The great wealth beneath Mes Aynak creates conflict between two development projects, one economic and one cultural. Preserving and promoting Afghanistan’s cultural heritage must compete with extracting and exporting mineral resources.


Contested Terrain

Development, Identity and the Destruction
of an Ancient City in Afghanistan

From Upcoming Issue KJ #77

The story of Mes Aynak is perfect for mass media. It has controversy, violence, and an exotic locale. It includes the promise of national wealth and the consequences of corporate greed. It is the story of a struggle between priceless artifacts and polluting mines, between the growth of Chinese dominance and the entropy of American influence. There are explosions, bribes, and, if one considers the mystery of an ancient culture, even a little romance. But the story of Mes Aynak, told again and again in the international press, and passed around NGO boardrooms and academic departments, has itself created what Mes Aynak was, is, and will be.

Enumerating the details of this story is a complex matter, because Mes Aynak (or “Little Copper Well”) is many things at once. It is a 1500-year-old Buddhist city, with monasteries, stupas, and a fortress spread out over 400,000 square meters in a barren Afghan valley. Mes Aynak is the biggest foreign investment and the largest private enterprise in Afghanistan’s history, because it is the world’s second largest deposit of copper, worth some $40 billion. Mes Aynak is a former al-Qaeda training facility – for a time the only camp for foreign jihadists in Afghanistan – and continues to be a persistent insurgent transit route. It is a hotbed of Taliban support, the site of destroyed villages and displaced villagers, an area of active landmines and their painstaking removal, and home to a large (and largely ineffectual) Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) presence. Mes Aynak is the embodiment of scholarly expectations, financial dreams, military concerns, imagined histories, transnational commerce, and shifting political realities. In many ways, Mes Aynak is at the mercy of the story of Mes Aynak.

Archaeological evidence was first recorded at Mes Aynak, located in Logar Province, some 20 miles southeast of Kabul, in 1963, and small surveys continued there through the 1970s. This was a golden age of archaeological discovery in Central Asia, especially in the Afghan-Pakistan border region. Surveys in Bactria, Taxila, Balkh, and Badakshan uncovered troves of statuary, manuscripts, frescoes, coins, steles, stupas – finds that made careers and literally made history, greatly expanding knowledge of the region’s former societies. Much of this material is attributed to the Gandharan Kingdom, which existed from the early first millennium BC through the 11th century, and especially to the Buddhist Kushan period of the first through fifth centuries. Some material discovered in the region dates from the Bronze Age (in the third millennium BC), while many items are from the Islamic period (after the eighth century). This is the case in Mes Aynak, where an earlier, Bronze Age settlement is suspected to exist below the Kushan temples, living quarters, and fortress that make up the bulk of the excavation site, and which are dated to the third through eighth centuries, thus bringing the site into the early Islamic period. Philip Marquis, the director of the Delegation Achaeologique de France en Afghanistan (DAFA), told me that the remnants so far unearthed at Mes Aynak are only “ten percent of the site, just the tip of the iceberg.” As is the case across Afghanistan, DAFA plays a prominent role in archaeological excavations at Mes Aynak. In the heady days before the Saur Revolution in 1978, DAFA’s great success in the acquisition of material artifacts filled the coffers of the National Museum of Afghanistan, making it one of the best museums of its kind in the world.

Then things changed. As violence and conflict closed in on Afghanistan, first with the Daoud coup and the Soviet invasion of 1979, then through years of civil war and Taliban control, archaeological surveys became more and more rare. Sites that were logistically difficult to reach became entirely sealed off by combat and the dangers of travel. Promising areas for excavation were laced with landmines, strafed by automatic weapons, and bombed. Stupas, statuary, and other ancient monuments were ransacked or destroyed at the hands of Soviet forces, destitute villagers, and religious zealots motivated by proscriptions against idol worship and human representation. The National Museum was repeatedly looted (often at the explicit direction of private collectors abroad), while the Taliban destroyed thousands of museum items deemed idolatrous or inappropriately representational. Years of indiscriminate shelling during the siege of Kabul, as well as fire, a direct rocket attack, and general neglect further damaged the National Museum and its collections, while important archaeological sites such as Ai Khanoum, Hadda, and the Mir Zakah Treasure were reduced to rubble or emptied of their cultural wealth. Perhaps most famously, in the fervor of ideology and as the world looked on, the Taliban destroyed the sixth century Bamiyan Buddhas in March of 2001. These statues, once 55 and 37 meters tall, were for hundreds of years the largest standing buddhas on earth. DAFA’s offices in Kabul closed in 1982 after 54 years of work in Afghanistan, the publication of 21 books on Afghan antiquities, and hundreds of successful archaeological surveys.

