Friday, 24 June 2011

Mes Aynak – Ancient monastery vs Copper mine

It seems that the clash between making money and preserving the past is ever present at the moment.  No sooner had we seen an English Council leader threaten to remove archaeological considerations from the planning process (see my blog post here), then I come across a news story from a lot further away, but no less disturbing.

The rich cultural heritage of Afghanistan has recently been brought to life in a fantastic British Museum exhibition, yet it is once again under threat.  Not from war, but from international commercial mining.

Mes Aynak is an important ancient Buddhist monastery, founded in the first Century AD and located high in the mountains of western Afghanistan, on the profitable silk road.  The site covers a huge area, with impressive standing remains, yet it has been little studied.  The site was used by Al Qaeda as a training camp, and suffered looting first by the Taliban and then by others after they had left.  Despite this terrible recent history, the site now faces its biggest threat – that of total destruction by open-cast copper mining.

Statues whose heads have previously been looted
The name ‘Mes Aynak’ actually means ‘little copper well’, and the presence of the metal has long been known.  It was a major reason for the location of the monastery.  But the metal that once made the site rich now threatens its destruction.  The desire to re-ignite Afghanistan’s economy has led to a Chinese mining company being granted permission to turn the entire huge site into a mine, forever destroying the remains.  Archaeologists have been granted three years to investigate the site – a permission which has led to the largest archaeological project on the planet, as almost 1,000 archaeologists and workers attempt to salvage what information they can about the site.

Yet their efforts may only scratch the surface.  It was estimated that ten years of excavations were required, and the current efforts are little more than a rescue attempt – to take as much away as they can before it is gone forever.  Sadly, this is hardly the textbook approach to investigating such an important site.  The opening of a museum nearby, promised by the government, will sadly seem more of a memorial to the site than a celebration.

The Chinese Metallurgical Group were granted permission to open the mine in 2007, and will be allowed to operate it for 30 years.  The $3 billion dollar deal is the largest in Afghan history.  Chinese workers are already at the site in large numbers, preparing for the destruction to begin in 2014.  1,600 Afghan soldiers, a veritable army, guard the site from further looting.  The irony of such resources being used to protect a site that will soon be destroyed is telling.

The balance between restarting the economy and preserving the past is a difficult one, but the speed with which the excavations must be concluded is shocking.  With more time to properly excavate, the loss of the site would still be regrettable, but at least the damage would be better mitigated.  The present situation seems very much like merely paying lip service to the archaeologists, with the ultimate desire to make money the overriding factor in all things.

Perhaps the most scandalous thing about this tale is that the world barely seems to have noticed that it is happening.  One of the most important Buddhist sites in the world will vanish in a matter of years, and yet it seems like hardly anyone will notice.

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