Saving Buddhist statues: Afghanistan’s big dig

Ancient statues and other artifacts are buried under Mes Aynak – and so is a $40 billion copper mine

An archaeologist in Logar.
Shah Marai / AFP / Getty Images

MES AYNAK, Afghanistan — Less than half an hour’s drive from Kabul, the congested and narrow two-lane highway is scarred with craters from improvised explosive devices. Logar province, southeast of Kabul, is considered one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan. It’s near Pakistan’s volatile Waziristan region, where armed militants roam freely across the porous border.

Here, in the midst of vast desert, a massive archaeological dig is taking place under the watchful eye of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum (MMP). Mes Aynak (“little copper well” in Dari), which was once a city on the Silk Road, is home to one of Central Asia’s oldest Buddhist artifacts, dating to the time of Alexander the Great. Buddhist statues and sculptures, intricate monastic complexes, stupas and frescoes, pottery, coins, gold jewelry and an ancient copper mine are buried beneath this mountainous 4.8-million-square-foot site.

Afghanistan lost a rich piece of cultural heritage in 2001 when the Taliban used dynamite to blow up two massive Buddha statues carved into sandstone cliffs in Bamiyan in northern Afghanistan. Now the country is at risk of losing many thousand-year-old artifacts if this excavation isn’t finished soon.

In addition to its cultural significance, Mes Aynak is the site of one the world’s largest undeveloped copper deposits. On April 25, 2008, the MMP signed a 30-year, $3 billion contract with the China Metallurgical Group, a state-owned mining enterprise based in Beijing. The deal is the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan to date. The Chinese have already spent close to $200 million on payments to the Afghan government and on preliminary work on the site. But the mining project is at a standstill until the archaeological dig is completed.

Archaeologists said they would need at least 25 years to excavate the entire site, a time frame the government would never allow. A partial excavation of a high-priority area called the red zone could be completed within 14 months, the archaeologists said, but only with additional help. And with an estimated $40 billion worth of copper under Mes Aynak, the Afghan government has little incentive to wait much longer. The Chinese are scheduled to take over the site at the end of the year.

“From one side, my people need food. We are poor people. My national budget needs to generate revenue. But on the other side, I have to protect the international heritage,” Nasir Ahmad Durrani, deputy minister of mines, said in an interview from his office in Kabul. He visits Mes Aynak about every two weeks and said the MMP is doing everything it can to provide resources to complete the dig. 

Racing to finish

The China Metallurgical Group built barracks in the area where it plans to start mining but laid off staff there when the project was delayed.
Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR

Al-Qaeda is believed to have used Mes Aynak as a training camp in 1999, and archaeologists at the site said that Osama bin Laden hid in one of the galleries cut into rock and used by the Soviets in the 1970s to explore the copper deposits. Land mines used by the diggers remain hidden in the ground; just this April, one of the deminers working at the site found an aerial bomb on the mountain slope in the red zone.

The MMP has hired more than 1,750 Afghan Public Protection Force guards to secure the area. Green mesh fences snake up the mountains and curve along the rocky slopes and terrain, marking the territory claimed by the Chinese. About 200 Afghan diggers — the majority of whom are Pashtuns from surrounding villages, dressed in traditional tunics and turbans — are removing soil at Mount Aynak, a rocky area in the red zone, to uncover ancient walls. The site also contains ancient industrial features such as furnaces, kilns, mining shafts and ore-processing sites, making this the biggest rescue operation in the history of Afghan archaeology.

The archaeologists are frantically trying to identify and record the existence of items they might not have time to save or that might be damaged during the removal process, in what is known as preservation by record. Another challenge they face is the safe removal of about 20 stupas and more than 150 sculptures and wall paintings from a few of the sites in the red zone — which they said requires the procurement of specialized equipment and the hiring of more archaeologists and diggers.

“We’ve lost already an important part of history,” said Marek Lemiesz, a senior archaeologist hired by the MMP. “What can we do with [only] a few guys?”

He said his team is too small to complete the excavation before the Chinese plan to start working in the red zone. There are currently only 10 international experts and fewer than 20 Afghan archaeologists from Kabul’s Institute of Archaeology. A team of seven Tajik archaeologists arrived at the end of May, but Lemiesz said that is still not enough.

Lack of security hasn’t helped either: Some international archaeologists and China Metallurgical Group workers left Mes Aynak in recent months because of increasing concerns about safety, with the Taliban intent on disrupting the recent presidential elections, the withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of the year and the continuing presence of the Taliban nearby. On June 10, gunmen killed eight deminers working for the Afghan Detection Center in Mes Aynak. Local officials blamed the Taliban for the attack.

Archaeology is a very delicate and unpredictable process. “You never know what’s going to happen [during excavation],” said Lemiesz. Removing the stupas and large Buddhist statues is painstaking and involves carefully cutting the objects into blocks so they can be safely transported. The artifacts will be stored in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, and there are plans to open a museum in Logar close to the site.

Many of the statues have been damaged by looters, snow and rain over the last few decades. The art from the time of Mes Aynak’s existence, from the second to the early ninth centuries, is popular and is considered top quality. After the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, prices of Buddhist sculptures like those at Mes Aynak rose to $10 million to $100 million on the black market. Illegal sales are a serious problem in Afghanistan, especially in areas bordering Pakistan controlled by insurgents, warlords and Pakistani merchants. The ancient artifacts are shipped and sold illegally to buyers in Japan, Europe and the United States.

Attracting foreign investment

The mine has raised hopes in the Afghan government for further foreign investment. “It’s our first foreign investment in the country and first experience,” said Durrani. “Aynak is a project that teaches us how we should tackle the mining sector in the future.”

The MMP is planning a network of railroads to connect Afghanistan to China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Pakistan, which is expected to be a long-term, multibillion-dollar project. With inadequate basic infrastructure such as railways, roads and electricity, it will be difficult to attract new companies to invest in Afghanistan’s rich mining sector, which has an estimated worth of $1 billion to $3 trillion and produces not only copper but also gold, tin, iron and gemstones. “This is one of the essential points for the development of our mineral sector,” said Durrani.

For all the challenges facing archaeologists at the Mes Aynak site, they said the copper-mining contract has presented a unique opportunity. Even though Mes Aynak was first identified by archaeologists in 1963, it wasn’t until the Chinese deal came into the picture that excavation began. “I’m 100 percent sure if there would never have been this mine, Mes Aynak would never be excavated, at least not now,” Lemiesz said. But it appears to be too late to salvage many of the treasures buried beneath.

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