It is clear that war and material history are ineluctably linked in Afghanistan. The dialectic between an unknown past and an unknowable future is framed by an uncertain present, and the relevance of historical artifacts is negotiated amidst the struggles, power dynamics, and social discourses embedded in an ongoing war. Because conflict has served as the backdrop of daily life in Afghanistan for generations now, war has become a social condition itself; it is not an event that suspends normal existence but is the expected or normal context for daily life. The promotion and protection of ancient cultural heritage at Mes Aynak is entangled in a skein of social activities and cultural practices conditioned by conflict, and it is today’s community relations, religious projects, and ethnic identities that dictate the degree to which an ancient heritage informs contemporary life in the villages around Mes Aynak. Whether local communities engage with or abjure the nebulous implications of a complex pre-modern culture hinges on how this new cultural information impacts dominant paradigms in the wartime present.

The linkage between war and cultural heritage is further complicated in Mes Aynak by the huge deposit of copper beneath the earth. At full mining capacity, there is estimated to be enough to produce 200,000 tons of refined copper – some $450 million worth – annually. On a national level, this might seem a godsend to a poor country in need of economic growth and a weak central government struggling through an expensive war. However, if recent historical precedent and ongoing problems in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are any indication, the exploitation of valuable natural resources below Mes Aynak poses a number of potential problems. These include the “resource curse” of corruption, instability, and poverty that often plagues developing mineral-rich countries, distending the bank accounts of a corrupt elite at the expense of an impoverished majority. Environmental degradation is another significant threat; in the case of Mes Aynak and the open-pit mining planned there, where deep craters fill with toxic sludge, it is the risk of groundwater contamination from arsenic and sulfuric acid, which could pollute agricultural areas and population centers from Kabul to Jalalabad and into Pakistan. 

The great wealth beneath Mes Aynak thus creates a conflict between two development projects, one economic and one cultural. Preserving and promoting Afghanistan’s cultural heritage must compete with extracting and exporting mineral resources. The contest is not, at this point, a matter of coexistence. Due to infrastructural demands and the explosions required for open-pit mining, the ancient sites at Mes Aynak will be destroyed if the mining is allowed to continue as planned. Because Afghanistan is rich in both natural resources (including oil, gas, iron ore, lithium, gold, and other minerals) and in ancient artifacts (due to a continuous 5,000-year habitation at an important Eurasian crossroads), there are projected to be many future situations where archaeological surveys and resource development schemes compete for the same physical space. The designation of World Heritage Site would ensure protection of the Mes Aynak archaeological zone, but the bid for such status from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) must be proposed by national governments, not NGOs or individuals. War and instability, with the economic, political, and military pressures they exert, are the likely factors contributing to Kabul’s decision not to seek UN protection for Mes Aynak.

