Spotlight on the Mes Aynak Archaeological Site in Afghanistan

Approximately 25 miles southeast of Kabul lies the incredible archaeological site of Mes Aynak, the remains of an ancient Buddhist city that was once at the heart of the thriving Silk Road trade route. Gradually abandoned over the centuries and all but lost to contemporary history until it was rediscovered in the 1960s, the site was catapulted into the international spotlight in 2007 following the news that a Chinese company had acquired the mining and extraction rights to Mes Aynak, which sits atop one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits.

For historical preservationists both within and outside of Afghanistan, the ensuing decade has been one of frantic efforts to save and protect the archaeological riches of Mes Aynak. While there has been no mining activity as of yet—the project has been repeatedly delayed due to logistics and other reasons—the future of Mes Aynak is still uncertain, and scholars and archaeologists are racing to learn about and preserve as much of the site as possible before it’s too late.

If you’re hearing about Mes Aynak for the first time, read on for a roundup of seven important things to know about this cultural treasure.

 

  1. It was rediscovered by accident.

While the accidental discovery of an ancient, buried city might seem more like the plot of a Hollywood movie than historical fact, in the case of Mes Aynak, that’s exactly what happened. In 1963, a French geologist was in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan’s Logar province, surveying an outcrop of copper-bearing strata. It was in the course of boring for samples that he stumbled upon what archaeologists today have called one of the most important cultural finds of Afghanistan’s history: the entire buried Buddhist city of Mes Aynak.

Mes Aynak

Image courtesy Jerome Starkey | Flickr

 

  1. It’s large and complex.

The physical site of Mes Aynak covers approximately 400,000 to 500,000 square meters. Within this area lies an incredible array of elements that once comprised the beating heart of a thriving city, including four fortified monasteries, several Buddhist stupas (a type of commemorative monument), a Zoroastrian fire temple, complexes of workshops and habitations, a mint, two small forts, and a citadel. The site also contains a vast treasure trove of cultural artifacts, including close to 600 large Buddha statues, vivid murals, rare wooden ornaments, and fragile early manuscripts.

 

  1. The site has a long history.

One of the most exciting aspects of the rediscovery of Mes Aynak has been the gradual disclosure of the many layers of history that it encompasses. While the Buddhist city that has so far been the focus of most of the excavation work was likely at its peak between the 5th and 7th centuries AD, during the golden years of the Silk Road, archaeologists have recently begun to uncover evidence of a much older settlement beneath the Buddhist remains. This lower layer of the site is estimated to date from the Bronze Age, meaning that the location of Mes Aynak has been home to complex civilizations for more than 5,000 years.

 

  1. There is still much more to discover.

It may seem difficult to believe given the volume of treasures that have already been unearthed, but archaeologists estimate that a mere 10% of the site of Mes Aynak has been uncovered. The extent of the work that remains to be done is one of the main reasons why archaeologists and scholars are working so hard to preserve and protect the site.

 

  1. Copper extraction is not a new idea here.

While historians are rightfully fearful of the modern open-pit mining techniques that are proposed for the extraction of copper from Mes Aynak, it’s interesting to note that copper mining in the area is not a new idea. Indeed, archaeologists posit that it was the copper deposits that drew the founders of the Buddhist city to the region in the first place—the name “Mes Aynak” means “little copper well”—and some of the discoveries that have been made at the site, including smelting workshops and ancient copper works, offer fascinating insight into the world of early metallurgy and mining.

 

  1. Researchers are examining ways to preserve the site.

One of the most intriguing strategies that archaeologists and researchers are employing in their efforts to conserve Mes Aynak is digital preservation. A French team of heritage specialists has been using drones and sophisticated camera apparatuses to take tens of thousands of pictures of Mes Aynak, which can then be used to create an incredible 3D model that allows for an amazing interactive digital exploration of the site.

 

  1. You can watch a movie about it on Netflix.

If you’d like to learn more about Mes Aynak, the documentary Saving Mes Aynak by American filmmaker Brent E. Huffman is an excellent place to start. Now available on Netflix, the film tells the story of the race to preserve Mes Aynak from the perspective of Qadir Temori, an Afghan archaeologist and a key player in the fight to save this vital cultural legacy.

