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Mes Aynak Ruins

Afghan Archaeologists Battle Chinese Mining Interests in Fight to Save Ancient Buddhist Paradise


Mes Aynak, a 2,000-year-old Buddhist city atop a 5,000-year-old Bronze Age settlement in Afghanistan, is considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Only ten percent of this massive 500,000 square meter site has been excavated, yet it is soon to be razed to the ground by a Chinese mining company eager to get their hands on $100 billion of profits locked within Mes Aynak’s copper reserves. The fight is now on to save its priceless treasures before they are lost forever.

Located on the Silk Road trade route linking China with the eastern Mediterranean, ancient Afghanistan was a magnet for settlers from different ethnicities and religions, from Hindus, Muslims and Jews to Buddhists and Zoroastrians. Mes Aynak is an ancient Buddhist paradise consisting of stupas, temples, shrines, monasteries, and priceless monuments, which once sat on this cultural crossroad linking Asia to the Mediterranean.

Thousands of artifacts, including ancient Buddhist manuscripts, around 600 large Buddha statues, and frescoes showing scenes from the life of Buddha, have been unearthed to date, but this only scratches the surface.  The site is enormous and archaeologists have only excavated a tiny portion of this ancient city. “Some believe future discoveries at the site have the potential to redefine the history of Afghanistan and the history of Buddhism itself,” reports Saving Mes Aynak.

Some of the thousands of treasures recovered from Mes Aynak.

Some of the thousands of treasures recovered from Mes Aynak. Credit: Brent E. Huffman / Saving Mes Aynak

This precious archaeological site has had the odds stacked against it from the start. Discovered in 1964, multiple political events (the Marxist coup, the Soviet occupation and later on the US presence) prevented the site from being excavated. It was not until 2004 that French archaeologists returned to the site, but was by then it has been extensively looted. Located 25 miles southeast of Kabul near the Pakistan border in the Taliban-controlled Logar Province, it also rests on a major transit route for insurgents filtering in from Pakistan. However, the instability and turmoil of the region seems to be the least of the worries.

Hilltop archaeological site at Mes Aynak

Hilltop archaeological site at Mes Aynak (Wikimedia Commons)

“Mes Aynak (meaning “little copper well” in Pashto) is situated atop Afghanistan’s richest source of copper, an estimated $100 billion dollar deposit that the Afghanistan government and a Chinese State-owned mining company, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation, are poised to mine,” reports Popular Archaeology. “To reach and acquire the deposit, the site must be destroyed, along with six surrounding villages.”

In order to boost profits, the Chinese-government owned company plan to use the cheapest method to extract the copper, known as open-pit mining. This is the most environmentally destructive style of mining. It will demolish the entire archaeology site, the mountain range, and every precious monument within it. 

The contract has already been fraught with controversy since its outset – it was shadowed by corruption allegations since its sign-off eight years ago and the Minister who agreed it resigned shortly after reports surfaced that he had pocketed a $30 million bribe from the mining company.

However, all is not yet lost. Public pressure has already delayed the start of the mining operation and now Afghan archaeologist Qadi Temori and American documentary film director Brent Huffman are working to raise international pressure on the Chinese mining company, the Afghanistan government, and UNESCO, in a bid to buy more time for archaeologists to retrieve and preserve the monuments before the site is destroyed.

The Saving Mes Aynak team has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, the world's largest crowdfunding platform, and hope to add thousands of signatures to a petition asking Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani to spare the site from destruction via designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Afghan archaeologists face what seems an impossible battle against the Chinese, the Taliban and local politics to save their cultural heritage from likely erasure,” writes the Saving Mes Aynak team.  But it is not too late to ensure that for Mes Aynak, profits and greed do not take priority over the preservation of our ancient past.

Featured image: Buddhist stupa, or shrine, at Mes Aynak, 35km south of Kabul. (Wikimedia Commons)

By April Holloway



I was with you until your second paragraph, although the Chinese have shown equal disregard for historical and archeological sites in their own country.

There are plenty of Muslim archeologists working at Mes Aynak, and all of the workers there are native Muslim Afghans. You imply that to be Muslim is to not care about history. To basically equate that Muslim = The Taliban and ISIS (which is what your second paragraph does), is incredibly naive, misinformed, and quite appalling.

Now that I think about it, the sweeping generalizations you've made in your post are actually absurd. From what I gather about your perspective: the Chinese as a whole culture do not care about anything but their own history, and Muslims are basically the Taliban and ISIS. This may not be what you intended, but it sure is the message that comes across.

Money trumps all ethics and history. For the Chinese, anyone else's heritage is practically worthless. had the mining company been trying to dig underneath any Chinese heritage site, you can bet that the government in Bejing would put an immediate stop to the project.

I also doubt that it is Muslim archaeologists who are concerned. After all, it was the Taliban who happily destroyed the Buddhist statues and it was the IS who equally happily destroyed Nineveh and Nimrud earlier this year.

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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