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.