MES AYNAK, Afghanistan -- It had the potential to be another Afghanistan Buddha disaster, recalling the Taliban’s destruction of two ancient statues that had stood for centuries in this country’s west: A buried Buddhist city lost to time was about to be obliterated by what promised to be one of the largest copper mines in the world.
Now, however, thanks to delays in construction of the massive mine and a hefty influx of cash from the World Bank, the 1.5-square-mile Mes Aynak complex is an archaeological triumph – though bittersweet.
An international team of archaeologists and more than 550 local laborers are now frantically excavating what turns out to be a unique window into Afghanistan’s role on the ancient Silk Road connecting China and India with the Mediterranean.
With its Buddhist city, a ring of perhaps a half-dozen monasteries and a striking complex of workshops and mine shafts built into a high mountain ridgeline at an altitude of 8,200 feet, the site shows the interplay of Buddhism, mining and trade during the years it was in operation, now thought to be from the fifth to the late eighth centuries.
It underscores the conflict between cultural preservation and Afghanistan’s desperate need to find a way to survive as the international community winds down its involvement in the country. The copper here may be worth $100 billion by some estimates, five times the estimated value of Afghanistan’s entire economy, in which the government and military are funded mainly by foreign countries. The best private-sector jobs are with foreign relief groups.
A Chinese consortium agreed in 2007 to pay $3 billion for a 30-year lease on the mine. It was the largest private investment in Afghan history, and Afghan officials hailed it as a key component in building an economy that one day won’t rely almost solely on donor nations and the opium trade. They said it would generate hundred of millions of dollars a year for the government eventually and would provide thousands of jobs.
The massive, open pit mine, though, would destroy most or all of the ruins, which were larded with well-preserved frescoes and more than 1,000 statues, including hundreds of Buddhas.
The specter of Buddhas being dynamited or bulldozed immediately sparked comparison with one of the greatest cultural disasters in Afghan history: the Taliban’s destruction in 2001 of the giant Buddhas set into cliff walls in Bamiyan province. But a small group of French and Afghan archaeologists cut an informal deal with the Ministry of Mines in 2009 for time to perform a "rescue excavation," to recover as many key artifacts and document the site to whatever degree possible before the mining begins.
When that will be, they don’t know. A December deadline came and went. Now they have until June to finish work on the primary sites, said Mossadiq Khalili, the Afghan deputy minister of cultural affairs. Work on some of the monasteries on the edge of the mine area could continue for several years, he said.
The archaeologists feel almost certain that they have until at least 2016, because so little progress has been made on the mine. There seem to be no firm plans yet for the necessary power plant, smelter and rail line, or for the mining operation itself.
"So, if that’s correct, it means that there is, I won’t say plenty of time, but a reasonable, good amount of time to work on this site," said Philippe Marquis, the director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, which has been operating in the country since 1922 and acts as an adviser to the Afghan government.