Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ancient Monastery in Afghanistan under threat

Image from Science (Vol 329, July 30, 2010)

First it was the Taliban that mindlessly destroyed the 1500 year old statues of Buddha. Now an ancient Buddhist monastery is under threat in Afghanistan from ... a copper mining company!
A Chinese company intends to blow up an ancient Buddhist monastery south of Kabul to make way for a massive copper mine. The plan has sparked outrage among Afghan and French archaeologists, who have recently uncovered more than 100 statues within a large religious complex that includes seven stupas, or tombs built to house the relics of saints.

No seriously? It is amazing that we are even debating blowing up a 1500 year old monastery:
Located in a mountainous region 40 kilometers southeast of the capital, Mes Aynak is a hill topped by a 4500-square-meter monastery. Although the site was spotted by archaeologists in the 1960s, it was never excavated. During the late 1990s, the hill was home to an al-Qaida training camp, according to the 2004 report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. In recent years, looters have damaged much of the monastery complex in the search for antiquities, says Nader Rassouli, director of Afghanistan's National Institute of Archaeology in Kabul, which is also participating in the current excavations.
Two millennia ago, this region served as a critical conduit in the spread of Buddhism to Central Asia and China, says T. Richard Blurton, an archaeologist and curator at London's British Museum who has excavated in Afghanistan. He says Mes Aynak could provide new data on both the origin and demise of the religion here. Researchers now believe that as late as the 7th century C.E., when Islam arrived in the area, Buddhism was still making inroads as far west as Iran and as far north as Turkmenistan. "It's quite tantalizing to consider how Buddhism coexisted with the new religion," Blurton says. There are also Hindu deities from that late period at Tepe Sardar, a large monastery located in the eastern Afghan city of Ghazni. Further evidence from Mes Aynak could help provide a new picture of religious blending at an important historical juncture, says Blurton.
There is some hope for compromise and coexistence - by creating a protected zone for archaeology. But it looks like the decision is now directly in the hands of Karzai. I hope sanity will prevail in the end.

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