Erasing the History of Buddhist Afghanistan One Mine at a Time
by Brent E. Huffman
Thursday |  June 13 2013
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s Sightings is the first of a two-part series on Mes Aynak.  The author of next Thursday’s Sightings (June 20, 2013), Seunghye Lee, a historian of Buddhist art, will focus on Mes Aynak's cultural and religious significance.

In Afghanistan, international teams of archaeologists are scrambling to finish excavating Mes Aynak, a massive Buddhist city covering 125 acres that is estimated to be over 2,000 years old. Two government-owned Chinese companies, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation and Jiangxi Copper, have won exclusive rights from the government of Afghanistan to mine at Mes Aynak for thirty years. They bid three billion dollars for what is estimated to be over 100 billion dollars worth of copper located directly beneath the Buddhist ruins. At the end of this month (June, 2013), these companies will force archaeologists out of the area and will demolish Mes Aynak.

The Buddhist city at Mes Aynak, or the “the red zone” as the mining companies refer to it, contains over 500 Buddha statues, dozens of intricate Buddhist stupas (temples), an enormous circular monastic complex, as well as numerous ancient manuscripts and human remains. According to archaeologists, Mes Aynak represents one of the most significant archaeological finds in Afghanistan’s history and one of immense global importance due to its rare, well-preserved artifacts, and to its sheer size.
Two thousand years ago, the residents of Mes Aynak were already mining copper using primitive drilling methods and smelters; thus their close proximity to the precious metal. Mes Aynak was also a major stop on the Silk Route. Buddhists from all over Asia made pilgrimages to worship here and to trade with the city’s residents. This little known chapter of Afghanistan’s history—and of humanity’s history—rests within Mes Aynak’s sprawling ruins.

So far, archaeologists have found incredible objects from the Kushan period including rare hand-carved wooden Buddhas in the Gandhara style, painted plaster and clay statues in a variety of styles, and birch bark manuscripts in several languages. Just recently, archaeologists unearthed Bronze Age pottery and other materials dating back 4,000 to 6,000 years. 

Specialists have managed to save a few small artifacts by transporting them to the National Museum in Kabul. However, all of the fragile structures and unearthed material will be destroyed when Chinese miners begin to dynamite the area to begin open-pit mining later this year.

One of the tragedies of the destruction of Mes Aynak will be the finds left undiscovered.

To excavate Mes Aynak properly would require thirty years of careful and methodical effort employing the special skills of archeologists. Instead, Mes Aynak has been subjected to a rushed, mismanaged, and destructive salvage dig that began in 2009 and will end in less than a month. 

In 2012, in response to the media coverage of China’s proposed actions at Mes Aynak, there was an outcry from Buddhist communities around the world. In Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Budapest, India, China, Malaysia, and even China, the reaction was particularly strong. In Thailand, the Dhammaykaya Temple’s Dhamma Media Channel spread the word about Mes Aynak’s impending destruction. The Temple’s monks distributed two official petitions in schools and universities throughout the country, one appealing to Afghan president Harmid Karzai (see References below) and the other to UNESCO. Both 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 hand-made signs proclaiming “Save Mes Aynak.” The Thai embassy spoke with Afghan government officials, pleading with them to protect the ancient Buddhist city.

As if the destruction of Mes Aynak’s religious and cultural artifacts wasn’t tragic enough, open-pit mining will inflict terrible environmental devastation. Experts compare the damage at Mes Aynak to the toxic crater at the Berkeley pit in Butte, Montana, which is now listed as a superfund site, a classification for land so poisonous nothing can ever live on it again.

Mes Aynak is only the first of numerous proposed Chinese mining ventures as China sets its sights on the reported one trillion dollars of natural resources buried beneath Afghanistan like oil, lithium, copper, iron, etc. Most of these resource deposits also have ancient unexplored sites resting on top of them.

Afghanistan is a country mired in poverty. The government is desperate for an economic solution but granting mining rights to China without provisions for the proper excavation of Mes Aynak is not the answer.

Afghanistan is trading its history (also humankind’s) for a quick buck, one that will fail to benefit its citizens economically since China’s three billion-dollar payment will most certainly be lost to corruption within the Afghan government. The destruction of Mes Aynak will only benefit China and temporarily at that. It will permanently erase this important piece of Afghanistan’s history and leave enormous toxic craters in its stead. 

Facebook page:
Petition to Afghanistan’s President Karzai:
DeHart, Jonathan. “Saving the Buddhas of Mes Aynak.” The Diplomat, June 7, 2013.
Graham-Harrison, Emma. “Mes Aynak highlights Afghanistan’s dilemma over protecting heritage.” The Guardian, May 23, 2013.
Brent, Huffman. “A Chinese Threat to Afghan Buddhas.” The New York Times, April 23, 2013, The Opinion Pages.
Glasse, Jennifer. “Afghan archaeology site faces rocky future.” Aljazeera, May 20, 2013.

Photos: Brent E. Huffman.

Author, Brent E. Huffman, is Associate Professor of Journalism at Northwestern University. He is the director, writer, and cinematographer of several documentaries and television programs. Recently, he completed, Life in the Heart of China: Diary from a Forbidden World. He is currently working on a documentary about Mes Aynak.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a PhD Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.

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