Afghanistan's heritage is at stake

One of the country's richest archaeological treasures sits on top of vast copper reserves now sold to the Chinese

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.

A 2012 report by the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (Arch), a US non-profit group, in collaboration with international experts, states that the site is "one of the most intriguing ancient mining sites in Central Asia, if not the world". It goes on: "While the Buddhist aspect is important, what makes the site special is this continuity of habitation across millennia … Over 5,000 years old, this is a site where early technology and society unfolded."

The Arch report does acknowledge the need for economic development in the region, saying: "Mes Aynak can become a model case with a win-win outcome, pioneering methods for the extraction of resources in a way that is ecologically, culturally and historically responsible while meeting the needs of social development and the global economy." This approach would necessarily be slow and carefully managed by parties with motivations other than profit.

Documentary filmmaker Brent Huffman is one of those fighting desperately to raise awareness of Mes Aynak's historical significance before the bulldozers roll in. He has only just learnt of the rumours spreading among Afghan archaeologists working for the Ministry of Culture, that the deadline to halt excavation has been brought forward to this June. After this date, with the mining company's base camp already well established on site, it would not take long for the ancient foothills, along with their bounty of cultural heritage, to be replaced by a gargantuan hole in the ground.

Huffman's campaigning film, The Buddhas of Mes Aynak, is almost ready for release. He does not think a film alone can save Mes Aynak, but seeing the site close up changed everything for him, and he hopes if enough people are shown what is at stake, the momentum behind this issue might shift in favour of the preservation campaign. "What the film is doing is getting people to fall in love, to see why it's important and the incredible things that are found there."

Then, in a momentary capitulation to the enormity of the battle conservationists face, he admits to a humbler motivation, "at least if Mes Aynak is destroyed, I can capture it on film and provide some kind of visual record of what happened. To tell the story of Mes Aynak and the people who fought hard to try to save it."

The lack of a local champion and the overwhelming dearth of international awareness are just two of many factors fuelling Huffman's greatest fear. Namely, that Afghans themselves will never realise what they stand to lose at Mes Aynak. He says: "It's almost that Afghanistan doesn't have its own history because so much of it has been destroyed. Afghanistan could really take ownership of its history and its importance through protecting sites like Mes Aynak. It could become a point of pride for Afghans. This is how they influenced the world. That history has not been told."

When asked about heritage preservation at Mes Aynak, the Afghan Ministry for Culture and Information's responses were vague. The minister, Sayed Makhdoom Raheen, said: "We have made different suggestions to Unesco for historical sites to be included in the World Heritage list. I'm not sure about this one but there are many other sites."

A search of Unesco's site lists, both proposed and tentative, shows no references to Mes Aynak. Ministry adviser Jalal Noorani said: "There is continuing work. This department sent archaeologists to Mes Aynak. They have found some historical things … so, we should protect these." He acknowledged the existence of a mining contract with MCC, but insisted that, "They will begin when we have finished our archaeological work. Maybe next year. We need another one year."

It is unclear how official this timescale is, but either way, it falls well short of the 30 years deemed necessary by international experts. In addition, the work Mr Noorani described fits the definition of salvage archaeology, involving the deconstruction and removal, usually to Kabul, of archaeological material. There are many artefacts and structures that on-site archeologists say are too fragile to ever be relocated.

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