Antiquities and Archaeology Afghanistan

Race to save Buddhist relics in former Bin Laden camp

Workers are desperately trying to excavate Mes Aynak before a Chinese mining company moves in

Excavators in Mes Aynak

MES AYNAK. A rescue operation is underway to save as much as possible from ancient Buddhist monasteries in Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, before the mountains become an open-cast mine and the site is destroyed. In what is now the world’s largest archaeological dig, around 1,000 workers are trying to excavate artefacts from the country’s second most important Buddhist site (along with Hadda), after Bamiyan.

The site, a former training camp of Osama bin Laden, has been leased to a Chinese mining company for copper production. Only what can be excavated and removed to safety will be saved.

Despite the impending archaeological loss, Mes Aynak has received scant attention internationally. Moreover, Afghanistan’s heritage has suffered much in recent years from civil war, looting and the vandalism of the Taliban.

Mes Aynak (Little Copper Well) lies 25 miles south-east of Kabul, in a barren region. The Buddhist monasteries date from the third to the seventh centuries, and are located near the remains of ancient copper mines. It is unclear whether the monastery was originally established to serve the miners or if the monks set up there to work the mines themselves.

Here, 7,000 ft up the mountains, Bin Laden set up a training camp in 1999 to prepare terrorists for the 11 September attack. All traces of the camp have gone, but the region still remains a Taliban stronghold.

During the early 2000s, widespread looting occurred at the Buddhist sites after the Kabul government found it difficult to impose control. Archaeologists are now uncovering dozens of statues with missing heads that were broken off to sell.

Mes Aynak’s fate changed again in 2007, when the government negotiated a 30-year mining concession with the state-owned China Metallurgical Group. The archaeological remains sit on the world’s second largest copper deposit. The $3bn deal represents the largest business venture in Afghanistan’s history.

The mining project should bring major economic benefits for the country, but it involves digging a huge open-cast mine that will envelop most of the archaeological remains. Although mining has not yet begun, large numbers of Chinese workers are already developing the infrastructure.

The rescue excavations began in 2009 at Gol Hamid, which lies in a mountain pass adjacent to a Chinese camp. Work was undertaken by the National Institute of Archaeology and the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan. Part of the monastic compound was excavated, leading to the discovery of a vaulted chapel, monks’ cells and storerooms. Polychrome terracotta statues were also found, including a sleeping Buddha.

Last year the archaeological work moved to Tepe Kafiriat, higher up the mountains. The 260 ft walled complex originally had eight stone-clad stupas (ceremonial towers for relics), surrounding the main stupa. Among the finds are a 25 ft-long reclining Buddha and wall paintings. Archaeologists also discovered a pair of large feet, which are all that remains of a 10 ft statue (the main part was looted or destroyed in the early 2000s). An ancient wooden Buddha was also discovered, which very rarely survive.

Although comparatively little has been excavated, the archaeologists are supposed to complete their work within 14 months. Mining is due to start in 2014.

Last month The Art Newspaper spoke to Omar Sultan, the deputy minister for information and culture. He pledged that from this month, the number of archaeologists would rise from 30 to 65. The number of labourers would be increased tenfold, from 90 to 900. The site is guarded by a force of 1,600 soldiers.

Excavation costs are now estimated at $28m, although it is not clear whether the whole site has been surveyed. Funding is coming from the ministry of mines, and possibly from the Chinese company. The Chinese have also promised to send archaeologists.

The most important portable finds have been transferred to the National Museum in Kabul, although its storage and conservation facilities are inadequate to handle the volume of material that has been unearthed.

On 15 March, finds from Mes Aynak went on display in Kabul. “Along the Silk Road: Recent Excavations from Mes Aynak”, featuring 70 of the most important discoveries, was funded by the US embassy in Kabul. 

The government has plans to build a new museum near Mes Aynak, on a site in Logar province. It will be five miles from the mine. There are hopes of moving some of the stupa bases and reconstructing them in the new museum.

Sultan has a personal interest in Mes Aynak, since in 1976 he worked with Soviet archaeologists on an initial survey. He remains optimistic: “Yes, we do have enough time. We have an agreement with the ministry of mines to safeguard the archaeology.” Archaeologists, however, have expressed their horror at the rush to mine the copper.

