Saving the Buddhas of Mes Aynak
Image Credit: Brent Huffman

Saving the Buddhas of Mes Aynak


Outside the village of Mes Aynak, in eastern Afghanistan’s mountainous Logar province, a burgeoning Buddhist center once flourished. In its heyday, this Silk Road hub thrived on trade between the Middle East and Asia, and hosted Buddhist pilgrims who helped spread the faith.

As The New York Times noted, while Europe was crawling through the Dark Ages, Afghanistan was home to Nestorian Christians, Persian Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jews and, finally, Muslims, in a tolerant, prosperous society.

According to The Guardian, the 2,600-year-old site contains fortified monasteries, a Zoroastrian fire temple, several Buddhist stupas, more than 1,000 statutes and walls featuring frescoes of donor portraits and scenes from the Buddha’s life. Not to mention smelting workshops, miners’ quarters (even then the site’s copper was well known), a mint, two small forts, a citadel, and a stockpile of Kushan, Sassanian and Indo-Parthian coins.

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Today, this treasure trove of cultural and spiritual heritage stands at a crossroads. One way leads to the development of a tourist hotspot: a win-win scenario that would breathe life into the local economy while preserving the integrity of the site. The other path is colorfully illustrated by Brent Huffman, a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University, who asks us to hypothetically imagine the following scenario taking place at another site of similar value: Machu Piccu.

“Imagine Machu Picchu at dawn cloaked in fog. Now imagine the fog slowly lifting to reveal an enormous ancient city perched on the edge of a mountain,” he wrote for CNN. “Picture a sense of mystery being immersed in thousands of years of history as you walk between antiquated hewn stone structures. There is tranquility in the wind-blown stillness of the primeval site. You feel a renewed sense of kinship with the past and with your ancestors and feel a deep reverence for their lives and accomplishments.”

He continues: “Now imagine the menacing sound of bulldozers closing in and men at work. Their heavy machinery rattles the ground. You hear workers rigging dynamite to these massive stone structures. There is a brief lull and then the deafening blow of multiple explosions as Machu Picchu is razed to the ground.”

“Be at ease,” he added, “Machu Piccu is a UNESCO protected site. But a very similar 2,600-year-old Buddhist site in Logar province, Afghanistan isn’t so lucky.”

Unfortunately, Huffman’s guided visualization is no exaggeration. In 2007, the Chinese state-backed China Metallurgical Group paid $3 billion to the Afghan government – its largest contract ever – for mining rights to Mes Aynak (“little copper well”), which contains an estimated $100 billion worth of copper. To reach the coveted natural resource, the firm plans to dig a 500-meter-deep crater that would effectively wipe the archaeological treasure off the map.

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