Friday, 17 June 2011


Mes Aynak
In all honest most people tend initially not to associate Afghanistan and Archaeology,but, despite the savage war against the Soviets, the brutal civil wars and the war against terror Afghanistan (a literal crossroads of the ancient world) is awash with rich and largely UN-excavated (if sadly occasionally well pillaged and looted) archaeological sites.

Some years ago, the Taliban blew up Afghanistan's ancient Buddha's of Bamiyan, provoking a degree of international outrage amongst the concerned and amongst the chattering classes. At the time the Taliban's brutal treatment of women and religious minorities oddly enough provoked less public outrage - no doubt because pipeline route deals (to get the oil out of Central Asia) were in the offing.

Now, the country's rich archaeological heritage is facing a new and different threat - that of mineral exploitation and development of resources. The Peoples Republic of China (which is busy sourcing minerals and foodstuffs from around the world to feed its economy and its people) has set its sights on another ancient Buddhist site in pursuit of copper.

The site in question is Mes Aynak lies, in Logar province, not far from Kabul. Formerly an al-Qaeda training camp, is also home to a a Buddhist monastery that is more than 1,400 years old. This site is relatively intact with walls, corridors, stupas brightly painted red Buddha's. The monks originally settled here because there was copper in the ground; it was part of a Buddhist kingdom. The site was a way-station on the Silk Road, which amongst other things carried Buddhism from India to Tibet, and into China.

Now the China Metallurgical Group (MGC) has been granted a 30-year lease to mine copper to develop a copper mine. The mine alone could give Afghanistan $1.2 billion (£755 million) per year in revenue along with much needed jobs. Chinese miners have set up camp. Special armed security guards patrol miles of fencing around the site.Beneath the site lies the world's second-largest untapped copper reserve, and the Chinese have bought the mineral rights to the entire area.

The archaeological site was discovered during excavation of the site for MGC - archaeologists have three years to salvage the site, which could easily take 10 years to properly excavate. Afghan archaeologists are well aware of what has been lost in thirty years of war, and deeply concerned that a lot of their cultural heritage has been destroyed, damaged and looted. Their concerns stretch beyond Afghanistan as they perceive the artefact's as not just belong to their country, but as human treasure which belongs to all of us.

The Afghans could with some luck and the rich mineral; deposits could prove a break form the past a decent revenue stream to enrich the country and its people, but, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world it's about balancing development with preserving (or at least properly excavating) our archaeological heritage for this and future generations.

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