The ruins poke out of a monotonous stretch of scrub and beckon the world to visit Afghanistan as it was more than 1,400 years ago, when Buddhist monasteries dotted the landscape.
An ancient citadel juts from a tall crag, standing sentinel over what once was a flourishing settlement. The monastery sits largely preserved, as does a series of reliquaries adorned with schist arches and shelves.
But few people today will have a chance to see these ruins, which French and Afghan archaeologists are unearthing.
Sometime soon, perhaps in as little as 14 months, the sprawling, 9,800-acre Mes Aynak site will be crushed by Chinese bulldozers hunting for copper — a clear choice of economic development over historic preservation in a country trying to overcome decades of war, religious extremism and occupation.
“As an archaeologist, of course I’m worried about this,” said Khair Muhammad Khairzada, a researcher at the Afghan Institute of Archaeology, which is overseeing the dig. “I want all of the archaeological sites to be saved. But at the same time, Afghanistan’s economy is also important. It needs to grow.”
And so, a dozen archaeologists and 100 Afghan laborers are working like army ants to finish the dig. Many valuable relics were looted long ago, and the archaeologists won’t be able to save the ancient edifices from the mining company. But they can remove the statues, pottery and gold and silver coins still buried within the buildings.
“We don’t know exactly how much time we have to excavate the site. Sometimes the deadline is 14 months and sometimes it’s two years. It will depend on the Chinese,” said Nicolas Engel, a young French archaeologist with James Joyce spectacles.
“That big mountain over there, that’s where copper ore is located,” he said, gesturing toward a long, scrub-covered ridge. “So inside of that mountain, the Chinese want to do an open pit mine, which means this whole area will be destroyed.”
The race to salvage whatever they can of Afghanistan’s ancient, storied past is the latest in a long line of ordeals that Afghan historians and archeologists have had to face.
The country was roiled by an insurgent war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s and a civil war that followed the Soviets’ departure. Statues and other depictions of the human form were anathema to the Islamist Taliban regime, and when it ruled Afghanistan it systematically defaced or destroyed anything it deemed un-Islamic. The Taliban’s most notorious act of vandalism occurred in 2001, when it blew up the two towering, 1,500-year-old Buddha statues of Bamian valley. Western and Afghan troops are now seeking to defeat a Taliban insurgency.
Looters have been as destructive as war, pouncing on sites filled with centuries-old statues and coins long before archaeologists arrive. Most of the looted relics find their way to Pakistan and from there to the international black market.
Today, the promise of mining wealth overshadows the treasured ruins of Mes Aynak. Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth is staggering, estimated by U.S. geologists at nearly $1 trillion. Reserves include large amounts of copper, gold, cobalt, lithium and other metals.
The untapped copper deposits in the Lowgar province mountains are believed to be one of the world’s largest reserves of the ore. China has been scouring the world for raw materials to feed its industrial growth, and the Afghan government in 2007 awarded China Metallurgical Group Corp. the contract to mine at Mes Aynak, a $2.9-billion endeavor that makes it Afghanistan’s largest development project.
Afghan archaeologists say they recognize the potential that mining holds for their country’s economy. But they also want to preserve a heritage that encompasses conquests by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, and periods when Buddhism was the dominant religion.
“Preserving our heritage is so important,” said Abdul Khalid Khorshid, an Afghan archaeologist working on the Mes Aynak dig. “The relics we find don’t just belong to the Afghans — they belong to the world.”
The road from Kabul, the capital, to Mes Aynak, through the badlands of Lowgar province, reminds visitors that archaeology in Afghanistan is risky business.
Along the way, members of an Afghan de-mining unit lumber across the desert in bulky bomb squad gear, planting small flags in the dirt as they move from one quadrant to the next. The Taliban remains active in Lowgar; on June 25, a suicide bomber killed 37 people at a hospital about 25 miles from Mes Aynak.
On a recent sun-scorched morning, Engel’s diggers worked at a furious pace, kicking up billowing clouds of dust as their spades and pick-axes exposed a large reliquary that housed red-painted Buddha statues.
The archaeologists and laborers work from 6 a.m. until early afternoon, six days a week. To meet the mining company’s deadline, Engel said, his team would have to hire 100 archaeologists and 800 laborers. The Afghan Institute of Archaeology can’t afford that.
“So we simply tell the diggers they need to work as quickly as possible,” said Afghan archaeologist Abdul Qadir Temory.
The site sat abandoned for centuries. Gaping holes in the earth mark where looters have been recently. The goal for Engel and the other archaeologists is to find whatever’s left, document the layout of the Buddhist settlement, and cart away small sections of the structures so they can be preserved in a museum that one day is to be built nearby.
Some of the artifacts found at Mes Aynak are now displayed at Kabul’s National Museum: a 5th century wooden Buddha, a 3rd century Bodhisattva figure carved from schist, an array of gold and silver coins and Buddha heads made of plaster and clay. Several larger Buddha statues, some as tall as 13 feet, remain at the Mes Aynak monastery, a 5th century warren of chambers and reliquaries that the government keeps behind a locked and guarded gate.
Archaeologists and laborers who have been unearthing the ancient citadel know it will be pulverized one day soon. They find that hard to accept.
“Yes, mining is important for the economy, but the history and heritage of Afghanistan is equally important,” said Mohammed Rabi, the archaeologist overseeing excavation of the citadel. “I just wish we had more time and money to save it all.”