An Afghan archaeologist in 2010 examining Buddha statues inside an ancient monastery at Mes Aynak in eastern Logar Province
Image credit Shah Marai/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images
 
 
Writing in The New York Times, Sunday Review, Andrew Lawler reports that –
 

WHEN the Taliban blasted the famous Bamiyan Buddhas with artillery and dynamite in March 2001, leaders of many faiths and countries denounced the destruction as an act of cultural terrorism. But today, with the encouragement of the American government, Chinese engineers are preparing a similar act of desecration in Afghanistan: the demolition of a vast complex of richly decorated ancient Buddhist monasteries.

The offense of this Afghan monument is not idolatry. Its sin is to sit atop one of the world’s largest copper deposits.

The copper at the Mes Aynak mine, just an hour’s drive south of Kabul, is to be extracted under a roughly $3 billion deal signed in 2007 between Afghanistan and China’s Metallurgical Group Corporation. The Afghan finance minister, Omar Zakhilwal, recently said the project could pump $300 million a year into government coffers by 2016. But the project has been plagued by rumors of corruption; there was widespread talk of a $30 million kickback involving the former minister of mines, who resigned.

In 2009, archaeologists were given a three-year deadline to salvage what they could at Mes Aynak, but raising money, securing equipment and finding experienced excavators took up more than half of that time. So the focus now is solely on rescuing objects. An international team of archaeologists is scrambling to save what it can before the end of this month, when it must vacate the central mining zone, at the heart of the Buddhist complex. 

The task is herculean: more than 1,000 statues have been identified, along with innumerable wall paintings, fragile texts and rare wooden ornamentation. And the excavators can only guess at what may lie in older layers. There is no time to dig deeper.

Andrew Lawler is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to the magazines Science and Archaeology. Full article here. See also our earlier feature here.