This mural fragment from Mes Aynak is one of two Buddhist artifacts sent to Japan for restoration.
Photo by Eiichi Miyashiro. From asahi.com
A pair of early Buddhist artifacts unearthed from the ruins of the ancient Buddhist city of Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, which flourished from the 3rd–8th centuries, have been painstakingly restored in Japan after being relocated to protect the relics from the country’s unstable security environment. The restorations are the first under a program by Tokyo University of the Arts to rescue and preserve damaged archaeological treasures from site.
The two relics comprise a human head sculpted from clay, and a fragment of wall mural measuring 79 centimeters by 117 centimeters and showing a seated Buddha clad in a brick red robe and accompanied by an adherent.
“I hope to proceed with restoration work in Japan while helping to develop a local framework for conservation, including by training restoration workers,” said Takayasu Kijima, professor of the conservation of cultural property at Tokyo University of the Arts. After they are restored, the Buddhist relics will be returned to Afghanistan, he added. (The Asahi Shimbun)
Clay sculpture of a human head unearthed at Mes Aynak. Photo by Eiichi Miyashiro. From asahi.com
Tokyo University of the Arts has also been involved in joint talks with Afghanistan and UNESCO regarding the restoration of the famed Buddhas of Bamiyan—two large Buddha statues carved into the cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley some 15 centuries ago, and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
One of the world’s most significant archeological excavations, the remains of the ancient settlement of Mes Aynak lie in a barren region of Afghanistan’s Logar Province, some 40 kilometers southeast of Kabul. The site was once a city on the fabled Silk Road network of trade routes that facilitated the exchange of cultures and spiritual traditions across the ancient world. This remarkable historical treasure trove, which French archaeologist Philippe Marquis has described as “probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road,” includes more than 400 Buddhist statues, stupas, and a 40-hectare monastery complex, along with forts, and a citadel spread over 19 separate archaeological sites. (The Sydney Morning Herald)
Mes Aynak would qualify as a World Heritage site if the government of Afghanistan were to apply for that status, said archaeologist and UNESCO advisor Tim Williams. “This is an outstanding and complex archaeological landscape, with astounding quality of preservation.” (CNBC)
Prof. Takayasu Kijima of Tokyo University of the Arts explains the mural restoration. Photo by Eiichi Miyashiro. From asahi.com
Yet even the heavy layers of sand, silt, and time have been unable to protect this invaluable historical site from the vagaries of self-interested geo-politics and voracious capitalism. According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, the site is also home to the world’s second-largest copper deposit, reportedly representing estimated reserves of some 5.5 million tonnes of high-grade copper ore (Mes Aynak means “little source of copper” in Pashto), and two state-owned Chinese mining giants, Metallurgical Group Corp. (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper, have been seeking to establish a US$3 billion mining project to extract the underground wealth.
In 2007, the administration of then-president Hamid Karzai granted a 30-year mining lease to MCC for US$3 billion, the largest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan by any country. MCC plans to extract more than US$100 billion-worth of copper that lies directly beneath the ancient city. After years of false starts, the Taliban was reported to have given its approval in November 2016 for the mammoth mining project to go ahead. The Afghan government later dismissed the proclamation. To date the mining project remains in limbo, stymied by various factors, among them fluctuations in the market price for copper, a deteriorating security situation, and supply chain infrastructure limitations.
Aside from the remarkable and extensive remains of an ancient Buddhist settlement that dates to the Kushan Gandhara period (roughly contemporary with the Roman Empire and China’s Western Han dynasty), further archaeological finds point to civilizations in the area flourishing as early as the third century BCE. Discoveries at the site include evidence of an ancient monastic order that revered Siddhartha Gautama before he attained enlightenment, and manuscripts mentioning the presence of troops led by Alexander the Great.
Remains of a Buddhist monastery at Mes Aynak. From wikimedia.org