Tue, Nov 16, 2010 - Page 16 News List

Buddha and the mine

A Beijing-backed mining company is pressuring archaeologists at a seventh century BC religious site in Afghanistan to step aside so that heavy digging can begin

By Heidi Vogt  /  AP, MES AYNAK, Afghanistan

It was another day on the rocky hillside, as archaeologists and laborers dug out statues of Buddha and excavated a sprawling 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery. A Chinese woman in slacks, carrying an umbrella against the Afghan sun, politely inquired about their progress.

She had more than a passing interest. The woman represents a Chinese company eager to develop the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine, lying beneath the ruins.

The mine is the centerpiece of China’s drive to invest in Afghanistan, a country trying to get its economy off the ground while still mired in war. Beijing’s US$3.5 billion stake in the mine — the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan by far — gets its foot in the door for future deals to exploit Afghanistan’s largely untapped mineral wealth, including iron, gold and cobalt. The Afghan government stands to reap a potential US$1.2 billion a year in revenues from the mine, as well as the creation of much-needed jobs.

But Mes Aynak is caught between Afghanistan’s hopes for the future and its history. Archaeologists are rushing to salvage what they can from a major seventh century BC religious site along the famed Silk Road connecting Asia and the Middle East. The ruins, including the monastery and domed shrines known as stupas, will likely be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins.

RAZING HISTORY

Hanging over the situation is the memory of the Buddhas of Bamiyan — statues towering up to 55m high in central Afghanistan that were dynamited to the ground in 2001 by the country’s then-rulers, the Taliban, who considered them symbols of paganism.

No one wants to be blamed for similarly razing history at Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar. The Chinese government-backed China Metallurgical Group Corp (MCC) wanted to start building the mine by the end of next year. But under an informal understanding with the Kabul government, it has given archaeologists three years for a salvage excavation.

Archaeologists working on the site since May say that won’t be enough time for full preservation.

“That site is so massive that it’s easily a 10-year campaign of archaeology,” said Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist brought in by the US Embassy to work on sites in Afghanistan. Three years may be enough time just to document what’s there, she said.

Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist advising the Afghans, said the salvage effort is piecemeal and “minimal,” held back by lack of funds and personnel.

Around 15 Afghan archaeologists, three French advisers and a few dozen laborers are working within the 2km2 area — a far smaller team than the two dozen archaeologists and 100 laborers normally needed for a site of such size and richness.

“This is probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road,” Marquis said. “What we have at this site, already in excavation, should be enough to fill the [Afghan] national museum.”

The monastery complex has been dug out, revealing hallways and rooms decorated with frescoes and filled with clay and stone statues of standing and reclining Buddhas, some as high as 10 feet. An area that was once a courtyard is dotted with stupas standing about 1.5m high.

More than 150 statues have been found so far, though many remain in place. Large ones are too heavy to be moved, and the team lacks the chemicals needed to keep small ones from disintegrating when extracted.

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