Ancient Afghan Buddhist city threatened by Chinese copper mine

Thursday, Jun 23, 2022

MES AYNAK, Afghanistan: 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.

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.

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 told AFP.

MJAM originally suspended the start of operations for three years to allow archaeologists to focus on the area directly threatened by the mine. That period was inadvertently lengthened as the security situation prevented the Chinese from building planned infrastructure.

As a result, thousands of objects were unearthed -- some were taken to the Kabul museum, others kept nearby. When it was last in power the Taliban shocked the world by dynamiting the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001, but today they say they are determined to preserve the findings of Mes Aynak.

"It is the duty of the Ministry of Information and Culture to protect them," Esmatullah Burhan, the spokesman for the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, told AFP. But while the rhetoric seems sincere, many of the remains are simply too bulky or fragile to be moved and seem destined to disappear. The Chinese favour open-pit rather than underground mining. If this goes ahead, it would open up the copper mountain and bury all the fragments of the past.