In its day, the ancient city of Mes Aynak was a wonder of temples, monasteries, monuments and statuary. Located in the mountains about 90 minutes east of Kabul, in Afghanistan, this important Silk Road hub bears Hellenistic, Persian, Central Asian, Tibetan, Indian and Chinese influences. It's peak was between the 5th and 7th centuries AD, when Buddhism was on the rise throughout the Hindu Kush.
But this incredible archaeological site, which dates back roughly 5,000 years, is in danger of destruction: In 2008, a Chinese mining consortium bought a 30-year lease to the site from the Afghan government for the purposes of an open-pit copper mine.
This cultural travesty serves as the basis of Brent Huffman's documentary, "Saving Mes Aynak," which tells the story of one Afghan archeologist's struggle to excavate as much of the site as possible before the mining company takes it over — all while dealing with vanishing budgets and dodging improvised explosive devices unhelpfully deposited by the local Taliban.
"What you see in the film is the point at which all of the international archaeologists leave and there is just a skeleton crew of Afghan archaeologists excavating," says Huffman. "And at the end of summer, they'll be pushed out so that the Chinese mining company can start mining operations."
Mes Aynak, located in the mountains east of Kabul, came to the attention of modern archaeologists in the 1960s when a French geologist surveyed the area for copper deposits, and instead found a buried ancient city that covered an estimated 2.5 square miles.
Afghan history, unfortunately, has repeatedly interrupted efforts to conduct a full-scale excavation of the site. There were coups and a communist revolution in the 1970s, followed by the Soviet invasion, and later, in the 1990s, the rise of the Taliban. An international team of archaeologists began excavating the site in 2004, uncovering ceremonial stupas, golden Buddhas and other statuary. But security issues have made continuous digs problematic and many have left.
The heart of "Saving Mes Aynak" is Qadir Temori, the good-humored Afghan archaeologist who has poured his efforts into rescuing what he can of the ancient site before the clock runs out. In the film, he is seen facing everything from inclement weather, to threatening text messages from the Taliban, to government officials who seem unable or unwilling to pay the archaeological staff or supply them with basic materials (despite the fact that millions in international funds have been invested in the project).
"Ultimately, this film is a story about Afghans fighting for their own culture and fighting for their own history," says Huffman. "Hopefully it puts a human face on the struggles that Afghans face — something that goes beyond victims and terrorists."
In the days since "Saving Mes Aynak" premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam late last year, the film has helped draw international attention to the importance of this buried city, which drew on influences from as far west as Greece and as far east as China. (The Guardian has a terrific overview of the site's history.)
Huffman says that the country's newly installed mining minister recently questioned the terms of the mining contract. "He critiques the corruption and how bad the contract is for Afghanistan," says Huffman. "Nothing like that has ever happened."
But that doesn't mean that Mes Aynak is by any means secure. Huffman says he is doing his part to get the word out.
On Saturday evening, the film will be screened on Al Jazeera America. It is also available for streaming online. And, in the fall, the director intends to take it to Kabul for screenings there. He will also take the related online petition — boasting more than 82,000 signatures from all over the world — asking the Afghan government to reconsider the terms of the mining deal.
"The 5,000-year-old history at Mes Aynak, it's world history," says Huffman. "And that is something we should all care about."
"Saving Mes Aynak" airs on the program "Witness" on Al Jazeera America on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PST. You can also stream the film on the Kartemquin Films website for $9.99 (or for free if you live in Afghanistan).