Mes Aynak, a magnificent Buddhist city, is the most important archaeological discovery in a generation. But it is sitting on a vast copper deposit and is about to be destroyed

The archaeological dig at Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist city on the route of the Silk Road in Afghanistan. Photograph: Dusan Vranic/Associated Press

In the spring of 1963, a French geologist set out from Kabul to carry out a survey in Logar province in eastern Afghanistan. His destination was the large outcrop of copper-bearing strata in the mountains above the village of Mes Aynak. But in the course of boring for samples, the geologist stumbled on something much more exciting: an entire buried Buddhist city dating from the early centuries AD. The site was clearly very large – he estimated that it covered six sq km – and, although long forgotten, he correctly guessed that it must once have been a huge and wealthy terminus on the Silk Road.

Archaeologists in Kabul did a preliminary survey of the site, mapping it and digging test trenches, but before they could gather the enormous resources needed for a full-scale excavation, first the 1978 Marxist coup then the 1979 Saur Communist revolution and the Soviet invasion intervened. In the chaos of conflict that followed, the Soviets visited Mes Aynak to dig test tunnels into the hillside and investigate the feasibility of extracting its copper. Later, during the Taliban era, one of the abandoned Soviet tunnels became an al-Qaida hideout, while the remote valley became a training camp: the 9/11 hijackers stopped off here en route to New York. During the American onslaught of December 2001, US special forces attacked the tunnel: an unexploded rocket lodged in the roof and burn marks at the cave mouth still bear witness to the attack.

By the time French archaeologists returned in 2004, they found that the secret of the buried city was out. As had happened in many other sites in the country, a large and highly organised team of professional art looters, probably from Pakistan, had systematically plundered the mounds at Mes Aynak and, judging by the detritus they left, had found large quantities of hugely valuable Gandharan Buddha images: the remains of many painted stucco figures deemed too fragile or too damaged to sell were left lying around the looting trenches which now crisscrossed the site. Beside them, the archaeologists found empty tubes of glue and bags of fine plaster – evidence of attempts at restoration and conservation.

An archaeologist examines the remains of statues of Buddha at Mes Aynak. Photograph: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Things did not begin well. The first set of guards placed on the site in 2004 ended up shooting each other in a gun-battle; indicating, presumably, that profitable looting was continuing long after the site had passed into Afghan government control. But it was now beyond dispute that Mes Aynak was a discovery of major significance. In the months that followed, the excavators uncovered 19 separate archaeological sites in the valley. These ranged from four fortified monasteries, a Zoroastrian fire temple and several Buddhist stupas (commemorative monuments), through ancient copper working, smelting workshops, miners habitations and a mint, as well as two small forts and a citadel. They also found a hoard of Kushan, Sassanian and Indo-Parthian coins, more than 1,000 statues, and several perfectly preserved frescoes showing donor portraits and scenes from the life of the Buddha.

As more data slowly emerged from the ground, it became clear that the site was a major Buddhist settlement, occupied from the first century BC and to the 10th century AD, at a time when South Asian culture in the form of the Buddhist religion and Sanskrit literature were spreading up the Silk Route into China, and when Chinese scholars and pilgrims were heading southwards to the Buddhist holy places of the Gangetic plain: Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, and the Buddhist university and library of Nalanda, the greatest centre of learning east of Alexandria. Mes Aynak was clearly an important stopping-off point for monks heading in either direction.

Then, in 2008, the Chinese returned, this time not as pilgrims or scholars but instead as businessmen. A Chinese mining consortium – Chinese Metallurgical Group and Jiangxi Copper Co – bought a 30-year lease on the entire site for $3bn (£2bn); they estimated that the valley contained potentially $100bn worth of copper, possibly the largest such deposit in the world, and potentially worth around five times the estimated value of Afghanistan’s entire economy. Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s government hailed the mine as a key component in bringing about a national economic resurgence that would not be dependent on aid and military spending – which, between them, currently make up 97% of the legal economy – or, indeed, the profits of the illegal opium trade. Some observers estimated that the project could bring in $300m a year by 2016 and provide about $40bn in total royalties to the Afghan government.

Gold and jewels discovered at Mes Aynak. Photograph: Jerome Starkey/FlickrVision

Copper had created the site and probably drew the Buddhist monks to the valley in the first place, but now it would imminently lead to its complete destruction. In order to retrieve what they could before the site was levelled, the archaeologists of the French Archaeological Mission in Afghanistan (Dafa) began a major rescue dig to which the Chinese contributed $2m, the US $1m and the World Bank $8m: by providing the cash, everyone hoped the mine would not be halted by protests – the press had already begun comparing the destruction of the major Buddhist site at Mes Aynak to the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in the summer of 2001.

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