Some argue that the plight of ordinary Afghans and the military funding needed to ward off insurgent forces demand the exploitation of natural resources. Others contend that the cultural artifacts of Afghanistan are priceless, and can someday be harnessed for economic ends in tourism. Many believe Mes Aynak could become another Pompeii, and that the current military conflict is no reason to occlude future industry (as with Angkor Wat, in recently chaotic Cambodia). This dispute glosses over the influence of power on both sides of the issue; it ignores the impact of war on the orientation of Afghan experience and decision-making; and it is unconcerned with the social processes at stake in the promotion of an ancient cultural history and its implications for local society. While the effects of large-scale mining on local communities are easy to parse, the effects of a changing historical imagination are seldom considered. Whether the temples of the old Kushan city are preserved or destroyed will affect cultural patterns and social projects in the villages around Mes Aynak, because the materials being excavated represent new ways of thinking about the past, and thus about the present and future. What history is and does in communities experiencing war is not straightforward, and not something generally discussed in NGO white papers or media reports. But the impact of history can be seen in the community values, religious practices, and ethnic identities of those living near and involved with Mes Aynak. History impacts social and cultural modalities, and a new history will alter them accordingly. While much of the media on Mes Aynak, from CNN to the New York Times, stresses the importance of the newly excavated history for Afghans, rarely is it mentioned that Afghans already have an established history in use, and never is a possible conflict between these histories discussed. Brent Huffman, a journalism professor and filmmaker currently working on a documentary about Mes Aynak, wrote an article for CNN in which he argues, “Afghanistan needs to see the value of learning its own cultural history as too often the country’s story is co-opted by the lens of another.” The notion that local people around Mes Aynak have continuously found value in the history of their region goes unmentioned. Who it is co-opting the Afghans’ story, and through what lens, is left unexplored.

On a recent afternoon last summer, more men then usual showed up for work. Instead of the customary three-dozen laborers, spread out over the 20 main archaeological sites on a wide and wind-blown plain, about 500 hundred men – most bearded, in loose shalwar kameez and buttoned vests – milled about with shovels, brooms, and trowels, chatting leisurely or staring off toward the snow-washed mountains in the north and east. Those excavating higher up on a ridgeline, at what was once a fortification for the Kushan city, could see scores of shiny cobalt trailers in the near distance, set in a grid and surrounded by bomb-resistant barricades and a razor-wired concrete wall. These trailers will remain mostly empty until early 2013, when the time limit imposed on the archaeological excavations is up and the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), a state-owned Chinese enterprise, moves in and begins a dig of their own. 1 Those excavating down in the sun-blotched plain observed the arrival of a long motorcade of SUVs, which was kicking up dust onto the soldiers stationed every few hundred yards, onto the landmine removal teams scattered remotely across the valley, and onto the crumbling stupas and Buddhist monastic buildings that make up the bulk of the Mes Aynak archaeological zone. The area was soon swarming with ministers, note-scribbling assistants, archaeologists, journalists, and military personnel brandishing small arms. An effusive World Bank official posed for pictures beside an ANSF soldier hoisting an RPG-7. Philip Marquis, of DAFA, was conducting a tour of the premises for a few of the parties invested in the Mes Aynak excavations, including the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, the Afghan Ministry of Mines, the Afghan Institute of Archaeology, and the World Bank. An MCC delegation was notably absent, as were those parties looking on from the proverbial sidelines, such as UNESCO, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and insurgent groups like the Taliban. The local populace was represented by those holding shovels.

At this point in the excavation process, begun three years ago after a hiatus of some four decades, archaeologists and local laborers understand that the Mes Aynak archaeological site will, in all likelihood, be demolished by the Chinese-operated mine. It is now a question of time. The MCC won the Mes Aynak copper concession in November of 2007, and their bid of $3.4 billion included the advertisement (though no contractual obligation) to build both a small power plant and a railway line to export copper. The 400-megawatt plant would be powered by coal from the Bamiyan coal mine (also MCC-operated, and located about 125 kilometers from the old Bamiyan Buddhas), and would feed the copper mine and its smelters, as well as provide electricity to nearby villages, which currently have none. The mining contract is sealed from public view, so its details are a matter of intense speculation. Many NGO officials, World Bank personnel, and DAFA employees dismiss the reality of both the railway and the power plant any time soon. It is widely rumored that MCC’s bid was accepted only after a $30 million bribe was paid to a top official at the Ministry of Mines (the official has since been replaced). The Ministry made the unprecedented step of publicly refuting this rumor, though very few people doubt its veracity.

