Archeologists are scrambling to excavate a 2,600 year old city before it becomes a Chinese copper mine

These won’t be around much longer.
These won’t be around much longer.
Image: AP Photo/Dusan Vranic
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

At the end of the year, state-owned Chinese mining company China Metallurgical Group will take control of an ancient Buddhist city in Afghanistan, Mes Aynak. Southeast of Kabul, the ancient, abandoned city is home to sculptures, art, and jewelry dating back to the time of Alexander the Great—as well as 5.5 million tonnes of copper ore, one of the world’s largest deposits.

Before China Metallurgical turns the site into a copper mine, a team of understaffed and underfunded archaeologists is scrambling to excavate the area, believed to be one of the most important (pdf) stops along the Silk Road and critical for understanding the spread of Buddhism. It’s unclear exactly what will become of the area, but given that the company plans to build an open copper mine, most of Mes Aynak and the surrounding mountain range will have to be destroyed.

Image for article titled Archeologists are scrambling to excavate a 2,600 year old city before it becomes a Chinese copper mine
Image: "COPPER BOTTOMED? Bolstering the Aynak contract: Afghanistan’s first major mining deal," Global Witness.

Experts say a full excavation of the 9,800-acre (4.8 million square-foot) archaeological site would take at least 25 years. Afghan and Chinese officials aren’t likely to wait that long: China Metallurgical has a 30-year deal with the Afghanistan government, which is desperate for revenues. “From one side, my people need food. We are poor people. My national budget needs to generate revenue. But on the other side, I have to protect the international heritage,” Nasir Ahmad Durrani, deputy minister of mining told Al Jazeera in June.

Instead, local and international archaeologists have been working on a “rescue excavation” since 2009, hiring locals from nearby Pashtun villages to remove as many valuable artifacts as they can and record on film the existence of structures or items that may not get saved. Archaeologists are trying to remove stupas, structures, sculptures and painting but say they need specialized equipment and more diggers.

Diggers in 2010.
Diggers in 2010.
Image: AP Photo/AP Photo/Dusan Vranic

Activists, meanwhile, have been trying to halt the mine, and secure UNESCO protection for the area. Over 50,000 pro-protection signatures were collected and handed to president Hamid Karzai last year, but Afghanistan’s presidential election earlier this year, which has left the country in political paralysis, means there’s no president to lobby now.

Digging for the copper mine was supposed to begin last year, but has been put on hold as China Metallurgical tries to renegotiate parts of the deal, which includes the company building a power plant, processing facility and railway in addition to the mine. Those negotiations are supposed to resume (paywall) once a new administration is in office, according to the South China Morning Post. A prolonged audit of the election, and the fact that China Metallurgical has run into problems at home—its deputy chief engineer was dismissed from the communist party in June for “serious disciplinary and legal violations” could buy conservationists a bit more time.