South east of Kabul lies Logar, the latest province to backslide into the clutches of insurgency and Taliban rule. Upon the region’s barren landscape sits a cluster of rocky foothills known collectively as Mes Aynak. To the Afghan and Chinese governments, Mes Aynak is the site of massive copper reserves, the world’s second largest, with an estimated worth exceeding $100bn (£66bn). To others, it is a site of enormous historical importance, a settlement dating back to the Bronze Age which includes a 100-acre ancient monastery complex, and a mere 10 per cent of which has been excavated. Its destruction would see Afghan society robbed of a unique link to its rich heritage.
Decades of conflict mean Afghans have already lost countless historical artefacts from heritage sites and museums. In 2012, a single consignment handed over by the British Armed Forces to the National Museum of Afghanistan saw the return of more than 800 items that were carried illegally into the UK. This slow leak compounds catastrophic losses such as the Taliban’s demolition of the 35- and 53-metre tall Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.
Mes Aynak is the latest piece of heritage facing an existential threat, only this time the threat is government sponsored. The Ministry of Mines sold rights to the copper reserves directly below and around the archaeological site to the Chinese state-owned China Metallurgical Group (MCC) roughly four years ago. This despite international experts repeatedly describing it, since its rediscovery in the 1960s, as a hugely important cradle of Bronze Age, Buddhist and Islamic heritage.
Mes Aynak also satisfies the criteria for becoming a Unesco World Heritage Site. Yet, unlike at Bamiyan, the process has never been initiated. Campaigners insist it is not too late. However, a valid proposal can only come from government officials, and herein lies the tragedy. No one with the power to save Mes Aynak will or, perhaps, can defy the Ministry of Mines to contact Unesco or another conservation body, such as the International Council on Monuments and Sites.
It is hard to explain how echoes of Mes Aynak’s magnificence bewitch its self-appointed protectors and increasingly rare visitors. Imagine an intricate complex of Buddhist monasteries and settlements, bustling with a religious and civil life, as early as the 1st century BC, that thrived for a millennium.
Now consider these centuries of vigorous and diverse human activity lying excellently preserved, above and well below ground, mere miles from the capital. Lastly, bear in mind that general lack of access, resources and time mean that, to this day, no one knows how far the site extends or how revelatory its historical secrets could prove. The only firm conclusion to be drawn so far is that Mes Aynak represents a people’s history waiting to be discovered which could, perhaps, reinforce an embattled national identity and pride.
A report released by the National Museum of Afghanistan in 2011, in collaboration with European experts, says that only 10 per cent of the Buddhist settlement has so far been excavated. Of that, much has been subject to the harsh procedures of “rescue” or “salvage” archaeology, which is necessary when time constraints and other pressures – in this case mostly security related – prevent the painstaking processes of conventional archaeology.
Expert consensus currently holds that at least 30 years is needed, from now, to carry out a satisfactory excavation of the entire site. Current rumour – for clarity and transparency have never prevailed in this process – suggests that the woefully under-resourced team on site now has only until June of this year before time is called on archaeology at Mes Aynak forever.
Yet even the relatively tiny area haphazardly excavated so far has been found bursting with archaeological treasures. A cursory glance over initial surveys shows mention of over 100 clay statues of Buddha – many measured in metres not centimetres, ornate engravings, extremely rare manuscripts and huge quantities of smaller icons, coins, pot shards and tools.