Preparation for mining and, to a lesser extent, archaeology at Mes Aynak necessitate the relocation of up to nine local villages, including one community, Baba Walid, located on the archaeological site itself. These villages have their own histories, some around 500 years worth, and their destruction will rob residents of homes, mosques, lands, workshops, and traditional economic systems. Many residents have already been removed, their farmland destroyed, and their villages leveled. The details of the brokered compensation for displacement are difficult to nail down. The deal was struck between village leaders and the Ministry of Mines, and is said to have included jobs, new homes, and new farming land for those affected. While employment has slowly become available, mostly at the archaeological sites, no arable land has yet been offered. Some officials at the Ministry of Mines argue that because displaced villagers now have new homes and jobs, they don’t need land to farm – an obvious sticking point to communities who have farmed for generations, and to the individuals I spoke with who wish to continue to do so. Displaced residents say that new arable land was indeed part of the deal, but note that community leaders involved in the negotiations were ineffectual and easily coerced. Locals worry that jobs at the archaeological sites are temporary, and that secure employment at the copper mine will not be forthcoming. An archaeologist with knowledge of the deal told me a plot of land was purchased for the displaced, but that nothing has been built and that it is unsuitable for farming. Afghan officials in charge of villager relocation were unable to provide the exact number of those displaced, though estimates range into the low thousands. Some displaced villagers have threatened retributive violence.

The opportunity to mine copper or excavate artifacts at Mes Aynak is a result of foreign military intervention. This has cleared the achaeological and mining sites of most insurgent activity, though Logar Province as a whole remains largely sympathetic to the Taliban cause, and insurgent attacks on ANSF and ISAF forces are common on the main roads. After US cruise missiles destroyed a jihadist training camp in Khost Province in the late 1990s, al-Qaeda established a new camp in Mes Aynak in 1999. It hosted such insurgent luminaries as Sayf al Adl, an explosives expert and member of al-Qaeda’s military committee and legislative ,em>majlis al shura,,/em> who taught a commando course at Mes Aynak. After the Mes Aynak training camp was destroyed or abandoned (accounts differ), the area persisted as an insurgent transit route due to its remoteness and proximity to the Durand Line, offering easy access to insurgent safe havens in Pakistan. ANSF and ISAF forces have done their best to secure the area, both to protect the archaeologists and to prevent insurgent transit. Security was stepped up dramatically after the MCC won their 30-year lease on the copper mine, which allowed achaeological excavations to resume in earnest.

The specter of the looming US/NATO pullout in 2014 is ever-present in Afghanistan these days, and with it the threat of a grand Taliban return and a resumption of civil war. The money from the Mes Aynak copper mine is critical to the continued funding of ANSF, the largest expenditure of the central government. While foreign governments have pledged continued financial support after military withdrawal, the estimated annual $12 billion needed to fund ANSF (which includes the National Army, the National Police, and the National Army Air Corps) dwarfs the $5 billion yearly operating budget of the central government and represents a large chunk of Afghanistan’s $18 billion GDP. The $3 billion copper contract, this largest-ever of investments in Afghanistan, is not only a major windfall but also a timely one. Afghanistan’s natural resources are becoming the primary focus of Afghan power brokers, used for social influence and political leverage. Insurgent groups are attempting to hold land known to be rich in mineral deposits, while local warlords are extracting concessions from interested international corporations. For DAFA, as for the Ministry of Information and Culture and other NGOs and individuals concerned with Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, the argument for the preservation of Mes Aynak antiquities is an increasingly difficult one to make.

