Mega Copper Deal in Afghanistan Fuels Rush to Save Ancient Treasures

Under threat of Taliban attack, archaeologists are excavating a spectacular Buddhist complex before it’s obliterated by a huge mining operation.

About an hour’s drive along the Gardez highway south of Kabul, beyond the bustling shops, the trucks spewing diesel exhaust, and the clatter of donkey carts, there is a sharp left turn onto an unpaved road. In a district of Logar Province friendly to the Taliban, the vicinity has been shaken by roadside bombs, intermittent rocket attacks, kidnappings, and murders. The road continues along a dry riverbed, past small villages, paramilitary roadblocks, sentry towers, and an empty, blue-roofed compound cordoned off with concertina wire.

A little farther on, the view opens onto a treeless valley creased with trenches and exposed ancient walls. Over the past seven years a team of Afghan and international archaeologists, supported by up to 650 laborers, has uncovered thousands of Buddhist statues, manuscripts, coins, and holy monuments. Entire monasteries and fortifications have come to light, dating back as far as the third century A.D. More than a hundred check posts surround the site, which is patrolled day and night by some 1,700 police.

The excavation is by far the most ambitious in Afghanistan’s history. But the security wasn’t put in place just to protect a few scientists and some local workers. Buried below the ancient ruins is a lode of copper ore that extends two and a half miles across and runs a mile or more into the Baba Wali mountain, which dominates the site. It ranks as one of the world’s largest untapped deposits, containing an estimated 12.5 million tons of copper. In antiquity, copper made the Buddhist monks here wealthy; colossal deposits of purple, blue, and green slag, the solidified residue from their smelting, spill down the slopes of Baba Wali, attesting to production on a nearly industrial scale. The Afghan government hopes that copper will help make the country wealthy again, or at least self-sufficient.

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