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Friday, 30 October 2015

The Copper-Bottomed Buddhas

What do one of the world's largest untapped copper mines; Buddhist monk-kings; an al-Qaeda training camp and the Chinese have in common?

Not much at all, except for Mes Aynak.

The archaeological site of Mes Aynak in Afghanistan is one of the most promising of its kind in the Middle East. A buried pre-Islamic city of monks shrouded in copper ore, it comprises monastic fortifications, buddha schist statues and human remains dating as far back as 300AD. 

The priest-kings, and the city they ruled, prospered ever since the first ore was smelted and up until the forested environs - on which the process depended for fuel - was gradually cleared. Contrasting the peace which the city used to enjoy, the site is now a bone - or several - of contention for mining companies, archaeologists and militants.

The copper which built the city might just doom its legacy. 12.5 million tonnes of it is buried underground, and in 2007 the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) won the rights to mining operations on the site. For Afghanistan, the prospect of new infrastructure and a £780m boost to it's febrile economy proved too alluring, despite the risks to Afghan heritage that the mining operation will pose.

But the Chinese are not mining yet, due to continuing conflict in the region. Islamists are the source of the conflict, and look askance at the idea of pre-Islamic heritage anyway. The Taliban, which still has a stake in the area, have been known to harass archaeologists who are trying to salvage the site's riches before the Chinese move in.

Under the Taliban's aegis, an al-Qaeda base used to be located at Mes Aynak; four of the terrorists who conducted the 9/11 attacks were trained there. Conflict continues. The Chinese were forced to defer the beginning of ore extraction operations after rocket attacks in 2012 and 2013, which scarred a landscape already pockmarked by looters who have robbed it of some of its riches. Alas, it doesn't seem to matter anyway. The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul have accepted so many artefacts that they no longer have room for them. Thousands of discoveries sit in limbo at storage facilities.

The date for mining continues to be offset, which gives archaeologists time to work on the site and make digital records. They have the time but not the manpower: they rely on volunteer labour and are low on resources. Nobody knows what the future holds for the site, but one thing's for sure: as rockets streak the skies and Chinese machinery looms, archaeology is Mes Aynak's only prospect for preservation. 

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