Archaeology at the Mes Aynak is marred by problems, both practical and political. The removal of artifacts assumes exigency in the face of destruction, yet the inadequacies of local roads, the size of many artifacts, and the fragility of the materials once utilized at Mes Aynak (such as unbaked clay, which tends to crumble when moved), makes transportation of artifacts difficult. There are currently 25 foreign archaeologists working at Mes Aynak alongside 25 Afghan archaeologists. According to one foreign archaeologist, the number of Afghans can only be approximated because many of them are absent for months at a time, transferred without notice to other sites or disappearing for reasons unknown to their foreign colleagues. The total number of archaeologists at Mes Aynak is quite low considering the size of the site and the urgency of its excavation, a result of both funding issues and organizational difficulties. Female Afghan archaeologists are dissuaded or barred from working on site. The Chinese government promised to supply their own archaeologists to help speed excavations, but none have so far shown up. Foreign archaeologists invited to work at Mes Aynak have had trouble obtaining proper documentation. Government officials have been accused of firing critical archaeological experts for political reasons. Money from the World Bank, the largest grant-giver to Mes Aynak archaeology, is funneled through the Afghan Ministry of Mines, which oversees mineral resources, rather than through the weak and under-funded Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture. The Ministry of Mines pays the salaries of most foreign archaeologists and about 350 local laborers, though delays in payment are common. The Ministry of Information and Culture is supposed to pay the salaries of Afghan archaeologists, as well as an additional 150 laborers. As of September 2012, some Afghan archaeologists had not been paid for five months.

Local laborers cope with numerous problems. Landmines continue to pose a major threat; two landmine explosions in the archaeological zone in 2011 seriously injured two laborers, one of whom lost both eyes. A landmine exploded under an SUV carrying MCC personnel, also in 2011, killing all passengers. Activity at the mine site has attracted insurgent interest, and there have been a number of recent rockets attacks and IED explosions. According to diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, Zhang Zhaoxiang, the MCC vice president, told Robert Forden, a US Economic Counselor, in 2009, that the Afghan National Police assigned to mining operations were afraid or unwilling to go into nearby villages to confront insurgents. A different report from 2009, also released by Wikileaks, noted that the mine site had twice the police force as the rest of Logar, making it the most secure area in the province at that time. A foreigner employed at Mes Aynak, who asked not to be identified, told me that a Chinese party habitually paid protection money to local insurgent groups, but that this arrangement was suspended sometime in the summer of 2012. The number of insurgent attacks around Mes Aynak, especially at the mine site and the MCC compound, has since spiked. In July 2012, two rockets landed directly in the MCC compound, perpetuating the evacuation of most Chinese nationals and leaving a skeleton crew of about 20 Afghan employees behind. During the last two weeks of August 2012 alone, an IED killed an ANSF officer in the center of the nearby town of Zaydabad; two laborers employed at the archaeological sites were assaulted and badly beaten at a nearby mosque; two IED explosions at a checkpoint between Zaydabad and Mes Aynak, on a road used by both archaeological and mining personnel, killed 3 ANSF officers; and an MCC camp was targeted by insurgents in a nighttime attack. For many laborers and their families, some recently displaced, who have lived through decades of military conflict, and who have neighbored with a jihadist training camp and foreign military installations and an insurgent transit route, the dangers of employment at Mes Aynak adds to an already long list of uncertainties. The $7 per day salary for labor at the archaeological zone is considered competitive in the area.

For the local villagers working at Mes Aynak, the history established in their communities, inherited and passed on through decades of war, informs the stability of local society and the dominant narratives around community identity. The discoveries at Mes Aynak have unearthed evidence of Buddhist hybrid practices, a melting pot of Indian and Hellenistic artistic influences, and the likelihood of visits from famous Chinese and Indian pilgrims. One of the major conclusions drawn from the excavations is the long duration of Buddhism’s success in the area, and the likelihood of an extended coexistence with Islam and probably Hinduism. Such religious pluralism threatens the dominant local and regional narrative of Islam’s sweep into the region and successful conversion of the masses. This new and complex history represents a challenge to established values and identities, and is often disregarded by locals as a story disconnected from present-day concerns. Local men working at Mes Aynak told me that the stresses of daily life, often directly related to wartime instabilities, affected their relationship with the history around them. Their regard for the bodhisattva statues being excavated was based on financial and security concerns, not cultural expansion or expression. These men clearly understood they were digging through ancient cultural material they deemed other than their own, and were making active decisions about this material in relation to locally established cultural norms, treating it as culturally and socially inconsequential. I spoke with a man wielding a shovel beneath a crumbling stupa; he was an unemployed computer programmer and the son of a local Mullah, and spoke to me in English. For him, an educated man, the Buddhist history he was excavating represented an alternative past, one that should be rejected as backward or regarded as inconsequential to daily life. The man ruminated on what his father, a religious leader, would think of these statues and how he would explain them to the community, and mentioned the prominence of Islam in his family and in his village. 

