Long before Afghanistan was an Islamic country, Buddhist settlements dotted its mountains and deserts. While the Taliban infamously destroyed the giant Buddhist statues of Bamyan Province in 2001, many archeological riches remain. Alongside those buried treasures of the past are mineral riches the U.S. military says could be worth as much as $1 trillion
A race against time
The men are in a race against time. On Mes Aynak Mountain, in Afghanistan’s Logar Province, they are digging out some of the country’s oldest treasures. As fast as they can.
They have only two years to recover artifacts from four main sites around the mountain before a Chinese copper mine moves in.
“Well we are trying but the problem is the site is very huge and our archeologists, we only have 24 archeologists, and an institute, and we need more,” said Khair Muhammad Khairzada, who is with the Afghan Institute of Archaeology.
The Buddhists were thriving here around 1,500 years ago. The site was a pilgrimage destination and a monastery. Even back then, it was known for its copper. Mes Aynak means Copper of Aynak.
Within next two years, Chinese to mine
Looters have taken most of the treasures above ground. They even drilled tunnels and made off with the tops of giant statues. Erosion took its toll as well. And now the Chinese have come to recover billions of dollars worth of copper.
The China Metallurgical Group established a camp here in 2009. By 2014, miners will begin tearing down the mountain.
Archaeologist Abdul Qadir Temori say two years is not enough time.
“Yes, it is a limited amount of time. Only an archeologist would understand what a limited time it is,” he said.
An extension of the dig is not expected. The $4 billion deal is Afghanistan’s largest ever and would provide needed jobs and revenue for this war-weary country.
But the archeologists say it is not worth it.
Hundreds of ancient treasures, forever lost
“History will judge them. There’s no difference between the terrorists and the Chinese, because terrorists are destroying our artifacts with their guns and weapons and the Chinese are destroying them by money,” said archaeologist Temori.
Hundreds of ancient treasures have been unearthed here since digging began in earnest. They are filling the National Museum. An untold number of artifacts remain below the earth. But so does the copper.
So the race continues to save the riches of Afghanistan’s past from the riches of its future. Before long, the mountain these men are working on will be gone.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that mining at Mes Aynak was due to begin in 2013. Mining will not begin until 2014. VOA regrets the error.