The contemporary perception of Afghanistan is a place of violence and religious extremism. It often goes unremembered that for centuries the area flourished as a cultural crossroads of Buddhism and trade along the Silk Road.
Nineteen miles (30 km) from the Afghan capital of Kabul, under layers of unexcavated earth, lays an ancient [2,600-year-old] Buddhist monastery.
- [The fact that May 2011 marks the 2600th anniversary of Buddha's enlightenment suggests that the Buddha's extended family was from this frontier area and converted to Buddhism very early on.]
In the first-century B.C.E., the Yuezhi people were forcibly driven westward from East Central Asia to Ferghana and Bactria in present-day northern Afghanistan. Prior to around 126 BCE, Bactria had been governed by the Indo-Greeks, vestiges of the Alexandrian empire, who promulgated their rule and the Hellenistic culture throughout the region.
The Silk Road with present-day Afghanistan is outlined in green.
Once the Yuezhi took Bactria from the Indo-Greeks, they established the Kushan Empire which played a prominent role in the early periods of the Silk Road.
It was through the Kushans that the woolen textiles, gold, and silver of Rome flowed east; the cotton, spices, and semi-precious stones of India migrated north; the silk of China travelled west; and the rubies and lapis lazuli of Bactria and the Tarim Basin moved outwards (Victor Mair & J.P. Mallory, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West, 2000, p. 94).
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In this way, the Kushan Empire not only directly facilitated the transmission of Buddhism to Central and East Asia, but also left an indelible mark on the ensuing Buddhist artwork of Asia.
While Silk Road trade in the region diminished slightly around the 3rd and 4th centuries when Kushan rule was broken up by the Sassanian Empire, religious eclecticism continued in much of the region.
It was during this time period that many of the artifacts that are being unearthed at the Mes Aynek site were produced. In some places around the monastery, the ground is littered with slag, the blackened waste from the refining and smelting of copper ore, leading archaeologists to believe that the monks once exploited the lucrative copper deposits until deforestation halted their supply of timber fuel.
The archaeological site, Mes Aynak, holds many invaluable relics of Afghanistan's history, but also the promise of billions of dollars of foreign investment.
These copper deposits are what have drawn the Chinese Metallurgical Group Corporation (MGC) to the site. The Chinese government-backed mining company has invested $3.5 billion, Afghanistan’s largest foreign investment, in developing the mining site, and the Afghan government hopes to see $880 million from the project before production even begins (online.wsj.com).
Site of future copper and rare earth mine with Chinese funding to extract resources (AP)
However, upon the signing of the Chinese contract in 2008, an agreement was reached to halt further mining explorations that would damage the historic site until 2011. As 2010 draws to a close, archaeologists acknowledge that three years may be time enough to document, but not properly preserve all the known artifacts -- a process which may take up to ten years (BBC.co.uk). For the struggling Afghan economy, the MGC project is the country’s single largest foreign investment and a promise for the creation of many jobs.
However, due to governmental corruption, it is not likely that the financial boon of this Chinese investment will be used to address the lack of stable infrastructure, water, electricity, housing, jobs, and medical care and the incredibly low standard of living plaguing many Afghan people.
In an article published by the Wall Street Journal, French archaeologist documenting the site, Philippe Marquis, stresses that while a copper mine might be profitable for the next 20 to 30 years, the wealth of cultural history that would be unearthed and preserved from Mes Aynak “[is] for everybody…for the future of Afghanistan.”
Nevertheless, while an enduring manifestation of Afghanistan’s rich cultural past would serve well to remind the world of the country’s reputable history, during this time of political and economic instability, it is hard to justify. (Source)