“The mine will ultimately destroy Mes Aynak, but it may also save it from leaving no record or legacy.”
The ruins of Mes Aynak straddle a copper deposit so rich that many of the rocks are brilliant green with oxidised ore from a seam of metal first exploited 5,000 years ago.
The remaining copper cannot be extracted without destroying not just the ruins but the entire hill they perch on, and efforts to develop the mine have often been cast as a battle between the heartless miners and valiant archaeologists, racing against time to save their heritage.
The Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (Arch), a US non-profit organisation, has led a publicity campaign to prevent the mine, as currently envisaged, from going ahead. It has been so successful that the World Bank office in Kabul faces an internal investigation for supporting the dig and the mine development.
But none of Arch’s four directors have a background in cultural heritage, and several have connections to US mining companies interested in Afghan contracts. They are Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, his wife, his business associate in the lobbying firm Gryphon Partners, and a well-travelled restaurateur.
Khalilzad has been openlycritical of China’s mining companies and a bidding system that he argues favours them in Afghanistan, the country where he was born and later returned as the first US ambassador after the fall of the Taliban. “The performance of Chinese companies is improving but they have a long way to go,” he wrote in a 2011 opinion article for Foreign Policy entitled How many ways can we lose in Afghanistan, which criticised Chinese firms on issues including protection of cultural heritage. “It is certainly ironic that Chinese firms are at an advantage over western companies due to defence department procedures,” he wrote, before ending on a slightly less gloomy note: “It is not inevitable that Afghanistan’s valuable resources fall into the hands of the Chinese.”
Afghan archeologists and experts working on mining have a more complex view of the mine’s impact than Arch. Abdul Qadir Temori, head of the Afghan Institute of Archeology, who has committed his entire team of more than 30 graduate archaeologists to Mes Aynak, says the site is so complex and fascinating that experts could easily spend two decades picking over it.
In an ideal world that would be the case, he says. But Afghanistan is desperately poor and has suffered 30 years of violence, which means leaving artefacts in the ground offers little guarantee of preservation.Desperation and lawlessness have fuelled a ruthlessly efficient looting industry, and before the mining guards sealed off the site, looters stripped Mes Aynak of treasures that had been buried untouched for centuries, and destroyed beautiful buildings and crucial archeological evidence in the process. Just a few dozen miles away is Kharwar, another ancient site that may be even richer in remains, but has been described by the UN as “in danger of complete destruction“. Without security or funds for excavation, only looters are picking through its treasures.
“Kharwar is possibly more beautiful than Mes Aynak, almost the same age,” said SM Raheen, the minister of culture and information. “Unfortunately looting is going on there, but no one pays any attention … I don’t know why everybody cares just about Mes Aynak.”
The mine will ultimately destroy Mes Aynak, but it may also save it from leaving no record or legacy. The urgent need to salvage the site has brought an influx of funds for archaeologists, creating probably the biggest excavation project the country has seen and plans for a storage site for the treasures that are dug up, either in Kabul or near the mine.
The expensive, and extensive mine security has allowed work to go ahead in an area that would otherwise be largely controlled by the Taliban, more famous for blowing up the great Buddhas of Bamiyan than supporting cultural projects.
Archaeologists working on the ancient Afghan town, and the spectacular Buddhist temples around the settlements and smelters, are quietly confident they can rescue the majority of its treasures before it vanishes. Experts discuss stabilising foam, steel reinforcements and the merits of plucking stupas out whole or painstakingly dismantling them stone by stone, then rebuilding them in a permanent museum. “When thieves target a site, they destroy 10 pieces to steal two pieces,” Raheen added when asked about the mine and its impact. “This project has been helpful, to save the site. Otherwise it would face the same fate as Kharwar.”
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