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Barbara O'Brien

Time Running Out for the Temples of Mes Aynak

By December 26, 2012

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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.

At Change.org there is a petition to President Hamid Karzai and another to UNESCO asking that archaeological excavation be allowed to continue.

December 28, 2012 at 12:06 pm
(1) "Darwida" Kyle Munroe says:

Of course I will sign and circulate your petition. I think we also need to ask US government to step in with money as it is already involved there. There is a monk in Taiwan who was working on raising $14 million for Bamiyan statues reconstruction.I wrote him but he never got back to me.Maybe he doesn’t speak English.Maybe some Chinese people can write to him and see how the fundraising is going.

I also have two petitions on change.org designed to improve the prosperity condition of Americans so that America can pull world out of depression and many people will benefit. Trouble is, one law has a noble sounding name, though in fact it works to create unemployment in USA. So I need all the signatures I can get on 2 petitions, 1.Repeal US Jobs Killer Law and 2. Repeal Draconian Federal Bankruptcy Laws. Please sign them and ask everyone you can to sign them. I need at least 25,000 signatures.

January 1, 2013 at 7:51 am
(2) Michael says:

Sad to see that fundamentalist Islam is not the only threat to Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage. Seems to me that Western capitalism would have been just as capable of blowing up the Bamiyan statues if there were minerals underneath.

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