While not necessarily in conflict with the locally institutionalized history of a Pashtun tribal past and its sincerity to Sunni Islam, the Gandharan history of Mes Aynak represents a narrative alien to the community roles and activities premised on Muslim orthodoxy and Ahmadzai or Stanekzai tribal authority. Dominant factions of local society are likely to oppose a past that is considered “other” with respect to religious, ethnic, tribal, or political modalities and concerns. Although the stability of social structures often depends on the rejection of aberrant cultural information, such resistance is amplified in conditions of distress, wherein future social stability is more uncertain. Present-day circumstances at Mes Aynak include IED violence, military night-raids, landmine accidents, a critical lack of infrastructure, and marked political contestation. An embrace of new cultural information in Mes Aynak communities is thus a more delicate enterprise than it might be under different circumstances. New ideas must contend with established power dynamics, and with the gender roles, strategies for coping with violence, educational opportunities, leisure activities, tribal alliances, and all of the other factors linked to wartime conditions. As copper mining poses a physical threat to local Mes Aynak communities – through environmental degradation, village displacement, military imposition, and insurgent confrontation – the injection of new historical information into community life poses an inimical conceptual challenge. And both development projects, mineral and archaeological, pose questions: Should famous Buddhist pilgrims be imagined as historic heroes or heterodox idol worshippers? Do social scientists and media personnel represent cultural promoters or political propagandists? Are corporate executives investors or invaders?

The importance of identity is especially clear when considering the ethnic lines and religious affiliations that became so stark during Afghanistan’s years of civil war, a war that may well resume. While ethnicity and religion continue to create defining social structures in communities across Afghanistan, these identities became even more starkly demarcated during the 1990s and 2000s. After the fall of the Najibullah government in 1992, militias were formed along ethnic lines, with the Uzbek Junbish-e-Milli, the Hazara Hezb-e-Wahdat, the Tajik Jamiat-e-Islami, and the Pashtun Hezb-e-Islami battling for control of Kabul. The largely Pashtun Taliban, with ethnic ties in the East and South, fought and continue to fight against ethnic minority groups with roots in the North and West. The Sunni majority often discriminates, institutionally and individually, against Shia and other religious minorities. The hard-line Sunni Taliban massacred thousands of Shiite Hazara for their heterodox religious beliefs (among other ostensible offenses), and killed or imprisoned secularists in Kabul and elsewhere. President Karzai, a Pashtun, routinely exorcises the National Army of Tajik officers. If a political agreement is struck with the Taliban – and the US is pursuing such a deal – existing tensions between the Taliban and the ethnic minorities who have fought against them for years would likely erupt in armed struggle. Leaders of the old ethnic militias, today reconstituted as political parties, have stated openly that they will take up arms again if the Taliban re-enter the government. Pashtun members of the National Army and Police are expected to defect en masse when the under-funded ANSF are left to battle the insurgency on their own after 2014. It is widely feared, and widely assumed, that all of the old ethnic and religious confrontations will resume in a post-NATO era. 

