Chinese mine in Afghanistan threatens ancient find

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By Heidi Vogt
Sunday, December 5, 2010

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 $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 $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 B.C. 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 probably be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins.

Hanging over the situation is the memory of the Buddhas of Bamiyan - statues towering up to 180 feet 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. China Metallurgical Group, or MCC, which is backed by the Chinese government, wanted to start building the mine by the end of 2011. 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 U.S. 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 0.77-square-mile 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."

'Principles of archaeology'

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 tall as 10 feet. An area that was once a courtyard is dotted with stupas standing four or five feet high.


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