Frantic excavation of Afghanistan’s ancient Buddhist city of Mes Aynak continues as an international team of sixty-seven archeologists retrieve as many artifacts as possible before, at the end of the month, two Chinese mining companies begin open-pit mining in this copper-rich area (see June 13, 2013's Sightings).
So far, archeologists have discovered at least nineteen archaeological sites including four fortified Buddhist monasteries, several Buddhist reliquary towers known as stupas, and a Zoroastrian fire temple.
Buddhism reached Afghanistan in the third-century BCE when, as part of India’s Maurya empire, it entered into an alliance with the Greeks. The ensuing centuries of interaction between Indian and Hellenistic cultures had an enormous influence on the unfolding of Buddhism and of Buddhist art until the arrival of Islam.
One notable example is the birth of ‘Gandharan art’ in the area between what is now eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. The Gandharan sculptors typically carved images of the Buddha—his hair in wavy lines and his robes draped in the Graeco-Roman style—features that recall the Greek god Apollo.
In the early nineteenth century, fascination with this Hellenistic Buddha led European tourists and explorers to travel to Afghanistan. These admirers launched archeological explorations under the region’s barren terrain and discovered walled cities, monastic complexes, cave temples, and urban settlements at the sites of Balkh, Bamiyan, and Hadda among others.
However, not until 2009 did the National Institute of Archaeology and French Archaeological Mission in Afghanistan begin scientific excavations at Mes Aynak, forty kilometers southeast of Kabul.
The publication of Mes Aynak: New Excavations in Afghanistan by the National Museum of Afghanistan in 2011 offers a glimpse of what the archaeologists have uncovered thus far. Copper workings, smelting workshops, miners’ habitations, and a mint attest to the early importance of copper mining at Mes Aynak. Most likely, the grandeur of the Buddhist temples and palaces in the settlement were made possible by profitable copper mining.
Archaeological finds suggest that civilizations going back as far back as the third century BCE were thriving at Mes Aynak, while a Buddhist settlement flourished from 100 BCE-900 CE.
Though heavily looted, the most significant part of Mes Aynak is a monastery found beneath the Tepe Kafiriat mound. This complex consists of a monastery to the north with a tall, rectangular enclosure wall, and an open courtyard to the south with nine stupas. Beyond the open courtyard sits a monastery building composed of a large central chamber and small chambers laid out in square plan.
Particularly interesting is a rare mural painting (c. 400-800 CE) in the main chamber of the monastery that depicts a standing Buddha with worshipful figures. This scene may represent the monastery’s major benefactor and his family offering homage to the Buddha.
Statues of various materials, including terracotta, schist, and wood, attest to a flourishing culture (c. 200-900 CE) that blended artistic styles and religious practices. For example, a unique schist stele (c. 200-400 CE) captures the story of a previous incarnation of Sakyamuni Buddha paying homage to Dipankara, a past Buddha. The painted statue on the front recalls a similar, schist stele excavated at Shotorak but whose current whereabouts is unknown. A painting of a Buddha with two worshippers on the back makes the Mes Aynak stele of greater interest. This painting is unique among otherwise identical statues discovered in other sites.
The artifacts beneath Tepe Kafiriat are just a small portion of what remains unexplored at Mes Aynak. In turn, Mes Aynak, is only one of many sites sitting atop deposits of valuable natural resources in Afghanistan. From these artifacts, we can gain a greater understanding of the untold history of their users whose traces are rare elsewhere.
The Western press has compared the imminent destruction of the Mes Aynak site to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in the summer of 2001.
A decade earlier, the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul also suffered destruction by the Taliban. The Museum hung this banner from its façade during renovation: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” Has the message already been forgotten?
Dalrymple, William. “Mes Aynak: Afghanistan's Buddhist Buried Treasure Faces Destruction.” The Guardian, May 31, 2013.http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/31/mes-aynak-afghanistan-buddhist-treasure.
Lawler, Andrew. “Mining Afghanistan's Past.” Archaeology 64.1 (Jan/Feb 2011): 18–23.
Mes Aynak: New Excavations in Afghanistan. Kabul: National Museum of Afghanistan, 2011. This catalogue can be accessed at:http://www.nationalmuseum.af/images/stories/PDF/mes%20aynak.pdf.
Author, Seunghye Lee, will receive a PhD in art history at the University of Chicago in August 2013. Her research mainly focuses on artistic and devotional practices of Buddhism across East Asia.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a PhD Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.