An ancient Buddhist city carved out of giant peaks near Kabul is on the brink of disappearing forever after being 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 – thought to be between 1,000 and 2,000 years old – was once a vast city centered on the mining and trading of copper.
Archaeologists have uncovered Buddhist monasteries, stupas, forts, administrative buildings and dwellings, while hundreds of statues, frescoes, ceramics, coins and manuscripts have also been unearthed.
Despite looting earlier in the century, Mes Aynak is “one of the most beautiful archaeological sites” in the world, says Bastien Varoutsikos, an archaeologist with the French company Iconem, which is working to digitize the city and its heritage.
But the need for the Taliban – who returned to power in August last year – to find new sources of revenue following the freeze on international aid has made dismantling the project a priority and could put an end to further archaeological work.
– Mining Consortium –
The objects discovered date mainly from the 2nd to 9th centuries AD, but earlier occupation is also thought to be 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 in size and importance to Pompeii and Machu Picchu.
The 1,000-hectare ruin sits enthroned high on a massive peak whose brown flanks reveal copper.
But in 2007, Chinese mining giant Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) led a state-owned consortium — which later took the name MJAM — and signed a $3 billion contract to mine ore over 30 years.
Fifteen years later, the mine still doesn’t exist – uncertainty and disagreements between Beijing and Kabul over the financial terms of the contract have caused delays.
However, the project is once again a priority for both parties and talks are ongoing about how to proceed.
– obligation to preserve –
There are growing fears that a place once considered one of the most prosperous trading hubs on the Silk Road could disappear unattended.
In the early 2010s, it was “one of the largest archaeological projects in the world,” Varoutsikos told AFP.
Originally, MJAM suspended operations for three years to allow archaeologists to focus on the area directly threatened by the mine.
This period was inadvertently extended as the security situation prevented the Chinese from building the planned infrastructure.
Thousands of objects were excavated as a result – some were brought to the Kabul Museum, others kept nearby.
When they were last in power, the Taliban shocked the world by blowing up the giant Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001, but today they say they are determined to preserve the Mes Aynak finds.
“It is the duty of the Ministry of Information and Culture to protect them,” Esmatullah Burhan, spokesman for the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, told AFP.
But while the rhetoric seems sincere, many of the remains are just too bulky or fragile to move and appear destined to disappear.
The Chinese prefer surface mining to underground mining. If this continues, it would open the copper mountain and bury all fragments of the past.
– environmental impact –
Afghanistan sits on vast mineral resources of copper, iron, bauxite, lithium and rare earth elements estimated to be worth more than $1 trillion.
The Taliban hope to earn more than $300 million annually from Mes Aynak – about 60 percent of the total state budget for 2022 – and now want to speed up the process.
“This project must begin, it cannot be delayed any longer,” they have repeatedly told MJAM in recent weeks, according to Burhan.
The talks are “80 percent complete,” says the spokesman, and there are only technical points to be clarified that should be settled soon.
The Taliban are demanding compliance with the deal, which includes building a power plant to supply the mine and Kabul and a railway to Pakistan.
They also insist that the copper be processed locally using Afghan labour.
China, whose economy is in dire need of copper, is reluctant to meet that need.
MJAM, which has not responded to AFP, continues to request a reduction in the license fees due.
The project also comes with concerns about its environmental impact.
Copper mining is polluting and requires large amounts of water, and Logar is already an arid region.
According to Burhan, the Taliban are paying “close attention” to these issues and will ensure that the consortium honors its commitments in this regard.
For now, the delay is a salvation for archaeologists.
While no work is currently taking place on the site, Varoutsikos hopes to resume excavation before mining operations begin.
But even that will depend on international cooperation and funding, he notes.
#Afghan #Buddhist #town #threatened #Chinese #copper