In 2001 the Taliban authorities destroyed two giant sculptures of the Buddha at Bamiyan.
Today, 25 miles southeast of Kabul at the ruins of Mes Aynak, a young archaeologist takes a break to show off a latest find at the precious historical site, in a rugged area the size of Pompeii. “Mes Aynak is the most important discovery in my career,” said Qadir Temori, head preservation archaeologist. “We have worked so hard to protect this ancient site, even risking our lives to save it.”
But it’s not Islamic fundamentalists who are threatening to destroy some 400 Buddhist treasures and a monastery complex dating back several thousand years that lie at the site of Mes Aynak. Instead it is a Chinese firm with a contract to dig up valuable copper ore that lies beneath the site is waging a battle against Afghan and foreign archaeologists who are fighting to save ancient Mes Aynak. The mining work would destroy rare domed temples known as stupas. The Silk Road locale has significant influences from Iran to India, and a Bronze Age copper smelter remains buried. Over 500 workers from the Ministries of Culture and of Mining have been racing to recover artifacts before the industrial-scale digging begins. The unprecedented archaeological campaign could give way to what will be the country’s most sizable foreign direct investment.
Five years ago, U.S. government officials revealed numbers suggesting that war-ravaged Afghanistan was sitting on some $1 trillion in mineral wealth. Other studies point to figures as high as $3 trillion. Massive quantities of copper, iron and gold sit in the earth under Afghanistan.
Angry locals also resent forced displacement of six villages. “Most of the residents have been either forced out, have left, or they’re not allowed to return,” said Javed Noorani of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a watchdog group that advocates for increased transparency. “They are losing everything, they will have to be compensated, discuss things properly, consulted properly, and then resettled.”
Lal Agha, a local village elder whose community has been relocated by the project, said, “We are all helpless. We don’t have a way to fight for our human rights…The government is responsible for creating the security problems by grabbing people’s lands, beating them up, and humiliating and disrespecting their values,” Agha said. “It’s when people fight back, the government calls them ‘Al-Qaeda.’ If the people are happy with the Chinese mining company, then why are missiles being fired into Mes Aynak? People are angry,” he added.
Despite the violence, it is the campaign by archaeologists to stop the development that has captured the most international attention. “Preserving Mes Aynak is an important gesture for Afghanistan. It’s an important gesture for all archaeologists in the world concerned with preserving human culture,“ said Mark Kenoyer, a physical anthropologist from the University of Wisconsin working on site. “The destruction of Mes Aynak itself would be like Atlantis going into the ocean and disappearing from history.”
For its part, the United Nations' global cultural body UNESCO is standing on the sidelines instead of opposing the fundamentalist advocates of capitalist profit.