transmission—and the global demand for the material has grown exponentially in the past few decades. The Chinese government, in its quest for natural resources around the globe, planned to demolish the 5,000-year-old cultural heritage site at Mes Aynak in order to begin excavation of the over $100 billion worth of copper that lies beneath the site. After entering a $3 billion bid in 2007, the Chinese government-owned companies China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper Corporation (JCC) won exclusive rights to mine Mes Aynak for 30 years. The deal, orchestrated by the Afghan Ministry of Mines (MOM), represents the largest private investment in Afghanistan’s history and generated allegations of fraud. The Afghanistan government was accused of accepting bribes from the Chinese companies, and some alleged that the head of MOM, Mohammad Ibrahim Adel, received a $30 million kickback from MCC. Although the charge was never proven, Adel stepped down from his post in 2009.
Though the Mes Aynak copper contract between MCC and MOM has never been released to the public, Integrity Watch, a Kabul-based NGO that monitors the extraction industry, has reported that no archaeological or environmental assessment was required by MOM before MCC began excavation. In the agreement, MOM gave MCC free reign to mine for copper open-pit style, the cheapest and most environmentally destructive method. Mining experts claim that without regulation Mes Aynak could become so polluted by poisonous runoff that it could become a Superfund site, a designation for locations so toxic that people are advised against even setting foot on the land. Two aquifers are located directly beneath the copper deposits, so drinking water accessed by large cities like Kabul could become contaminated. These levels of toxicity would be permanent, meaning no human, plant, or animal would ever live on this land again.
According to MCC, MOM never informed the Chinese companies about the existence of the Buddhist city until after the ink on the contract had dried. When several damning articles about the mining project’s imminent demolition of the historical site sparked an international outcry, MCC reluctantly granted archaeologists 3 years to attempt to save the fragile relics. Philippe Marquis, the head of the French archaeological mission in Afghanistan (DAFA), said that archaeologists required at least 30 years to properly excavate the site at Mes Aynak but they have been forced to work within MCC’s brief 3-year timetable and perform extremely rushed “rescue archaeology” using only the most primitive equipment. To further complicate matters, their efforts are sporadic because the area, a hotbed of Taliban activity, is extraordinarily dangerous; weather makes access to the site difficult as the area is prone to flooding and is closed through the winter; and staff turnover rates are high because site managers are frequently fired over disagreements with MOM.
One of the major tragedies of the destruction of this ancient Buddhist city is the loss of unearthed relics. Archaeologists who have worked at the site say that there are hundreds of manuscripts in several languages that are only just beginning to be unearthed. A Bronze Age copper smelter found at Mes Aynak suggests that there is a 5,000-year-old site beneath the Buddhist site. This ancient level beneath the Buddhist city remains largely unexplored.
Some small artifacts have been saved from Mes Aynak and taken to the National Museum in Kabul. These archaeological discoveries indicate that the ancient city in Mes Ayak was a major hub on the Silk Road, a melting pot for cultural exchange where traders and pilgrims from all over Asia and the Middle East gathered and mixed. It is even possible that a comprehensive study of the city and its relics could reshape our understanding of the history of Buddhism.
Yet all the unearthed material, ancient structures, and Buddhist artwork—all too fragile to be moved and saved—will be destroyed by MCC. It will be as if Mes Aynak and all its secrets never existed at all.
The ancient Buddhist city is situated directly on top of the copper deposit; thus, in order to get to the mineral, MCC has to destroy the historical landmark. Yet the copper deposit is so large that the entire mountain range and six local villages will also have to be demolished to create the open pit. Over the past few years, representatives from MOM and MCC began the process of moving local villagers out of their homes, some of which were more than 500 years old. The negotiations were poorly managed. Many locals felt that the money they were offered to move wasn’t enough, and some were never paid at all. Others were lied to and told that one day they could return and resettle in the area. Furious at the outcome of these bungled negotiations, Mes Aynak residents traveled to Kabul in 2011 to voice their opposition to the relocation efforts, but they were turned away. In response to being treated with disrespect, lied to, and ignored, Logar Province locals began to partner with the Taliban—who have enormous influence in the region—to fight back against their disenfranchisement.
Violence in the area began to increase in July 2011, when the Taliban fired rockets at both the local MCC compound and the archaeological dig site. Landmines have been hidden by the Taliban on the lone road into Mes Aynak at night to hinder vehicles en route to the mine and dig site. The conflict left four MCC workers and eleven Afghan police officers dead in 2011. When an Afghan archaeologist accidentally dug up a landmine on the dig site, the mine detonated in his face, permanently blinding and disfiguring him. MOM promised him compensation and reimbursement for his hospital bills, but as of this writing nothing has been given to him or his family.
In the midst of this escalating conflict, archaeologists continue to fight valiantly for Mes Aynak, risking their lives to travel and work at the site. Afghan archaeologists, the true heroes in this story, have been toiling daily since 2009, managing with the crudest of tools to do this work for a low wage; too frequently, they go months without being paid at all. But these seemingly insurmountable obstacles have not deterred them. Abdul Qadeer Temore, the lead Afghan archaeologist at Mes Aynak, told me that witnessing the demolition of the ancient site would be like a mother watching her children die before her eyes. Qadeer, a father of four, is threatened weekly by the Taliban, who demand cash bribes to spare the lives of archaeologists working at Mes Aynak. Qadeer dismisses these requests but fears for the safety of his crew and himself.
In November, after several articles and campaigns brought attention to the fate of Mes Aynak, there was an outpouring of support from Buddhist communities in Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Budapest, India, China, and Malaysia. In Thailand, the Dhammaykaya temple’s Dhamma Media Channel spread the word about Mes Aynak’s impending destruction. They distributed two official petitions to schools and universities throughout the country, one petition appealing to Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the other to UNESCO. The petitions have gathered over 60,000 signatures each. In November 2012, Buddhists and Thai citizens protested in the street in front of the UN, holding handmade signs proclaiming “Save Mes Aynak.” The Thai embassy spoke with Afghan government officials, pleading with them to protect the ancient Buddhist city. In response to the mounting opposition, in early January of 2013 MOM postponed the demolition for six to nine months.
Experts predict a bleak future for Afghanistan after the US military troop pullout in 2014, and this withdrawal will undoubtedly impact the future of the World Heritage Sites in the country. It is rumored that UNESCO is also planning to exit the country because of safety concerns for its staff. Their departure would leave all cultural heritage sites in Afghanistan completely unprotected, and Mes Aynak would be lost, swallowed up by corruption and violence.
Brent Huffman is a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor at Northwestern University. His film about Mes Ayak, the only complete visual record of the archaeologists’ work and findings, will be completed in March 2013.
Photographs by Michal Przedlacki.