Locals from relocated villages near Mes Aynak remove dirt and rocks to expose buried artifacts. Photo: Brent Huffman
For the past year, award-winning filmmaker Brent Huffman has been documenting the imminent destruction of Mes Aynak, a recently-discovered ancient settlement with massive temples, monasteries and thousands of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. His in-production film, The Buddhas of Aynak, which was partially funded by GHF, tells the story of the doomed archaeological site, set for demolition at the end of 2012 by a company called the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC).
Last week, CNN published an op-ed by Huffman in which he describes the importance of Mes Aynak, likening it to a Machu Picchu without UNESCO protection, and calls on the international community to help save it.
“There is a magic to Mes Aynak,” Huffman writes, “an ability to draw in people from around the world who will risk their lives to save it. I fell in love with this ancient site and will do everything in my power to try to help save it. It sickens me to know that in a short time this site will be destroyed in the same violent and disrespectful way the Buddha of Bamyan was destroyed. This desecration shows no reverence to culture or religion.”
One of the many archaeological excavation areas at Mes Aynak. Photo: Brent Huffman
In 2009, MCC gave archaeologists three years to excavate the site, despite experts’ estimates that a proper job would take 30 years. Today, the Afghan archaeologists who do the majority of the excavations don’t have access to computers or digital cameras and have been sleeping on the floor in a wooden shack on site. Meanwhile, three teams of international archaeologists, led by a French delegation, are rushing to relocate as many objects as possible, not bothering with anything that can’t be moved.
Despite arguments that mineral extraction would be good for Afghanistan’s economy, Huffman argues that corruption in the country’s government prevents any possible benefit for the majority of citizens. He also describes the “environmental devastation” that would ensue if the site is mined, with toxic pollution making the site permanently unsafe for visitors, and toxins traveling via rivers, contaminating other areas in the process.
“My fear is that in the future Afghanistan will consist of hundreds of these gaping toxic craters and the resources the country needs for its own development will be lost. Afghans will see no benefit. They will suffer from irreversible environmental devastation and the permanent loss of invaluable cultural heritage.”
Archaeologists have uncovered countless priceless artifacts at an ancient Buddhist settlement roughly 35 km south of Kabul. Photo: Jerome Starkey
Since the discovery of the 2,600-year-old archaeological site (after the MCC had already won the bidding to mine the land), global awareness of Mes Aynak has steadily increased. Joanie Meharry, a 2011 Global Heritage Preservation Fellow, has also been researching the site to demonstrate its significance to the international community. But time is running out for archaeologists hoping to save this irreplaceable site.
“Mes Aynak is the missing link that shows Afghanistan’s interconnectivity throughout Asia on the Silk Road,” Huffman writes. “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. Afghans need to claim their cultural significance in the world for current and new generations. And the findings at Mes Aynak will be the key to doing that.”
Click here to read Brent Huffman’s Mes Aynak article on CNN
Click here to visit The Buddhas of Aynak on Facebook
Click here to explore Mes Aynak, Afghanistan on Global Heritage Network (GHN)