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.

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.

5 Things You Need to Know about the Miraculous Love Kids

Although the situation has improved in recent years, the sight of kids on the street is still all too common in Afghanistan’s major cities. Some of these street children are orphans, living on the street because they have no other home, while others have taken to the streets to beg or sell food or trinkets in order to help support their families. Unfortunately, living on the street makes these children particularly vulnerable: according to UN figures, 923 Afghan children were killed in attacks in 2016. In addition, when children are working on the street, they are not attending school, which means they will face even greater barriers to a better future.

This is where charities like the Miraculous Love Kids come in. Perhaps the most hopefully-named charity in Afghanistan, the Miraculous Love Kids is one of a growing number of organizations dedicated to helping the nation’s street children. The Miraculous Love Kids is a music school founded by guitarist Lanny Cordola that offers guitar classes to street kids in Kabul, and for many of the young students, the experience has been life-changing. Here are five things you need to know about this special organization:

  1. The school was inspired by a tragic event.

Lanny Cordola, the Miraculous Love Kids’ founder, got his first taste of music’s power to help and heal people in need in 2010, when he was invited by a friend to collaborate with Central Asian musicians as part of a relief campaign for catastrophic flooding that was affecting the area. In his travels to visit various flood camps, Cordola witnessed the joy that these displaced people undergoing tremendous hardship experienced when they had the opportunity to hear and play music.

Cordola returned to California determined to work on making music that would give a voice to people in need, like those he’d met in the camps. And it was in this frame of mind that, in 2012, he heard about two young sisters who had been killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan as they sold trinkets on the street. Cordola was deeply moved by the story and reached out to contacts from his previous trip to see if he could get in touch with the girls’ family. Upon discovering that their mother and younger sisters were living in poverty with few resources, he was determined to do what he could to help. After repeated visits to Afghanistan, during which he raised enough money to move the family into a better home, Cordola noticed how interested the girls were in his guitar. The realization that music could help heal these young lives provided the initial spark for what is now the Miraculous Love Kids.

  1. Around 60 children attend the school.

Today, Lanny Cordola and other musicians teach roughly 60 children at the Miraculous Love Kids school. As part of the program, the children receive an allowance of between 50 and 100 Afghanis every time they come; this means that the kids (and their families) don’t lose out financially because the youngsters are in class rather than selling or begging on the street. In addition to studying guitar, the school’s students learn English and receive support for additional schooling.

  1. The school is a US-registered nonprofit.

The Miraculous Love Kids is formally registered as a 501(c)(3) organization in the US. Its main sources of financial support are private donations—many of which are made via the organization’s GoFundMe page. However, it also raises money by performing benefit concerts.

  1. Students have collaborated with one of the biggest legends in music.

The young musicians at the Miraculous Love Kids have a dedicated supporter that most Western artists could only dream about: Brian Wilson. The legendary Beach Boys front man is an old friend of Lanny Cordola, and when he learned about Cordola’s work with some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable children, he reached out to see how he could help the group. The result is the Miraculous Love Kids’ first-ever professional collaboration: Brian Wilson sent voice and music tracks for his song “Love and Mercy” to the school to be mixed with the students’ own playing and singing. Proceeds from the sales of the song will go to support the school. In addition, Wilson has invited some of the students to visit and work with him in the US.

  1. The school’s founder, Lanny Cordola, is a former arena rock guitarist.

There are few people better equipped than Lanny Cordola to introduce Western rock music to Afghan street children. A guitarist from Southern California, Cordola has played with musicians in some of the most important rock groups in music history, including the Beach Boys and Guns N’ Roses. As a result of his work with the Miraculous Love Kids, Cordola has also been collaborating more and more with Afghan musicians like Wahid Qasimi. Cordola now lives full-time in Kabul.