By Omkar Mahajan
Editor in Chief
Have you ever wondered what would have happened if Socrates and the Buddha had a conversation? Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know since they lived miles apart from each other and never met in the first place. Nonetheless, there does exist a place where Buddhist and Greek philosophy intermingled with each other in the ancient world. In ancient Afghanistan, there was a city, Mes Aynak, that exhibited a mixture of Buddhist and Greek elements. Today, that city has been unearthed but now faces possible demolition despite being an archaeological site of significant importance.
Buddhism was a central component of Mes Aynak and emerged as a dominant religion in South Asia around the 200s BCE and spread outwards into Asia and the Middle East due to the efforts of the emperor of India, Ashoka, in the later 200s BCE. Greek philosophy and culture spread outwards into the Middle East and Asia during the 300s BCE following the conquests of Alexander the Great. Thus, there were many settlements where Buddhist scripture and Greek philosophy coexisted. One of these settlements, Mes Aynak, has gained notable attention in recent years after being discovered in pristine condition with undisturbed artifacts and temples.
Mes Aynak was an ancient city that is located in the Logar Province of modern day Afghanistan. It lies approximately 40 kilometers southeast of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. The city itself is believed to have emerged more than 5000 years ago and was at its peak sometime around the 5th to 7th centuries CE. Although it existed before the emergence of Greek philosophy and Buddhism, the site is remarkable in that it contains over 400 prominent Buddha statues and numerous monasteries. Additionally, fortified Buddhist stupas and temples were discovered at the site. Citadels and monasteries spanning several acres were also found. The monasteries are unique in that they have Greek architectural features uncommon in surrounding areas. Remnants of previous civilizations and cultures were also found. For instance, Zoroastrian fire temples were unearthed at the site. This reveals the rich cultural heritage of Mes Aynak.
Additionally, Mes Aynak was also a thriving center of trade in the silk road and was a frequent resting place for traders traveling from Iran, India, China and the Roman Empire. Coins depicting the ancient Kushan king, Kanishka, and coins featuring Siddartha Gautama have been discovered not only in Mes Aynak, but also in ancient Greece and China thus proving that Mes Aynak was a bustling center of trade. Hence, being the epicenter of a bustling trade route elucidates why numerous elements from different cultures are present at the site. The city was prominent during the Kushan and Ghandaran Kingdoms and was then later absorbed gradually by Tang and Uyghur influences. Throughout the 8th century, the city gradually declined and by the 10th century, it was completely abandoned. Regardless, Buddhism did maintain a flourishing presence in the Middle East for many centuries.
This life and culture of Mes Aynak in the past is a stark contrast to Mes Aynak in recent times. For example, the place was a strategic site for the Soviets during the 1980s and landmines from that era still remain. The Taliban has left many explosives in the region in the past few years. Furthermore, Mes Aynak was also the location of a major top Al Qaeda training center. Four of the hijackers of the airplanes used in the 9/11 terrorist attacks were from this training camp in Mes Aynak. After the United States’ launched its War on Terror and invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban was removed from Mes Aynak. Although the threat of the Taliban has been removed, the threat of landmines and explosives still persists. In addition to that, looters seeking valuable artifacts are another nuisance that need to be dealt with.
This city is noteworthy because of the large copper deposit of six million tons sits below it. The copper deposits that sit below allowed the Buddhist monks of the ancient world in Mes Aynak to become extremely wealthy. The name itself, Mes Aynak, literally means “little copper well” and the Afghan government believes that the copper deposits can make the country wealthy again. In November 2007, a Chinese mining company, the China Metallurgical Group, bought a 30 year lease to the site for approximately US$3 Billion. The Afghan government believed that this sale would generate a significant revenue of billions of dollars for Afghanistan in addition to establishing jobs and generating economic activity. On the other hand, multiple scholars have argued that selling the land rights to China will threaten the cultural heritage and destroy the site.
In 2012, it was revealed that the China Metallurgical Group did not have an environmental impact plan to save the archaeological site. Additionally, the majority of workers hired were Chinese laborers brought over to Afghanistan and the few Afghans who were employed were not provided with sufficient housing. Essentially, some scholars argue that the artifacts and heritage sites should be carefully excavated and cautiously removed before the copper deposits are mined and that an environmental plan is therefore needed. On the other hand, there are those who don’t have any particular concern for the Buddhist heritage site and would rather mine the copper deposits immediately, even if that includes destroying the Buddhist heritage artifacts first.
French Archaeologist Philippe Marquis explained in an interview to the British newspaper, The Daily Mail, the historical importance of this archaeological site. “This is probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road. What we have at this site, already in excavation, should be enough to fill the (Afghan) national museum,” Marquis said.
In 2010 to 2011, the archaeological team excavated more than 400 artifacts from the site. This is more than the number of artifacts that the National Museum of Afghanistan has. Surprisingly, over 90% of the site still remains undiscovered. However, the excavators and those trying to save the site have been met with challenges. The Taliban has threatened those trying to save the site and has denounced them as promoting Buddhism.
Recently, a documentary was made in order to highlight and spread more awareness about this archaeological site in hopes of saving it. Documentary filmmaker and associate professor of Journalism Brent E. Huffman at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University produced an independent documentary film, Saving Mes Aynak, in 2014 which depicts Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori and his quest to save the archaeological site from destruction. The documentary explores the efforts to save Mes Aynak and explains its ancient history and while discussing present day challenges of spreading awareness about the site while also trying to delay the demolition of the site. The documentary received significant exposure at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in November 2014. The film was later screened in multiple universities, globes, libraries, theaters and lectures across the world. The filmmakers also established a “Save Mes Aynak Day” on July 1, 2015 in order to raise awareness about Mes Aynak and prevent demolition of the site. The film also won numerous awards from an enormous number of documentary film organizations.
Despite the exposure and attention that the film gave to this issue, the Chinese mining company has no plans to delay excavation on the copper deposits. Luckily, security is present at the site to not only protect the site itself, but also protect the workers from looters and landmines. Although it is tempting to simplify the issue as a problem of just spreading awareness and preventing destruction, the issue is further complicated when one realizes Afghanistan’s dire need for financial resources and assistance yet its interest in preserving its cultural past. Regardless of what happens, it is important to remember the past and preserve reminders of a glorious and rich past in order to ensure that it is not forgotten and mentioned only sporadically in the footnotes of a history textbook. Perhaps Afghanistan can remember the events of March 2001 when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, Bhuddist statues more than a hundred feet tall, and the outrage that later ensued as well as the loss of a cultural and historic memento. This should not be forgotten because as the great philosopher and noted intellectual George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s obvious that more needs to be done in order to prevent history from repeating itself and to ensure that the loss and destruction of the Buddhists of Mes Aynak does not occur.
Photo by Jerome Starkey