Many foreign journalists and social scientists celebrate Afghanistan’s ancient heritage as a potential bridge-builder. Juliette van Krieken-Pieters, recently of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, has asserted that “the glories and achievements of the Kushan or the Ghaznavid civilizations are far more a part of Afghanistan’s identity than the Taliban, the factionalism or the fighting are,” and that “the last decades of Afghanistan’s history have demonstrated… the need for a strong, unified cultural identity and cohesiveness [for which] the role of its cultural heritage is essential.” It is hard to overestimate the obstacles, conceptual and practical, to such a unified identity. The first obstacle may be the degree to which a “unified cultural identity,” however instrumental in solidifying needed peace in the region, is an entirely foreign cultural construction, not only alien to Afghans’ understanding and experience of their worlds today, but also a widely perceived threat to local community traditions. Identity becomes an outsized social dynamic in war, perhaps especially so in Afghanistan, where communities are constructed as social worlds expressive of specific practices and cultural conditions independent of, and sometimes antagonistic to, other Afghan communities. The promotion and protection of a cultural heritage that stresses pre-Islamic artifacts, Buddhist theological representations, and an otherwise pluralistic and complex past must confront the dominant social narratives of religious conservatism, ethnic continuity, and the integrity of rivalries and alliances based on powerful tribal brands. The promotion of ancient Afghan heritage must contend with the strategic importance of these social narratives in the context of war, and the instrumental nature of history within present-day struggles for power.


A headless buddha is the materialization of the values of religious plurality, critical reasoning, social choice, and the supremacy of science over theology that justify a war with religious fundamentalism in Afghanistan and beyond.

Hundreds of items have been unearthed and removed from Mes Aynak, enough to completely fill the recovering National Museum of Afghanistan. Sections of some buildings are well preserved, most notably the main temple of the large Kushan monastic complex. Many of the 36 extant stupas are constructed of intricate layers of sliced schist, a stone not otherwise present near the site, and once stood between 9 and 15 meters tall. Buddhist statuary is scattered throughout the area, including an elegant 7-foot reclining buddha and an important stele depicting Prince Siddhartha. Many of the 200 buddhas and bodhisattvas unearthed at Mes Aynak were previously looted, their heads severed and transported overseas to private collectors. Three manuscripts and some impressive frescoes have been shipped to Kabul for analysis and restoration; one such manuscript may provide details of Alexander the Great’s troops in the area. Coins, gold and gemstone jewelry, manufactured glasswork, tools, glazed earthenware, and evidence of copper smelting have also been found at the site. 2

The founders of the city of Mes Aynak were interested in its present location for the same reason foreign corporations and the Afghan government are interested now: copper. While the Chinese are preparing to keep their workforce content with sturdy trailers and stocked mess halls, the ancient rulers of Mes Aynak propitiated their miners by building stupas, statues, and temples. In this sense, the future community of the Chinese copper mine reflects the past community of Gandharan Mes Aynak. It is interesting, if not ironic, that Chinese religious culture benefited so tremendously from the innovations of Gandhara, one of the most vibrant cultural crossroads in history, of which Mes Aynak was a jewel in the crown. Famous Chinese pilgrims, including Xuanzang and Faxian, may have visited Mes Aynak between trips to other nearby Buddhist sites, before returning to their homeland with religious texts, radical philosophies, and influential aesthetics which would prove crucial to the success of Buddhism in China and across East Asia. While it is difficult to credit Gandhara as the birthplace of Mahayana theology, related philosophical innovations developed in the region, including the bodhisattva ideal, are hard to underestimate in their historic influence and ongoing importance. Even today, in Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, and China, nuns recite monastic vows first spoken in Gandhara and performed at Mes Aynak. Buddhist texts found in the region are the earliest still extant; Gandharan Buddhists may have been the first to represent buddhas in human form; monastic regulations developed in Gandhara a thousand years ago are still in use. Today is China’s return to Mes Aynak, following in the footsteps of their most famed adventurers, to continue what was started long ago: digging, smelting, exporting, and building an empire. In this sense, society at Mes Aynak has always been about mineral resources, and the viability and control of this society was built on copper.

