A mere 30 kilometers from Kabul, Aynak is a strategic spot, well connected to the capital, but hidden in the folds of the surrounding hills. In 1999, al Qaeda identified Aynak as the place where four young men would train for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Today, Anyak is again emerging as a pivotal spot, a place where the past, present and future are colliding.
The Afghan government and international donors are eager to develop the area’s massive copper reserves in the hopes that mining can generate much needed money for the state’s coffers. Meanwhile, archeologists see Aynak as a historical treasure, a place where a major Buddhist complex dating from the 1st to 9th centuries lies atop the copper. At present, they are rushing to remove and preserve artifacts before Chinese bulldozers move in as part of a $4-billion mining deal. The Aynak situation is reminiscent of an episode in March 2001, when Taliban leaders authorized the destruction of giant 5th-century Buddha statues in central Bamiyan Province. The Taliban’s refusal to listen to international pleas for the preservation of the statues underscored the radical Islamic movement’s global isolation. In the Aynak site’s case, President Hamid Karzai’s administration is showing respect for Afghanistan’s Buddhist legacy, and is ensuring that the area’s immense store of knowledge is amply documented.
The Afghan government has tasked the French Archeological Delegation to Afghanistan (known by its French acronym, DAFA), with conducting a comprehensive assessment of the area and preparing a management plan to protect artifacts. Excavation began in 2009 and though the government is in a hurry to begin copper extraction, archaeologists say that, even working at top speed, they will need three to four more years to explore and properly record what they find. Such a large dig might normally be carried out slowly, stretching over generations. But for the Aynak dig, archaeologists are working the whole site at once.
“I think Aynak is going to be important for this country but also for world history,” said DAFA director Philippe Marquis. “Buddhism is interesting for many people – all the people were shocked by the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. This excavation may be a way to show that past mistakes are not going to be repeated, a way to honor the past of this country.”
Already the site in Logar Province has yielded immense riches. Archaeologists excavated approximately 400 statues between May 2010 and July 2011 – more, says Marquis, than what the National Museum of Afghanistan housed before the war. The vast site covers roughly 400,000 square meters, encompassing three separate monasteries.
It appears that Buddhists who began settling the area almost two millennia ago were drawn by the availability of copper. Archeologists believe the site was mined as far back as the 3rd century BC, perhaps even by the armies of Alexander the Great. They have unearthed manuscripts that may provide evidence to support this supposition.
“It is obvious that if we have so many Buddhist monasteries in this area which are so well-decorated, it is because of the copper mine, and it will be interesting to see the relationship between the two,” Marquis said. “We have to consider the Buddhist monastery not like an isolated [edifice] but like a network, a religious network but also commercial network—to see how the Buddhist community was dealing with commercial aspects of distribution of copper.”
DAFA and the government intend to open an on-site museum that could attract tourists and boost the local economy. For that to happen, however, the area needs vast security improvements. While archaeologists face few problems at the site, the route from Kabul is volatile and there have been repeated attacks in the area, including a suicide bombing at the province’s main hospital on June 25.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.