Thursday, November 29, 2012

Help save the cultural heritage of Afghanistan

Brent Huffman, a documentary film-maker and professor at Northwestern University, USA, first visited the ancient Buddhist city of Mes Aynak in June of 2011 and immediately fell in love with the site. From that point onwards he has campaigned tirelessly to bring the plight of Mes Aynak into the public consciousness so that it can be saved for future generations of Afghans and the international community.

Environmental devastation

In addition to destroying one of Afghanistan’s most important archaeological findings, the copper mine that is due to start operating on the site will almost certainly devastate the environment by polluting the land and water supply in Logar province and kill all life in the area.

Raising money to raise awareness

Brent Huffman is now in the process of raising money through crowd funding to go towards completing a documentary film that will help create international awareness to both try to save Mes Aynak and prevent similar destruction from happening to other cultural sites in Afghanistan located on or near mineral resources.

The site of Mes Aynak

Mes Aynak (meaning “little copper well”), a desert region 25 kilometres southeast of Kabul, is an enormous archaeological treasure trove 400,000 square feet in size.

An ancient Buddhist monastery complex, extensive wall frescos, massive devotional temples, and more than 200 life-sized Buddha statues comprise a discovery of immense global importance.

At the same time, Mes Aynak is home to the largest undeveloped copper reserve in the world.  Directly beneath the Buddhist site lie mineral deposits worth an estimated $100 billion.

The fate of the ancient Buddhist artefacts hangs in the balance as the Chinese begin planning their destructive open-pit style copper mine.

Under immense international pressure, in early 2009 the Chinese company gave archaeologists three years to excavate and move the artefacts before the copper mine gets underway.

But with extremely limited resources, the dedicated archaeologists have made little progress. “We have only discovered the tip of the iceberg, a mere 10% of the site,” says French specialist Philippe Marquis, who believes this could easily be a thirty-year excavation project.

The documentary

The Buddhas of Mes Aynak is the story of a race against time. This documentary follows an international team of archaeologists as they fight to save a 2,600-year-old Buddhist city in volatile Logar province, Afghanistan.

Led by Philippe Marquis of DAFA, the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, the specialists attempt to document Mes Aynak before its imminent destruction in December 2012.

The location, hailed as one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Asia, will be demolished by a Chinese government-owned mining company (MCC), who will exploit the location for over 100 billion dollars worth of copper located directly beneath the Buddhist temples.

The film will also examine the cultural and historical significance of the Mes Aynak complex and show in vivid detail what life was like for the Buddhist monks and nuns who lived, worked and worshipped there.

Story summary

The Buddhas of Mes Aynakwill be a feature-length documentary examining the volatile debate between cultural preservation and economic opportunity from all sides. This documentary will rely on the personal narratives of a diverse array of constituents in order to tell a multifaceted narrative.

The documentary will follow several main characters to tell this dramatic and multi-layered story. Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist, is leading the effort to document and preserve the Buddhist statues. Dr. J. Mark Kenoyer, an American archaeologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is trying to raise international awareness about the site. Abdul Qadeer Temore, a leading Afghan archaeologist trained in France, is working to protect his cultural heritage. And finally Zhenguo Liu, a Chinese manager working for China Metallurgical Group Corporation in the compound at Mes Aynak is frustrated with the discovery of the archaeology site.

The film will also have a well-rounded cast of supporting characters including Buddhist scholars, Afghan politicians and citizens in support of Chinese investments, U.S. military strategists and Chinese veteran businessmen living and working in Afghanistan.

Cultural significance

The Buddhas of Mes Aynak will in particular examine the cultural and historical significance of the Mes Aynak Buddhist site.

Archaeologists believe that Mes Aynak flourished for centuries as a cultural crossroads of trade and Buddhism along the Silk Road. Developed around the first century AD, the site is a trove of Buddhist monastic ruins, statues, and stupas attesting to the seminal role that Afghanistan played in the proliferation of Buddhism in Central and East Asia.

Buddhists, who began settling the area almost two millennia ago, were drawn by the availability of copper at the site.  Monks, who lived and worshipped there, once exploited the lucrative copper deposits to make relics, statues and coins for trade.

Historians are particularly excited by the prospect of learning more about the early science of metallurgy and mining done at Mes Aynak. The site is known to contain coins, glass and tools for making these, going back thousands of years. Archaeologists have also unearthed manuscripts in scroll form that may provide evidence of the presence of Alexander the Great´s troops.

Huffman, Brent. 2012. “Help save the cultural heritage of Afghanistan”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 7, 2012. Available online:

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