A Journey through 10 of the Most Beautiful Cities in Afghanistan

Standing for millennia at the crossroads of multiple peoples and cultures, Afghanistan has a unique cultural heritage that is as rich and diverse as it is ancient. In an area smaller than the US state of Texas, hundreds upon hundreds of spectacular monuments, remarkable archaeological sites, and stunning architectural creations are testimony to an extraordinary civilization. And there’s no better way to experience this wide array of cultural treasures than by exploring Afghanistan’s most beautiful cities, many of which are so full of history and heritage that they serve as living museums. Here are 10 you’ll want to learn more about.

 

  1. Kabul

Afghanistan’s largest city and its national capital, Kabul has existed for more than 3,500 years. It’s therefore hardly surprising that the city is home to some of the country’s most notable historic sites, including the legendary Babur’s Gardens. But don’t think that Kabul is entirely focused on the past: the city has recently embarked on a number of new architectural projects, like the Abdul Rahman Mosque, which was designed in the traditional Islamic style but was just built in 2012.

  1. Balkh

Often called “the mother of cities,” Balkh is considered by many to be one of the oldest cities in the world. Located in northern Afghanistan at the crossroads between the Middle East and eastern Asia, Balkh has a history of strong Buddhist influence, which is visible in the ruins of many Buddhist fortifications and constructions that still stand in the city today.

 

  1. Kandahar

The second-largest city in Afghanistan, Kandahar rests on the site of another city that Alexander the Great founded nearly 2,500 years ago. Today, Kandahar plays an important role in Afghanistan’s spiritual life: the city’s Friday Mosque, a deeply holy Islamic place of worship, is often called “the heart of Afghanistan.”

 

  1. Mazar-i-Sharif

Mazar-i-Sharif is home to the Blue Mosque, an absolutely stunning structure that was built in its present form more than five centuries ago. Frequently described as “an oasis for peace,” the mosque is so extraordinary that it’s not surprising to learn that it originated in a dream: according to legend, a Middle Eastern scholar dreamed that the bones of a cousin of the prophet Muhammad were resting in northwestern Afghanistan. Fascinated by this story, the sultan at the time built a shrine to honor this cousin, and the city of Mazar-i-Sharif gradually grew up around it.

 

  1. Herat

Located in western Afghanistan, Herat was one of the country’s most impressive ancient cities, and its legacy is all the more exceptional given that it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times during its history. Today, the Old City of Herat is home to a spectacular collection of medieval Islamic buildings, including the Great Mosque complex, which includes a craftsmen’s shop, where visitors can see artisans at work creating the tiles and mosaics used in the restoration and upkeep of the structure.

 

  1. Bamiyan

Another city whose development was strongly impacted by Buddhist expansion, Bamiyan is a rich archaeological mix of Persian, Greek, Turkish, Indian, and Chinese influence. At present, the city is best known as the former home of the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan—giant Buddha statues that were unfortunately destroyed in 2001. Since that time, another giant statue has been discovered, along with cave paintings from the 5th and 9th centuries.

 

  1. Bagram

Located north of Kabul, the town of Bagram may be small, but in ancient times it was an important stop for merchants traveling along the Silk Road from India. The town was originally a Persian settlement, but its development was later influenced by Greek styles of city planning and by Arab rulers; as a result, the art and architecture of the community reflect the typical Central Asian mix of styles that has been dubbed “Greco-Buddhist.”

 

  1. Samangan

This small town in northern Afghanistan was once a medieval caravan stop. Samangan is best known for its weekly market, an ancient tradition that continues to be extremely popular. The market specializes in traditional Afghan musical instruments built by local artisans.

  1. Jalalabad

This eastern city played an important role in the establishment of modern Afghanistan as it was used as a military campaign base by Ahmad Shah Durrani, the 18th-century ruler whom most regard as the founder of the contemporary Afghan state. Somewhat unusually for Afghanistan, Jalalabad boasts large green areas and surrounding water, which are an important element of the city’s unique beauty. There is also a great deal of striking architecture in Jalalabad, including the Mausoleum of King Amanullah Khan and the more modern Nangarhar University.

 

  1. Faizabad

The northeastern city of Faizabad has historically been cut off from the rest of Afghanistan due to poor road connections. As a result, the local culture is remarkably well preserved. Today, there are still two functioning bazaars in Faizabad, where residents trade diverse items from cloth and cutlery to tea and sugar.

