A clash of history, future in Afghanistan
MES AYNAK, Afghanistan — It was another day on the rocky hillside, as archeologists and laborers dug out statues of the Buddha and excavated a sprawling 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery. A Chinese woman in slacks, carrying an umbrella against the Afghan sun, politely inquired about their progress.
She had more than a passing interest. The woman represents a Chinese company eager to develop the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine, lying beneath the ruins.
The mine is the centerpiece of China’s drive to invest in Afghanistan, a country trying to get its economy off the ground while mired in war. Beijing’s $3.5 billion stake in the mine — the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan by far — gets its foot in the door for future deals to exploit Afghanistan’s largely untapped mineral wealth. The Afghan government stands to reap $1.2 billion a year in revenues from the mine, as well as the creation of much needed jobs.
But Mes Aynak is caught between Afghanistan’s hopes for the future and its history. Archeologists are rushing to salvage what they can from a major seventh-century BC religious site along the famed Silk Road connecting Asia and the Middle East. The ruins, including the monastery and domed shrines known as “stupas,’’ will probably be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins.
Hanging over the situation is the memory of the Buddhas of Bamiyan — statues towering up to 180 feet high in central Afghanistan dynamited to the ground in 2001 by the Taliban, who considered them symbols of paganism.
No one wants to be blamed for similarly razing history at Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar. The Chinese government-backed China Metallurgical Group wanted to start building the mine by the end of 2011. But under an informal understanding with the Kabul government, it has given archeologists three years for a salvage excavation.
Archeologists working on the site since May said that would not be enough time for full preservation.
“That site is so massive that it’s easily a 10-year campaign of archeology,’’ said Laura Tedesco, an archeologist brought in by the US Embassy.
Philippe Marquis, a French archeologist advising the Afghans, said the salvage effort is piecemeal and “minimal,’’ held back by lack of funds and personnel.
Around 15 Afghan archeologists, three French advisers, and a few dozen laborers are working within the 0.77 square-mile area — a far smaller team than the two-dozen archeologists and 100 laborers normally needed for a site of such richness.
“This is probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road,’’ Marquis said. “What we have at this site, already in excavation, should be enough to fill the [Afghan] national museum.’’
The monastery complex has been dug out, revealing hallways and rooms decorated with frescoes and filled with clay and stone statues of standing and reclining Buddhas, some as high as 10 feet tall. An area that was once a courtyard is dotted with stupas standing 4 or 5 feet high.
More than 150 statues have been found, though many remain in place. Large ones are too heavy to be moved, and the team lacks the chemicals needed to keep small ones from disintegrating when extracted.
The mining company appears to be pushing the archeologists to finish ahead of schedule. In July, the team received a letter from the company asking that parts of the dig be wrapped up by August, with the rest to be done by the end of 2010.
A copy of the letter — signed by MJAM, the acronym for the joint venture in charge of the mine, MCC-JCL Aynak Minerals Co. — was provided by the head of the archeological team. Officials of the mining group did not respond to requests for comment.
Excavations at Mes Aynak continue. But the Afghan archeologist overseeing the dig said he has no idea when mine representatives might tell him his work is over. So he tries not to think about deadlines.
“We would like to work according to our principles. If we don’t work according to the principles of archeology, then we are no different from traffickers,’’ Abdul Rauf Zakir said.