Insurgent groups and other enemies of the Afghan state and its international allies would likely destroy, loot, or otherwise neglect the artifacts under the ground at Mes Aynak if they regain power in the region, as they have done in the past in Bamiyan and elsewhere. A pluralist history is not only a challenge to conceptualizations of the past exercised and imposed by dominant factions of Afghan society, but the existence of an Afghan Buddhism and a pre-Islamic Afghan culture creates a theological threat to the strict Islamist society sought by the Taliban and other hard-line factions. The protection and promotion of Buddhist artifacts in Afghanistan, and the practice of cultural stewardship at Mes Aynak, have become a moral support system for continued war against insurgent groups like the Taliban. A headless buddha is the materialization of the values of religious plurality, critical reasoning, social choice, and the supremacy of science over theology that justify a war with religious fundamentalism in Afghanistan and beyond. Soon after ordering the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, told the Afghan Islamic Press, “The breaking of statues is an Islamic order… Whoever thinks this is harmful to the history of Afghanistan then I tell them they must first see the history of Islam.” Mes Aynak is a cultural battle zone.

A conference on Mes Aynak held in Washington DC in June of 2012 utilized a white paper circulated by the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage. The paper states: “The role of Afghanistan as a site of early technological innovation, and a wellspring of artistic and architectural achievements, promises to be a significant image change and a source of national pride and identity.” What does it mean to utilize history toward an “image change” impacting local community and individual self-identity in Afghanistan? How might such a change of image and source of identity be embraced or rejected by Afghans, and does this change reflect the needs and values of largely conservative Muslim societies operating in wartime? An attempt to create specific values and modes of identity in Afghanistan is based in this report on conceptualizations of history, specifically those deemed appropriate as a “source of national pride.” Such language is a good indication of how re-imaginings of history can impact identity, and how cultural information can be utilized by dominant powers to shape cultural practices and experiences in wartime societies. The assumption that Mes Aynak communities are in need of a new image may be tied to the outsized role of “victim” so prevalent in accepted notions of conflict. The idea that communities in war lack an identity in which they can take pride, or are in need of a new identity crafted with the help of outside intervention, both reinforces the notion of the individual in war as helpless, and strips local communities of their agency and decision-making power. While Afghanistan’s ancient culture can be a source of pride for Afghans, the presumed need of a better cultural image for Mes Aynak communities, promoted internationally and premised on scientific inquiry, divests locals of responsibility in shaping their own identity and culture.

Who decides what Mes Aynak was, is, and could be? How do the competing claims on Mes Aynak history, a history experienced locally through the contingencies of war, affect Afghans’ understandings of themselves and of their world? What does it mean, in the context of war, to complicate a community’s history, and how can the structuring of identity and the coping with change be understood as different aspects of life in wartime? As the villages around Mes Aynak are relocated, as what is beneath them is unearthed, analyzed, and placed in a museum or a smelter, and as their past is questioned, complicated, and praised, how do individuals and communities reposition themselves physically and imaginatively? How do we inhabit new economic, military, and conceptual environments? Like the ongoing war in Afghanistan, reality on the ground at Mes Aynak represents a multiplicity of practices, interests, and experiences. Mes Aynak is a bitterly contested terrain, where the past illuminates the future, where what is under the ground informs what is developed above it, and where the discourses of cultural heritage, resource management, and societal control all vie for footing in the dusty scree.

[1] The timetable for beginning large-scale mining operations (and, consequentially, for the destruction of archaeological sites) changes regularly, and seems to depend on security, landmine removal, political climate, and the organization or individual providing timetable information. The minister of mines, Wahidullah Shahrani, announced in 2012 that mining would commence within the next two years, yet conceded that operations are behind schedule.

[2] Many media reports, including recent stories from the New York Times, the BCC, and CNN, indicate that Mes Aynak definitively dates from the early Bronze age, when the foundations of civilization, such as the invention of writing, agriculture, early systems of law and social stratification, and the ability to smelt and work ores (such as copper) were first being developed. Many NGO white papers make similar claims to Bronze Age pedigree. According to my sources at the site, no Bronze Age material has been discovered at Mes Aynak. The earliest artifact found thus far is a coin dated to the first century BC.


Isaac Blacksin is interested in the everyday experience of war, and contributed several articles to KJ 72, our Silk Roads issue, including “Observations from the Field: Space and its Discontents in Kashgar.” A recent graduate of Stanford University’s Master’s program in Religious Studies, he lives in Oakland, California.

Comments are closed.