In the face of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, experts fear what will happen to Mes Aynak, a Buddhist city approximately 40 kilometers southeast of Kabul. The site once served as a major stop on the Silk Road. Around 400 statues and wall paintings are spread across a citadel, various monasteries, stupas and small forts. From the first to the eighth century, it provides a remarkable insight into the evolution of Buddhism in the region.
It is not the Taliban’s extremism that poses the threat to Mes Aynak, but rather its long-delayed development. One of the world’s largest copper deposits, the ruins sit atop 450 million metric tonnes of copper ore. It’s estimated to be worth at least $50bn, which makes it a great boon for those hoping to extract it. Afghanistan signed a 30-year lease with a consortium of state-owned Chinese mining companies led by the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) in 2008 for $3.4bn. In the deal, MCC pledged to build the mine along with the infrastructure surrounding it – such as a rail line and roads that would connect to the mine and power the smelter – and to pay for a year of archaeological research.
There have been no developments to date. The reasons vary, but include logistical issues surrounding processing the ore, Afghan security issues, allegations of corruption, and a campaign of awareness. Among the latter were the international documentary Saving Mes Aynak and efforts by international heritage activists, local residents and Afghan archaeologists. The hiatus may now be over. The Taliban met with the Chinese in July to discuss economic infrastructure projects in the country, including mining contracts like Mes Aynak. Although they were not in control of Logar Province, where Mes Aynak is located, the Taliban issued a statement in 2016 specifically stating they would support the project.
Mes Aynak faces two problems at the moment, explains Philippe Marquis, head of the France-based Delegation archeological in Afghanistan (DAFA), which has assisted the former Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture in excavating the site. The first is archaeological: the excavated material needs to be transferred to Kabul for proper restoration, and the site itself needs protection from the elements. The second is the Chinese contracts, which are almost certain to be revived.
Mes Aynak’s importance was revealed to archaeologists during the 14-year pause in development. Marquis says it is the first document to detail the connection between the Buddhist community and industrial activity. ‘Afghanistan is very significant in the history of Buddhism. As evidenced by former mines, smelting workshops, and workers’ habitations, Mes Aynak is now threatened by the rich copper that the inhabitants of the city mined two thousand years ago. The site also contains a Zoroastrian fire temple and a Bronze Age settlement’. According to Marquis, his elders have expressed a keen interest in having the cultural heritage workers return, which he expects to occur once the situation stabilizes.
Assuming the mining contracts move forward, Mes Aynak will start to keep an eye on the clock. First, Metal Central Corporation must construct a railroad to scrape copper, and then it must clear archaeological remains. This would give cultural heritage workers as little as five years to secure the contents of the site-or raise awareness to save the site entirely-before it is destroyed. ‘The data that we have collected from Mes Aynak is huge, but what we can expect is even bigger, we still have a lot to do’, says Marquis.