Ancient Afghan Buddhist city threatened by Chinese copper mine

Published June 23, 2022
A part of a statue of Buddha after it was uncovered at Mes Aynak, in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Logar.—AFP
A part of a statue of Buddha after it was uncovered at Mes Aynak, in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Logar.—AFP

MES AYNAK: An ancient Buddhist city carved out of immense peaks near Kabul is in danger of disappearing forever, swallowed up by a Chinese consortium exploiting one of the world’s largest copper deposits.

Located at the confluence of Hellenistic and Indian cultures, Mes Aynak — believed to be between 1,000 and 2,000 years old — was once a vast city organised around the extraction and trade of copper.

Archaeologists have uncovered Buddhist monasteries, stupas, fortresses, administrative buildings and dwellings, while hundreds of statues, frescoes, ceramics, coins and manuscripts have also been unearthed.

Despite looting at the beginning of the century, Mes Aynak is “one of the most beautiful archaeological sites” in the world, says Bastien Varoutsikos, an archaeologist for the French company Iconem, which is working to digitise the city and its heritage.

But the need for the Taliban — who returned to power in August last year — to find new revenue streams after international aid was frozen has made mining the project a priority, and could put an end to further archaeological work.

Mining consortium

Objects discovered date mainly from the 2nd to 9th century AD, but an earlier occupation is also believed likely, and pottery dating back to the Bronze Age — well before the birth of Buddhism — has also been found.

Forgotten for centuries before being rediscovered by a French geologist in the early 1960s, Mes Aynak, in Logar province, has been compared to Pompeii and Machu Picchu in size and significance. The ruins, which cover 1,000 hectares, are perched high on a massive peak whose brown flanks betray the presence of copper.

But in 2007 the Chinese mining giant Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) headed a state-owned consortium — that later took the name MJAM — and signed a $3 billion contract to mine ore over 30 years.

Fifteen years later, the mine still does not exist — insecurity and disagreements between Beijing and Kabul over financial terms of the contract have caused delays.

The project is once again a priority for both parties, however, and talks are ongoing on how to proceed.

Duty of preservation

Fears are rising that a place once considered one of the most prosperous trade hubs on the Silk Road could disappear without oversight. In the early 2010s, it was “one of the largest archaeological projects in the world”, Varoutsikos said.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2022

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