Deciding Between Heritage and Hard Cash in Afghanistan

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Adam Ferguson—VII for TIME

Dig that Afghan culture A police officer stands guard at the Mes Aynak excavation

Many in Afghanistan hold that the country's future lies underground, in vast mineral deposits with the potential to boost the country's economy for decades. Nowhere is that more true than Mes Aynak. The ancient mine, 30 km south of Kabul in Logar province, is believed to be the world's second largest untapped copper source. According to Afghanistan's Mining Ministry, the site is worth tens of billions of dollars at today's prices. Extracting the metal could deliver thousands of jobs and $1.2 billion in revenue a year to a country in desperate need as international assistance dries up ahead of the planned U.S. and NATO withdrawal in 2014.

Copper, however, is not the only treasure at Mes Aynak. Archaeologists are also excavating an ancient Buddhist temple complex located on top of the deposits. It has so far yielded manuscripts, Buddha statues and stunning ancient architecture. The discovery rivals Machu Picchu in terms of historic import, says Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist overseeing the project, and could also rewrite the history of Buddhism and the Silk Road.

In a reversal of the theory that religious centers grew up alongside but separate from commercial activity, Marquis and his team suspect that in Mes Aynak, religious leaders may have actually directed copper mining and refining and used the monastery network to trade the metal as far away as Japan and Korea. "People always talk about the Silk Road," says Marquis. "What if it was the Copper Road or the Buddhist Road that established trade across the region?"

The clock, however, is ticking. The Chinese-government-backed China Metallurgical Group Corp., which successfully bid on the mine in 2007, wanted to start mining in '09. The work will destroy the temple complex, so the group agreed to a three-year pause for a basic excavation. The short window is emblematic of the difficult compromises that must be made as Afghanistan struggles to balance financial and cultural concerns. "I don't think anyone can argue with the fact that the Buddha statues would last far longer than copper in terms of generational value," says Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist and manager of the U.S. embassy's cultural-heritage programs. "But the needs of the country right now are in the revenue from the mine."

Mes Aynak's more recent history is less glorious than its ancient past. The hidden valley, located at the end of a dusty road that zigzags past rocky hills streaked with chalky green stains of oxidizing copper, was once an al-Qaeda training ground. No one has found graffiti from Osama bin Laden yet, but most archaeologists familiar with the site agree that the terrorist group, among others, looted statues to sell on the international antiquities black market. According to a recent article in the Journal of Art Crime, Mohammad Atta, the lead hijacker in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, attempted to sell looted artifacts from Afghanistan to a German archaeologist in order to fund his Florida flight training.

The irony is that although the Chinese mine will eventually destroy the archaeological site, it has contributed to the protection of its artifacts. "We have enough examples of other Buddhist sites in Afghanistan destroyed because of looting, ignorance and lack of care," says Marquis. But because of the international attention brought to Mes Aynak in the wake of the Chinese bid, archaeologists now have some $50 million from the World Bank, USAID and other foreign donors to invest in excavation and the construction of a nearby interpretive museum. Security for the mine also helps protect the archaeologists, and the site, from nearby insurgents. Besides, Marquis adds, the ancient mud construction materials and unbaked-clay statues would not last long exposed to the Afghan elements. "The fact is that preservation in situ would be impossible."

If Marquis's theories are correct, copper once made Afghanistan the hub of central Asian trade. And if he and his team of archaeologists dig fast enough, Mes Aynak could yet restore some of Afghanistan's regional luster, not just in copper, but in culture as well.