One of the many fabulous Buddha statues from the site.

Countdown to tragedy

Tom St John Gray reviews Brent E Huffman’s award-winning documentary Saving Mes Aynak.

Mes Aynak, a spectacular 2,000-year-old Buddhist city south of Kabul, Afghanistan, is facing total destruction. This sprawling 500,000m² complex of monasteries, temples, and hundreds of Buddha statues is hailed as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of this century.

The mountain city, an important hub along the ancient Silk Road, contains a wealth of unique artefacts in an astonishing state of preservation. Experts believe future discoveries at Mes Aynak could redefine our understanding of ancient Afghanistan and the history of early Buddhism. With just 10% of the site excavated, the archaeological potential is unparalleled. But in the opening scenes of the documentary we learn that the city is one of the world’s most critically endangered heritage sites.

Located in the Taliban-controlled Logar province, the site sits directly on top of a massive untapped copper deposit valued at $100 billion. Bulldozers, not bombs, threaten this site: the Afghan government sold the mining rights to China Metallurgical Group Corp (MCC) in a deal worth $3 billion. Dr Mark Kenoyer at the University of Wisconsin explains: ‘Mes Aynak as a trading centre would have had people coming from China, the Mediterranean, and South Asia. It would have been a crossroads for everything we know of the Old World. The destruction of Mes Aynak would be like Atlantis going into the ocean and disappearing from history.’

Excavation at Mes Aynak.

 Saving Mes Aynak follows the desperate race to excavate the site before MCC’s diggers turn this unique landscape into an open-pit copper mine. The story is told through the eyes of embattled but unbeaten Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori. Inspired as a child by the Bamiyan Buddhas, Qadir is a passionate advocate of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage, and has a deep connection with Mes Aynak.

There is great danger lurking throughout Saving Mes Aynak. We learn that Qadir, a loving family man, risks everything to protect his country’s past: ‘Nobody should allow their cultural identity to be erased’. His team of workers face constant intimidation, and Qadir regularly receives death threats from Taliban commanders demanding money. Director Huffman reveals: ‘The Taliban would hide landmines along the road at night. It’s very much like Russian roulette travelling to Mes Aynak. And that’s what it felt like. It was the luck of the draw if you made it there, and made it back alive’.

The film traces the countdown to destruction over one year. Battling adverse weather conditions, a lack of equipment, and vanishing funds due to corrupt officials, Qadir and his team valiantly excavate the site before demolition begins. Despite promises of economic rewards, any gains from the mine would be short-lived, as Huffman explains: ‘The mining deal will not benefit Afghanistan. The Chinese will bring in their own labourers, the money will go to corrupt people, the environment will be destroyed. What will be left are toxic craters where this incredible cultural heritage used to be’.

Director Brent E Huffman films Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori at Mes Aynak.

Saving Mes Aynak shows the sheer determination of the Afghan archaeologists to protect their culture against overwhelming odds. ‘We are all one. We must join together and raise our voices to spread awareness around the world,’ Qadir insists.

Huffman has crafted a remarkable film of courage, heroism, and hope. And the fight is not yet over: ‘Cultural heritage goes in tandem with human rights. Erasing a country’s history is a terrible crime. There is still a chance to save the site, and now is the moment to spread the word.’ He urges everyone to support the site by watching Saving Mes Aynak online: www.savingmesaynak.com

All images: Brent E Huffman / Saving Mes Aynak

This article appeared in issue 74 of Current World Archaeology.