DAI in Afghanistan – Spotlight on 5 Important Projects

A global company wholly owned by its employees, Development Alternatives, Inc. has been working to bring fresh ideas and alternatives to the field of international development since its incorporation in 1970. Known today simply as DAI, the company partners with development agencies, private corporations, national governments, and philanthropies to create and implement innovative solutions to social and economic development challenges in some of the world’s most vulnerable nations.

At present, DAI has more than 3,300 employees worldwide, and it has active projects in more than 80 countries. In Afghanistan, DAI works with international funders on a broad range of development projects, from agricultural initiatives to programs that support small businesses. Projects currently in progress include:

  1. The Regional Agricultural Development Program (RADP-East)

This initiative is focused on the agricultural sector in eastern Afghanistan. Farmers and agribusinesses in this part of the country could stand to benefit significantly from Afghanistan’s growing economy and expanded opportunities for international trade. However, many of them still face considerable challenges like unreliable irrigation, inadequate cultivation techniques, and a lack of knowledge about how to connect with new markets. All of these have a negative impact on productivity and profitability.

The RADP-East program aims to address these issues with a value chain facilitation strategy that uses value chain analysis and training initiatives to help improve crop yields and identify new markets where rural Afghan farmers can sell their harvests.

Sample activities conducted under RADP-East include conducting a rigorous evaluation of regional agricultural value chains; leveraging strategies like SMS marketing, radio publicity, and “farmer field day” initiatives to increase awareness of regional agribusiness and connect farmers to new buyers; and providing financial support to organizations that work with farmers to improve business management and operations practices, like farm service centers, agricultural depots, and grower associations.

Afghanistan farm

 

  1. The Agricultural Credit Enhancement Program (ACE)

For over 25 years, farmers in Afghanistan could not access agricultural credit, and this severely restricted the expansion of the farming sector. Under the auspices of the ACE program, DAI helps to manage a major international grant awarded to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock. It makes credit available to farmers during the farming season, with repayment due after the harvest.

A wide range of farming participants are eligible for these loans, including small commercial farmers, high-value crop producers, agricultural product processors and exporters, and agriculture-related businesses. The ACE program also offers technical assistance and support, as well as learning and advocacy initiatives around agricultural finance, to ensure that farmers who receive loans have the best possible chance of success.

  1. The Strong Hubs for Afghan Hope and Resilience Program (SHAHAR)

Afghanistan’s municipal governments will play a critical role in building civil society and providing a better future for Afghanistan in the years ahead. However, although many municipalities have improved over the last decade, few are currently performing at the level necessary to support their citizens during a time of ongoing change.

The SHAHAR program aims to change this by providing targeted financial assistance to municipal governments, municipal advisory boards, and Afghanistan’s General Directorate of Municipal Affairs (GDMA). This assistance specifically supports improvements to municipal financial management, citizen consultation, and service delivery in urban areas.

Additional activities include organizing national, regional, and district conferences where municipalities can share best practices and lessons learned as well as working with municipal officials to prepare and implement capacity building plans. SHAHAR’s central goal is to create well-governed, fiscally sustainable municipalities that are capable of meeting the needs of Afghanistan’s growing urban populations.

  1. The Assistance to Legislative Bodies of Afghanistan Program (ALBA)

Designed to help both of Afghanistan’s houses of Parliament increase their self-reliance, the ALBA program provides issue-based assistance, training, and capacity-building support to members of Parliament (MPs) and staff as they address current bills and policies.

This support aims to boost outreach work done by Parliament and increase dialogue between MPs, citizens, civil society, and media; enable parliamentary staff to enhance their work in the areas of budget analysis and legislative research; and improve Parliament’s capacity to serve as an effective and independent oversight body for the executive branch.

  1. The Assistance in Building Afghanistan by Development Enterprise Program (ABADE)

The ABADE program is focused on economic growth in Afghanistan. Specifically, its focus is on increasing domestic and foreign investment, stimulating employment, and increasing sales of Afghan products. There are three main components to ABADE.

The first is the provision of grants to small- and medium-sized businesses and business alliances. This financial support allows businesses to plan more effectively and to take calculated risks on innovative ideas. The second component is the provision of technical support and business advice to growing companies. The third aims to incite broader improvements to the business environment.

DAI’s involvement with ABADE falls under this third component. DAI works with partner businesses and alliances to identify specific regulatory and procedural barriers, then collaborates with relevant ministries to remove or ease those barriers.