Nearly 2,000 years ago, a complex of Buddhist temples flourished on a 100-acre site now called Mes Aynak, which is about 25 miles southeast of Kabul, Afghanistan. The temples were jewels of the civilization of Gandhara, known especially for its exquisite art. The temples were abandoned, probably in the mid-5th century, and slowly decayed into ruins.
Now the ruins of Mes Aynak are about to be destroyed. At the end of this month, archaeologists working frantically to save as much as they could save will be forced off the site, and copper mining operations will begin. The fragile statues and stupas remaining in the ruins will be blasted to bits by dynamite to get to the copper.
According to documentary filmmaker Brent Huffman, manuscripts are still being found at Mes Aynak. Surely copies of sutras from the early first millennium are invaluable, given that so many of the texts we have today are based on translations of lost originals. Mes Aynak may have, or might have had, much to teach us. The site is arguably of far greater value to scholars and historians than the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
This sad situation is riddled with terrible irony. First, the mining company is not Afghan, but Chinese. One suspects that if Mes Aynak were in China, by now it would not only have been properly excavated but developed for tourism.
Second, some of the archaeologists working at the site are Muslim. Everyone heard about the extremist Taliban destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas, but we don't hear as much about the Afghans and Pakistanis trying to save what they can of the ancient Buddhist art.
(I sometimes get emails from people who tell me, in so many words, that I'm supposed to hate Muslims for destroying Buddhism in Afghanistan. But the single biggest blow to Buddhist civilization in Afghanistan was an invasion of Huns in 450 CE, more than a century before the Prophet Muhammad was born. And for the most part the temples, stupas, and art of Buddhist Gandhara were left alone for centuries after the people of the region converted to Islam.)
Third, the mining operation was given a green light by the government of Afghanistan for the sake of economic development. But Adam Lawler, writing in the New York Times, tells us that the promised economic development may not happen for many years after mining operations begins.