Home Arts experts race to preserve ancient Afghan Buddhist heritage site Mes Aynak from copper mining

experts race to preserve ancient Afghan Buddhist heritage site Mes Aynak from copper mining

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The Taliban have backed an 18-month conservation project to safeguard the Afghan heritage site of Mes Aynak, a 2,000-year-old Buddhist town at risk of destruction by a long-delayed mining project.

Located about 40 km southeast of Kabul in Logar province, Mes Aynak is said to host the second largest undeveloped copper mine in the world, with deposits worth an estimated $100 billion. In 2008, the Afghan government under then-president Hamid Karzai signed a lucrative contract with a Chinese company to extract its wealth through an open-pit copper mine.

The development, which will destroy the ancient city and all its buried secrets, has been delayed to allow for further archaeological studies and the relocation of precious artefacts from the site. With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, fears are growing that the new administration could prevent rescue efforts and continue mining operations. However, the new government has emphasized its intention to preserve the archaeological remains of the site.

Now, as part of a $1 million project funded by the Swiss foundation AliphThe Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has begun restoration and repair work on the temporary structures that protect over 50 sites containing archaeological remains at Mes Aynak, including stupas, statues, wall and floor paintings.

These structures were “erected as early as 2010” and many have “become deformed under the weight of snow and other environmental factors”, said Ajmal Maiwandi, managing director of AKTC Afghanistan. The arts journal. The project aims to consolidate them and replace them with stable protection structures.

The project will also include the development and execution of an ancient remains conservation plan and a trial to move several artifacts to a nearby site.

A group of international specialists will soon be deployed to Mes Aynak, Maiwandi said. “Once the conservation plan is in place, we will consolidate as many artifacts as possible in the year we have left.” A cataloging process will identify and prioritize the most critical items.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has begun work on the first phase of the project to stabilize and expand the protective shelters above the archaeological remains and artefacts at Mes Aynak Photo: Courtesy of AKTC

The Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture has confirmed that work to safeguard the site’s cultural heritage has begun and that the Taliban government is committed to preserving its artifacts.

“The Mes Aynak mine has economic and cultural value for Afghans. The Ministry of Information and Culture seeks to ensure that its economic benefits reach the Afghan people and that its cultural and historical treasures remain safe,” said Atiqullah Azizi, Afghan Deputy Minister of Culture and Arts in a video recording supplied to The arts journal. He also called for cooperation with the international community in protecting the country’s historical monuments.

Maiwandi says the new conservation project at Mes Aynak is urgent because “without knowing exactly when mining operations might start, we need to act quickly.”

Excavations during the 15-year development hiatus also unearthed many artifacts that were previously protected by earth. “The other urgency is to stop the decay and, by extension, the subsequent destruction of artifacts through nature and the progression of time,” adds Maiwandi.

Aliph, a global fund dedicated to the protection and rehabilitation of cultural heritage in conflict and post-conflict areas and currently one of the few donors supporting cultural heritage projects in Afghanistan, says there remains determined to save Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and find the best possible solution to preserve Mes Aynak.

“My Aynak has been described as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last four decades in the region. The archaeological site includes many Buddhist monasteries with stupas, sculptures, wall paintings, Zoroastrian temples and traces of industrial activity dating back to Late Antiquity,” explains Sandra Bialystok, director of communications and partnerships at Aliph .

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001 “was one of the main reasons why Aliph was founded in the first place”, adds Bialystok. “The diverse cultural heritage of Afghanistan is a treasure of the Afghan people and is also part of the common heritage of mankind, so its protection is essential.”

The conservation project is expected to provide much-needed jobs for 350 people in Afghanistan, including labourers, architects, engineers, archaeologists and technical staff, at a time when the country is experiencing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Maiwandi hints that over time the project could be expanded to save more artifacts. “There are other sites that need to be excavated and more archeology that needs to be done,” he says. “It may be a phase two and even a phase three of this project. For us, the preservation of heritage at this site is an important aspect of the preservation of Afghan cultural heritage, the main reason why we are involved in the project.

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