One of Afghanistan's biggest archaeological treasures may soon be turned to dust as a Chinese mining company which has bought the site turns it into a sprawling, billion-dollar copper mine.
The Buddhas of Aynak, situated in a desert region 20 minutes southwest of Kabul, is an archaeological site containing ancient Buddhist artifacts dated over 2,500 years old. It also holds rich mineral deposits, especially copper. Formerly an ancient Buddhist monastery complex, the historical center has more than 150 Buddha statues. It is of immense worldwide importance and is one of Afghanistan's richest historical sites.
The site also has a violent and troubled history. A common rumor is that Al-Qaeda planned the 2001 September 11 attack from a camp in Aynak. The area is also a major transit route for insurgents coming from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
Archaeologists have found a number of artifacts dating backing over a millennium on the site, even unearthing manuscripts that may provide evidence regarding the presence of Alexander the Great's troops in the area.
The Buddhist ruins are scheduled to be destroyed at the end of December 2012. In November 2007, a 30-year lease was granted for the copper mine to the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) for $3 billion, making it the biggest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history.
The Afghan Mining Ministry estimates that the mine holds some six million tons of copper. The mine is expected to be worth tens of billions of dollars, and to generate jobs and economic activity for the country but all of this critically threatens the site's archaeological remains, which are now being hurriedly excavated by private organizations.
Brent Huffman, a volunteer working to preserve this archaeological site, has produced a documentary about the Buddhas of Aynak, and is busy collecting donations to boost the excavation work. In an interview with Huffman, I asked about the history and the status of the excavation of the Aynak.
Malik Achakzai: Could you discuss the historical importance of the Buddhas of Aynak?
Brent Huffman: Mes Aynak, or "little copper well" is a vast ancient Buddhist city 400,000 square meters in size. There are over 400 hundred life-size or larger Buddha statues, a circular monastic complex and dozens of temple (stupa) structures.
More is being discovered daily, including hundreds of ancient manuscripts hidden inside many of the stupas.
Archaeologists are only beginning to find remnants of an older 5,000-year-old Bronze Age site beneath the Buddhist level including an ancient copper smelter.
M.A: How important is this site for Afghanistan and the world?
B.H: This site is extremely important to not only Afghanistan but to the entire world. The incredible discoveries at Mes Aynak will redefine the history of Buddhism and Asia. Mes Aynak represents a major hub on the Silk Road where pilgrims and traders would exchange ideas and influence each other. People at Mes Aynak also mined for copper themselves using ancient mining techniques.
M.A: How long will this process of excavation go on, and how many organizations are taking part in it?
B.H: Excavation is set to end Dec. 25th, and the site is set to be destroyed by the Chinese mining company unless we do something to stop it. This should be a 30-year excavation job, but it has been a sporadic three-year rushed rescue archaeology job so far. DAFA, the Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Mines are all involved.
M.A: What's the stance of Afghan Government and the Chinese Company to preserve this important Buddha's heritage?
B.H: The Ministry of Culture is attempting to save all small artifacts and move them to the National Museum in Kabul. All the bigger relics, statues, structures, temples, etc. are too fragile to be moved and will be destroyed after Dec. 25th.
M.A: UNESCO and other international organizations for culture and heritage — have they played any role pressuring the Chinese company and Afghan government to extend the period of excavation?
B.H: No, UNESCO has not played any role so far. There have been several international groups (ARCH, Global Witness, the Smithsonian, the Thai embassy, and my own campaign) putting pressure on MCC and the Afghan government.
M.A: Is the security of The Buddhas of Aynak satisfactory, have you or other organization felt any threat, because Taliban and other militant organizations view them as un-Islamic?
B.H: The security at Mes Aynak is very poor. Rockets have been fired at both the MCC mine and the archaeology site and anti-personnel land mines have been placed on the road at night. These attacks are all over money, not Buddhism.
Six villages in Logar province have to be leveled to make way for this enormous open-pit style copper mine. These villagers are angry about the way this process played out – either they were never compensated for their loss or the compensation was very low. They have been partnering with the Taliban to attack the MCC mine and the archaeology site.
The copper mine will also cause terrible environmental devastation, poisoning the land and water permanently.