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.

A Look at the Fascinating World of Traditional Afghan Dance

Attan, the national dance of Afghanistan, is a fascinating art form rich in history and ritual, but it is not a performance that many people outside Afghanistan ever get the chance to experience. Read on to learn more about this beautiful and captivating cultural tradition.

What are the origins of Attan?

Attan originated as a traditional folk dance of Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes, which make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Some experts identify the dance as an ancient pagan ceremony dating back to as long ago as 2000 BCE. At this time, the dance had no particular organized form; rather, it was simply made up of random steps and movements performed to the fast beating of drums. As the centuries went on, the dance form evolved into a Muslim ritual performed mainly by soldiers as a way of getting closer to God before leaving for battle or departing on other missions. Today, Attan is an organized and cohesive dance form that is an integral part of Afghan culture. People perform the dance at all kinds of festive occasions and social gatherings, such as weddings, family parties, and new year’s celebrations.

What does the dance look like?

The basic form of Attan is a group dance performed in a circle; the dancers follow each other round and round in the circle, starting with slow steps that gradually speed up as the dance goes on. Other movements include spins and turns and hand clapping. The dance is intensely physical and can be exhausting, continuing for hours and generally ending only when no dancer is left on the floor. Many Afghans report that it is not uncommon for dancers to faint during a long Attan performance. There is no limit to the number of people that can be part of the circle: sometimes an Attan performance will have just a handful of dancers, and sometimes there will be hundreds of participants in the same circle.

What do the dancers wear?

It is common for Attan dancers to wear traditional regalia when participating in the dance. For men, this often means the thick wool hat known as the pakol and the wool vest called the waskata. During more formal occasions like a marriage, suits and ties are often worn. Women do not usually perform Attan publicly, but on private occasions, they typically participate in the dance wearing brightly colored dresses, often adorned with tiny mirrors that symbolize light.

What music accompanies the dance?

Because Attan is a highly rhythmic dance form, percussion instruments play a very important role in controlling the movements of the dancers. The drum most often used in Attan performances is called a dhol: a double-headed barrel drum with a low, deep, and very resonant sound. Other instruments which can be used to accompany Attan are the tabla, a single-headed hand drum traditionally made of clay with a top of goat or calf skin; a kind of flute known as the zurna or surnai flute; and the 18-string, lute-style instrument called the rabab.

What are the different types and styles of Attan?

Attan has evolved over the centuries into many different styles and types, each one usually associated with a particular Pashtun tribe, region, or ceremonial event. A sampling of these Attan styles includes:

Kabuli Attan—Male and female dancers perform the Kabuli Attan to the beat of a drummer. The form of the dance is a repeated sequence of two to five steps followed by a clap while facing the center; the hips and arms tilt to the left and right, and the wrists perform circular twisting motions.

Wardaki or Wardag Attan—This form of Attan does not include clapping, but involves plenty of twists, turns, and wild spins. The male performers of Wardaki Attan often sport outrageous mustaches and grease their hair to highlight it as they spin around. Wardaki Attan is often started by the leading men singing a song while slowly moving in the circle; as the pace of the dance picks up, the singing stops.

Kochyano Attan—This form of Attan is associated with the nomadic Kuchi people, and its depth and complexity has been attributed to their far-ranging lifestyle, which brings them into contact with many different cultural influences. Women often perform Kochyano Attan for occasions like childbirth or new year’s celebrations; men often perform it with their long hair hanging loose. This form of Attan involves lots of spinning and squatting movements, and handkerchiefs are frequently used as props to accompany arm movements.

Khattak Attan—This martial style of Attan can be traced back to the period of the Moghul Empire, when soldiers performed it while carrying their weapons. Khattak dancers today display extraordinary physical fitness, performing the five-step spinning routine of the dance while holding as many as three swords at once, either crossed behind the back or held out to the side.