Buddhist sculptures are being uncovered with missing heads that were looted
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10 Jun 13
15:42 CET


2600 years ago Lord Buddha exhorted his disciples three mental "Roots of Evil"- 1. Greed ( I want more and more) 2. Aversion (I hate it, I don't like it) 3. Dullness or Delusion ( I don't know and I don't want to know ). From these three Greed, Aversion and Delusion singly or in combination, all the various evil mental states arise.They are called diseases, and according to Buddhist psychology any one who permits them to arise and flourish in his mind, is mentally sick. Lunatics, far from being safely restrained in hospitals, are in fact every where, we only keep in custody the most extreme examples in whom these "Roots" range unchecked, choking all good consciousness. Tolerance must be practised if peace to come to this earth.Force and compulsion will only create intolerance.To establish peace and harmony among mankind,each and everyone must first learn to practice the ways leading to the extinction of hatred, greed and delusion, the roots of all evil forces.

3 Dec 12
18:18 CET


As a buddhist it is very sad situation to hear that these heritage is planned for destruction in near future. According to my knowledge China is also a buddhist country in the past. But still there are some people who are buddhists. Why dont there government take any action to prevent this situation?? Nowadays everyone is trying to destroy buddhism from this world. Not only in Mes Aynak , here also the situation is same. In northern province of Sri lanka muslims has destroyed all the buddhist cultural heritage and built there own mosques in the same lands. In Bangladesh also the same scenario. Save Mes Aynak for the future of this world. Save buddhism. BUDU SARANAI............

20 Nov 12
15:36 CET


Save Mes Aynak

26 Apr 11
15:15 CET


I understand there are plans to start mining the Grand Canyon for uranium too. In a hundreds year's time there might not be much point in travelling overseas unless you like looking at big holes in the ground!

13 Apr 11
2:58 CET


Very sad, now 10 Canadian companies are digging in Tibetan land, without a care that they are destroying a 1,200 year culture. Also Bombardier, a Cdn company, has got its grips in the Tibetan plateaus. China is the beast of beasts. Pretty soon they will have wiped Tibetans and their monasteries from the face of the earth. This month, they are depriving 2,500 monks at Kirti of food and water. Why does the US work with such monsters? And Canada too? The US is no more ethical and democratic than Burma...Capitalism is just as dangerous as fascism, totalitarianism, etc. We are fortunate to be present to the beginning of the destruction of our planet, her resources, and our fellow human beings.

12 Apr 11
18:18 CET


China has raped and pillaged and polluted their own land, they are killing their own people with sweat labour or pollutants in everything they touch...and so now they move further afield...

11 Apr 11
13:6 CET


Does this mean the U.S. is going to provide security for a Chinese mining company?

10 Apr 11
23:13 CET


How is it that money becomes more important than heritage? China should look elsewhere, somethings have no price.

10 Apr 11
23:13 CET


Sorry to say, but given current use and population/development growth, copper is a rare metal. About a third of all the estimated findable copper has been used and lost, a third is circulating, and only one third left in the ground. Meanwhile the human population went from 1 billion to 6 billion in the last century, and how many more babies we'll pump out is anybody's guess. Unfortunately compassion and a deep understanding of human history are in even shorter supply, so it's sad to see these relics and their site destroyed.

10 Apr 11
23:14 CET


Afghanistan is a country of historical diverse cultures and rich historical significance to all of humanity. Personally, and via my company, I am deeply involved in preserving Afghanistan's cultural treasures, and educating the people of Afghanistan and world about the significance of this country and it's people. Would like to know how many archaeologists Metallurgical Group is planning send to the site. Also, what is UNESCO's opinion and involement, if any. Sincerely, Coco Loren |

9 Apr 11
7:45 CET


I'm not sure if this restores my faith in humanity, or undermines it...either way, best of luck with the excavations. -- Jim

8 Apr 11
16:32 CET


What's with China? Copper is NOT a scarce mineral. Under Mao, cultural vandalism was epic & a disgrace. Must they destroy others' heritage as they so moronically destroyed their own? I feel a Tibetan connection to this fear of Buddhism. The Dharma lives on, but people NEED such cultural diversity & beauty.

7 Apr 11
13:48 CET


i hope this goes to plan, it would be such a shame to lose them.

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