Remains of a Buddhist monastery at Mes Aynak
|District||Mohammad Agha District|
|Elevation||6,958 ft (2,120 m)|
Mes Aynak (Pashto: مس عینک, meaning "little source of copper" from 'ayn = source) is a site 25 miles (40 km) southeast of Kabul, Afghanistan, located in a barren region of Logar Province. The site contains Afghanistan's largest copper deposit, as well as the remains of an ancient settlement with over 400 Buddha statues, stupas and a 100-acre (40 ha) monastery complex. It is also considered a major transit route for insurgents coming from Pakistan. Archaeologists are only beginning to find remnants of an older 5,000-year-old Bronze Age site beneath the Buddhist level including an ancient copper smelter.
The site of Mes Aynak possesses a vast compilation of Buddhist monasteries, homes, and market areas. The site contains artifacts recovered from the Bronze Age, and some of the artifacts recovered have dated back over three thousand years. The sites orientation on the Silk Road has yielded a mixture of elements from Iran, China and India. The wealth of Mes Aynak’s residents has been well represented in the sites far-reaching size and well guarded perimeter. The country of Afghanistan’s eagerness to unearth the massive amounts of copper below the site, is unfortunately leading to the site’s destruction rather than it’s preservation.
The Buddhist ruins were scheduled to be destroyed at the end of July 2012, but for several reasons, including political instability, this has been delayed, possibly until the end of 2014.
|This section requires expansion. (September 2012)|
As the name suggests, the presence of copper at Mes Aynak has been known about for some time, while the site's archaeological wealth has been known about since exploration by Russian and Afghan geologists in 1973-4. The earliest Buddhist remains date from the Kushan Gandhara era, although these gradually give way to T'ang Chinese and Uyghur influences. Mes Aynak was at the peak of its prosperity between the fifth and seventh century AD, a period of slow decline began in the eighth century and the settlement was finally abandoned 200 years later.
In November 2007, a 30-year lease was granted for the copper mine to the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) for US$3 billion, making it the biggest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history. Allegations have persisted that the then-minister of mines obstructed the contracting process and accepted a large bribe to eliminate the other companies involved in the bid.
The Afghan Mining Ministry estimates that the mine holds some six million tons of copper (5.52 million metric tons). The mine is expected to be worth tens of billions of dollars, and to generate jobs and economic activity for the country, but threatens the site's archaeological remains. The site is accessed via a 15 kilometers (9.3 mi) motorable track from the surfaced road between Kabul and Gardēz. The mining lease holders propose to build a railway to serve the copper mine.
As of July 2012, MCC has not developed an environmental impact plan, and has remained secretive about feasibility studies, and the plan regarding the opening and closing of the mine, as well as any guarantees contained in the contract. International experts have warned that the project, and other similar projects in Afghanistan, could be threatened because MMC has not fulfilled promises made to the Afghan government, such as the lack of provision of proper housing for relocated villagers. Other investments that have yet to be fulfilled include a railway, a 400-megawatt power plant and a coal mine. A report by Global Witness, an independent advocacy group that focuses on natural resource exploitation, said there was a "major gap" between the government's promises of transparency and its follow-through.
Archaeologists believe that Mes Aynak is a major historical heritage site. It has been called "one of the most important points along the Silk Road" by French archaeologist, Philippe Marquis. There are thought to be 19 separate archaeological sites in the valley including two small forts, a citadel, four fortified monasteries, several Buddhist stupas and a Zoroastrian fire temple, as well as ancient copper workings, smelting workshops, a mint, and miners habitations. In addition to the Buddhist monasteries and other structures from the Buddhist era that have already been identified, Mes Aynak also holds the remains of prior civilizations likely going back as far as the 3rd century BC. Historians are particularly excited by the prospect of learning more about the early science of metallurgy and mining by exploring this site. It is known to contain coins, glass, and the tools for making these, going back thousands of years. Archaeologists have already unearthed manuscripts that may provide evidence regarding the presence of Alexander the Great's troops.
All of this historical material is in imminent danger of destruction by the mining endeavor. In response to negative reports in the press comparing the Chinese mining company to those who destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, a plan for minimal archaeological excavation was put in place. This plan still foresees the destruction of the site and everything still buried beneath it, but it does allow for the removal of whatever artifacts can be carried away by a small archaeological team led by DAFA, the French archaeological mission to Afghanistan.
Between May 2010 and July 2011 archaeologists excavated approximately 400 items; more than what the National Museum of Afghanistan housed before the war. The site covers roughly 400,000 square metres (4,300,000 sq ft), encompassing several separate monasteries and a commercial area. It appears that Buddhists who began settling the area almost two millennia ago were drawn by the availability of copper. More recently, a stone statue, or stele, found in 2010 has been identified as a depiction of Prince Siddhartha before he founded Buddhism and has been taken to support the idea that there was an ancient monastic cult dedicated to Siddhartha's pre-enlightenment life.
In June 2012, a conference of experts in the fields of geology, mining engineering, archaeology, history and economic development met at SAIS in Washington, D.C to assess the situation in Mes Aynak. The provisional findings were tentatively encouraging: because of the length of time before mining can actually start at the site (approximately five years), it is indeed possible for collaboration between archaeologists and mining engineers to work to save Mes Aynak's cultural treasures. The site could either become a positive model for mineral extraction working to preserve cultural heritage or become an irreparable failure. However, a number of measures, that are not currently in place, must be met first. The site is still scheduled for destruction in January 2013.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has provided a million dollars of U.S. military funding to help save the Buddhist ruins. As of June 2013 there is an international team of 67 archaeologists on site, including French, English, Afghans and Tajiks. There are also approximately 550 local labourers, which is set to increase to 650 in the summer. When this occurs Mes Aynak will become "the largest rescue dig anywhere in the world". All these personnel are protected by 200 armed guards. The team are using ground-penetrating radar, georectified photography and aerial 3D images to produce a comprehensive digital map of the ruins.
The rescue work was continuing as of June 2014, in spite of difficulties. There were only 10 international experts working at the site, and fewer than 20 Afghan archaeologists from Kabul’s Institute of Archaeology. A team of seven Tajik archaeologists was also helping. Marek Lemiesz, a senior archaeologist at the site, said that more help was needed. Security was also a concern.
There were also indications that mining plans were being delayed because of the declining copper prices.
Site Overview - Archaeological excavation Gallery
An in-production documentary titled Saving Mes Aynak, directed by Brent E. Huffman, will tell the story of the archaeological site, as well as the dangerous environment the mine has created for archaeologists, Chinese workers, and local Afghans. The film follows several main characters, including Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist leading emergency conservation efforts; Abdul Qadeer Temore, an Afghan archaeologist at the Afghan National Institute of Archaeology; Liu Wenming, a manager for the China Metallurgical Group Corporation; and Laura Tedesco, an American archaeologist working for the U.S. State Department.
- Mundigak — archaeological site in Kandahar Province
- Hadda — archaeological site in Nangarhar Province
- Surkh Kotal — archaeological site in Baghlan Province
- Mehrgarh — archaeological site in Bolan
- Sheri Khan Tarakai — archaeological site in Bannu
- Aynak Information Package, Afghanistan Geological Survey and the British Geological Survey, 2005
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- Global Heritage Fund blog article (July 2012) GHF Supports Buddhas of Aynak Documentary
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- "Saving Mes Aynak comes to Kartemquin". Kartemquin Films. 1 July 2014. Retrieved 2014-07-07.
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