Mining threat to ancient Afghan monastery at Mes Aynak

Mes Aynak Copper brought the monks that built Mes Aynak. Could it be the reason for the monastery's ultimate demise?

Ten years ago, the Taliban blew up Afghanistan's ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan, provoking international outrage. Now, the country's rich heritage is facing a new threat. A Chinese mining venture has set its sights on another ancient Buddhist site, reports the BBC's Quentin Sommerville.

Mes Aynak lies in Logar province, a short helicopter ride from Kabul.

The site was was once an al-Qaeda training camp, but is also home to an astonishing discovery - a Buddhist monastery more than 1,400 years old.

Unlike many archaeological sites, this is more than a few stones on the ground.

There are walls and corridors. Walking past the stupas, or shrines, and the still brightly painted red Buddhas, you get a real sense of a living monastery and the grandeur of the place.

The monks settled here because there was copper in the ground; it was part of a Buddhist kingdom. This was a way-station on the Silk Road, the route that would take Buddhism from India to Tibet, and beyond into China.

Start Quote

Developing a sense of Afghan identity and national pride comes through supporting historical monuments”

End Quote Laura Tedesco Archaeologist with the US embassy

"The main thing for us is to document as much as we can before its destruction," said Phillippe Marquis, a French archaeologist who has been working on the site, and is assisting in an emergency evacuation of the site.

"It was the copper in the ground that brought the monks here, made them rich and allowed them to build this monastery."

But if it is copper that led to the creation of this monastery, it is copper that will also lead to its destruction.

Underground lies the world's second-largest untapped copper reserve, and the Chinese have bought the mineral rights to the entire area.

'Human treasure'

Across the hillside, Chinese miners have set up camp. Special armed security guards patrol miles of fencing around the site.

Site at Mes Aynak in Afghanistan Afghanistan's dry climate has helped preserved ancient remains

In a year the mining will begin, bringing millions in revenue to this desperately poor country.

But the monastery, and even the hillsides around it, will vanish as the area becomes a giant open-cast mine.

Afghanistan has a rich archaeological heritage: Its dry climate means that forts from the time of Alexander the Great are still remarkably preserved.

But it is a country that has already lost so much.

Ten years ago, the towering Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban, who viewed the great statues as heretical.

The Taliban and others also looted the national museum. Its director, Dr Omara Khan Massoudi, says what is left must be saved.

"In three decades of war, a lot of our cultural heritage has been destroyed, damaged and looted. These artefacts do not belong to the country, it's human treasure that belongs to everybody," he said.

And there are international efforts to preserve some of that rich heritage.

In Ghazni, central Afghanistan, a Polish soldier stands guard at two ancient minarets: The city is to be the Islamic Cultural Capital in two years time. Security is poor, as are the roads.

Mes Aynak

  • The China Metallurgical Group (MGC) has been granted a 30-year lease to mine copper
  • The mine could give Afghanistan $1.2bn (£755m) a year in revenue plus much needed jobs
  • The ruins were discovered during excavation of the site for MGC
  • Archaeologists have been given three years to salvage the site, which they say could easily take 10 years

Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist with the US embassy, is working with the Afghan government to restore Afghan treasures. She believes that preserving the country's heritage has to be a priority.

"Developing a sense of Afghan identity and national pride comes through supporting historical monuments," she said.

"Afghans are very proud of their history, as they should be, and these monuments are testaments to what a prominent history Afghanistan had, and that's important for developing a civil society as well as providing electricity, water and schools."

Back at the museum in Kabul, they are working to save what they can from Mes Aynak.

But the country lacks sufficient conservators and archaeologists, so international help will be required.

The US military is spending a million dollars just helping to conserve the precious artefacts from the site, which are some of the oldest Buddhist finds in the world.

In a country shattered by war and facing so much uncertainty, what remains is more valuable than ever.

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