Rare Ancient Buddhist Text Discovered In Doomed Temple Super-Complex Near Kabul
Archaeologists in Afghanistan have discovered exceptionally rare pieces of an ancient Buddhist manuscript dated to around the seventh century AD at an ancient settlement near Kabul.
In the spring of 1963, a French geologist set out from Kabul to survey a large outcrop of copper-bearing strata in the mountains above the village of Mes Aynak, approximately 40 kilometers southeast of Kabul in Logar province in eastern Afghanistan. There, he discovered a vast religious settlement occupied between the third and seventh centuries located at a key location on the famed Silk Road connecting Asia and the Middle East.
Now, if you ask people to name the world’s oldest printed book the most common reply is Gutenberg’s Bible, but Buddhist texts, the Diamond Sutra for example, that was printed in AD 868, was compiled about 550 years before Gutenberg was born. Regarding these newly discovered texts the Japanese daily The Mainichi reported that an Afghan archaeological institute stated, “The sutras written in Sanskrit on tree bark and were discovered on a hillside a few years ago in Mes Aynak,” and it is suspected that the manuscripts might have been “housed in an archive.”
Remains of a Buddhist monastery at Mes Aynak. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Putting The Ancient Manuscripts In Context
In 2009 the Afghan government launched a full-scale excavation of the site which has since unearthed over 400 Buddha statues within a 40 hectare (100 acres) super-monastery complex. And what’s more, a 5,000-year-old Bronze Age site has recently been discovered beneath the Buddhist layer.
And illustrating the extent of the ancient city a 2013 article in The Guardian explained that Mes Aynak comprises “19 separate archaeological sites including “two small forts, a citadel, four fortified monasteries, several Buddhist stupas and a Zoroastrian fire temple, as well as ancient copper workings, smelting workshops, a mint, and miners habitations.”
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Statue of the Buddha, Mes Aynak, 3rd-6th century AD. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Controversially, in November 2007, Afghanistan signed over a 30-year copper mining lease to the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) for US$3 billion - the biggest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history. In 2012 The Daily Mail reported that the Chinese company “unearthed ancient statues of Buddha in a sprawling 2,600-year-old site which included a “monastery and domed shrines known as ‘stupas,’" which archaeologists feared might be destroyed once work at the mine begins. In June 2013 an international team of 67 archaeologists took over the site and with 550 local laborers Mes Aynak will became "the largest rescue dig anywhere in the world.”
The press is saturated with negative news reports comparing the Chinese mining company to those who destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
Newly excavated Buddhist stupa at Mes Aynak. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Who was Siddhartha Gautama?
Siddhartha Guatama was born the son of a wealthy Indian prince in 566 BC and grew up to become the founder of Buddhism. At his birth it was prophecized that he would either be a powerful king or a great spiritual leader and, mindful of this prophecy, his father shielded him from the real world dressing him in silken clothes, precious jewels and presenting him to beautiful women.
When he was 29 years old Siddhartha could no longer resist the temptation to experience the real world and in disguise he slipped beyond the safety of the court and soon witnessed ‘four sights’ which caused him ‘infinite sorrow’: a crippled old man, a diseased man, a dead man and a monk. Aiming to solve such misery he renounced his birthright and led a life of self-denial seeking ways to end to human suffering.
Moderating his lifestyle through absolute deprivation and intense meditation Siddhartha found the Middle Way and sitting beneath a 'bodhi' tree he achieved a profound understanding of the cycles of birth and rebirth. Enlightened, Siddhartha became the Buddha, the Awakened One, and for almost 50 years he taught the way, and provided his disciples with many sutras.
The recitation of sutras - traditional teachings or sermons written in Sanskrit - is an important part of Buddhist religious observance and when these newly discovered texts are translated an entire new set of Mantras, prayers and meditations might be built, bringing the ancient world back to life in Buddhist temples around the world.
Top image: Ancient Buddhist text discovered near Mes Aynak, Afghanistan Source: Kyodo News (Fair Use)
By Ashley Cowie