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.

Spotlight on 5 Inspiring Afghans Working with the UN

In 2015, the United Nations celebrated its 70th anniversary with a global series of events around the theme “Strong UN, Better World.” Afghanistan, which has had a long and important relationship with the UN, was one of the participating countries in these celebrations under the headline “UN70: Strong UN, Strong Afghanistan.”

In addition to a month-long series of activities held all around the country by and with the UN family in Afghanistan, an important part of the UN70 celebrations was a high-profile showcase of some of the outstanding Afghan professionals who had worked with or been assisted by the UN in recent years. A major part of the UN’s work in Afghanistan involves empowering Afghans to assist their country and their fellow citizens, and to help build a strong, self-reliant Afghanistan. Read on for a look back at five of the professionals who were recognized for their work and achievements during UN70.

 

Mohammad Dad: Youth Leader for Returnees

Like many others of his generation, Mohammad Dad grew up in refugee camps outside Afghanistan, and only returned to his homeland about nine years ago. Inspired by both the challenges and triumphs his family experienced while trying to build a new life for themselves in a country they hadn’t lived in for many years, he determined to do what he could to support fellow returning refugees. In 2012, Dad founded the Chonghar-Morghgeeren Youth Association (CMYA) with the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Based in the Paghman district of Afghanistan and serving roughly 15 villages in the area, CMYA has provided support, resources, and encouragement to more than 1,200 returnees, offering services like education, health care, and vocational training to help individuals find employment.

 

Habib Noori: Cultural Heritage Director

Habib Noori brings his extensive experience working with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Kabul, Badakhshan, and Herat to his current role as director of the Afghanistan Cultural Heritage Consulting Organization (ACHCO). Founded by Noori himself in 2011, ACHCO is a non-governmental organization that works to preserve Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage for future generations. This is a critical issue, given that many of Afghanistan’s historic and cultural sites and monuments have either been destroyed or damaged by conflict, or are falling into disrepair without adequate upkeep. Noori’s personal specialization is the restoration of historic monuments; most recently, he oversaw the restoration of Herat’s Shahzada Abdullah mausoleum, a magnificent monument dating from the 15th century. ACHCO does not receive direct support from the UN, but works with the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on its heritage preservation projects.

 

Ghulam Nabi: Seed Production Company Director

A long-time resident of a village in eastern Afghanistan, Ghulam Nabi worked for many years as a teacher—a vocation he describes as a “sacred duty.” However, he observed that local farmers were in dire need of better seeds, which led him to consider what he could do to help. With technical and professional support from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA), Nabi founded an agricultural business dedicated to improving seed quality and thus contributing to greater food security in Afghanistan. By working closely with farmers, Nabi is able to track seed performance and ensure that the best and strongest are identified and reproduced for future crops. So far, thanks to the work of Nabi and his company, yield has increased by more than 30%.

 

Mohammad Sediq Rashid: National De-Mining Director

Mohammad Sediq Rashid has been working to make Afghanistan a safer place through de-mining work for more than 25 years. Decades of war and conflict have left landmines and unexploded ammunition all around the country, making villages, cities, agricultural land, and roads unsafe to live in or use productively. De-mining is a vital activity not only to prevent loss of life, but also to allow for much-needed development projects, like more and better roads and new electricity plants. Having begun his career surveying minefields, identifying contaminated sites, and mapping and marking critical areas, Rashid has worked with the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) since 2000, and today heads the Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan (MACCA). During the years that Rashid has been working in de-mining, it is estimated that about 80% of mine-contaminated areas have been cleared.

 

Nasrullah: Drug Rehabilitation Center Mentor

According to a survey conducted in 2009 by the Ministry of Public Health and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), nearly 10% of adult Afghans between the ages of 15 and 64 use drugs regularly. Nasrullah was once one of them: after becoming addicted to drugs as a teenager, he sought help through the residential drug treatment program at the Nejat Center, a facility in Kabul supported by UNODC. Upon his recovery, Nasrullah decided to use his own experiences to help others. Today, he works as a mentor and teacher in the Nejat Center’s vocational training program for drug users in recovery.