The Ancient City of Mes Aynak
Giant Buddha statue carved into the cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban
October 17, 2012
In 2001, the world watched in horror as the Taliban destroyed the historic statues of Bamiyan- 5th century statues that were carved into the cliffs of the Bamiyan valley and originally decorated with gold and jewels. As the US was preparing to war with Afghanistan, footage of the destruction was broadcast to the world to rally support for the invasion, the overthrow of the Taliban, and installment of a proxy government that would serve US interests.
Some of the most disturbing aspects of these interests have been outlined in the now infamous Project for a New American Century- described by neoconservatives such as Donald Rumsfeld, Zalmay Khalilzad, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, as "preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles" using military force all across the world. At the heart of this project is the need to control resources, not only for US sale and consumption, but also from access to these resources by regimes perceived as threats to US dominance, such as China and Russia. The plan is ambitious, as it calls for regime changes in dozens of states, the creation of new states and the partition and shift of borders of existing states to create a geopolitical profile favorable to American political and economic control.
Now, 11 years after the US invasion of Afghanistan and the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, capitalist war and its direct nexus to the loss of culture and history is once again illustrated in Afghanistan. The pending casualties are again World history and culture, but with several bold twists this time around including: the environment, Afghan landowner’s claims to their lands, and the little, if any, faith that Afghans may have in the notoriously malfeasant US-backed Karzai regime.
The battleground is Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist city built about 4600 years ago atop a rich copper deposit in Logar, Afghanistan. Discovered in the 1960s, Archaeologists consider it to be "one of the most intriguing ancient mining sites in Central Asia, if not the world".
Mes Aynak is now scheduled for destruction in December 2012 in order to extract its copper deposits, following an agreement between the Afghan Government and a Chinese mining consortium, comprised of China Metallurgical Group and Jianxi Copper Co.
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It includes statues of Prince Siddhartha, a Stupa or a monestary, coins, glass, tools, manuscripts related to the presence of Alexander the (not-so) Great’s troops, several separate monasteries and a commercial area. Older historic remains dating back to more than 5000 years are also at the site and possibly even more ancient Bronze Age artifacts dating as far back as 5600 years ago. It is a reminder of the diverse interactions and influences that various civilizations have had on Afghanistan’s culture, and the identity of its people. Afghan children learn about the richness of their history through places like this. What will we teach our children and their children when greedy opportunists destroy places and things that link them to their past and identity for personal profits?
Proponents of the mining project claim that the venture will benefit Afghans in terms of job creation and trade. However, in light of the government’s record of 11 years of theft, nepotism, fraud and misappropriation, such claims could only be chalked up to one of two things: either deliberate misinformation on the part of government officials that help themselves to royalties instead of depositing them in the public purse; or naivety on the part of some who are not fully aware of the extent of government corruption in the current regime, highlighted by such startling realities as Afghan money cushioning a housing downturn in Dubai with wealthy Afghans with friends in high places rushing for the exits prior to a major coalition troop wind-down.
Despite a campaign targeting local villagers living on the site where enticements such as improved housing and access to education, many locals understand the dire consequences very well. Local villagers, moved out of their homes 3 years ago and promised improved permanent housing, are still living in temporary homes without running water and electricity. They feel that they were tricked by the government and they have now become fiercely opposed to the project. Indeed, the myth that the mining project will create jobs for Afghans is shattered when one considers that workers from China have already been brought to the mining site and are living in what amounts to a small town protected by a wall and a 1500-man army paid for by the mining consortium.
Structure unearthed as part of Ancient Buddhist Complex at Mes Aynak
To date, the consortium has not conducted an environmental impact assessment to gauge the pending environmental harm associated with mining projects and appropriate controls and mitigation strategies (if it has conducted an assessment, it has yet to make the results publicly available). This will ensure that the soil and waterways that serve more than 3 million people in the area will remain contaminated for decades into the future in a region where farmers have been already struggling to overcome the challenges of drought over the past decades. Afghans will pay for cost and effort to clean up the mess that will be left behind long after the consortium leaves- a cost will be too high in relation to the little benefit that ordinary local Afghans are poised to gain.
The current government’s policies on the country’s natural resources are in place not to serve Afghans, but wealthy foreign investors and corrupt officials. Sadly, archaeologically-significant sites are no more safe with the current Western backed regime’s neo-liberal policies than they were under the Taliban.
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.
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.
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.
As well as 200 armed guards, there is currently an international team of 67 archaeologists on site, a mixed group of French, English, Afghans and Tajiks. Serious technology is being deployed to record the remains: ground penetrating radar, georectified photography and aerial 3D images are being brought together to produce a comprehensive digital map of the ruins. This effort is being backed up by more traditional techniques: the sweat of about 550 pick-axe wielding Logari labourers. This summer that number is due to increase to 650. This will make Mes Aynak the largest rescue dig anywhere in the world.
To get to Mes Aynak you must make a mildly risky two-hour trip from Kabul. Logar is still the Taliban's principal route into Afghanistan from their Pakistani safehavens and the highway is frequently subject to IED attacks aimed at the Nato-led Isaf convoys.
I was driven to the site by Philippe Marquis, the ebullient director of Dafa, who is famed in Afghanistan not just for his bravery and archaeological prowess, but also for keeping the best table and the best wine cellar in Kabul. Marquis has masterminded the Mes Aynak project since its inception, and drives back and forth two or three times a week in his beret and dapper corduroy waistcoat, supervising both the digging on site and the fundraising and administration that takes place at the Dafa office in Kabul.
On a bright, cloudless spring day we drove together through the Kabul valley, past fortified mudbrick compounds surrounded by fields green with ripening barley and divided up with windbreaks of poplar. Eventually, we turned off the main road on to a bumpy track leading into the hills, in April still etched with drifts of snow. As we drew close, we found ourselves surrounded by the camouflaged and flak-jacket wearing guards of the Afghan army: an entire regiment armed to the teeth with heavy machine guns is at work in this remote valley to keep this lucrative Chinese investment safe.
Driving uphill past a succession of checkpoints, the small camp for the diggers and the huge Chinese mining compound with its conning towers, drilling pylons and lines of identical blue-roofed barrack blocks, we arrived at length in a high-altitude valley of stark magnificence. Here, the dark ruins stand out against the thick snowfields of the Koh Baba Wali rising behind. Barren grey-clay walls and mudbrick structures rose out of the ground, their original form eroded by 2,000 years of winter winds, so that from a distance all that seemed to remain, amid the diggers, wheelbarrows and string mapping grids, was a maze of brick walls. But Marquis could see order where I could not, and instantly identified the different sites and speculated on what they were once used for.
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