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Under Threat From Multiple Sides, Archaeologists Race To Uncover Shrines


Archaeologists in Afghanistan are uncovering a spectacular complex of Buddhist temples. The site is called Mes Aynak, and it's being indirectly protected by an unlikely ally - a Chinese copper mining conglomerate. NPR's Hannah Bloch writes about it in the September issue of National Geographic magazine.

HANNAH BLOCH, BYLINE: They've been coming up with a spectacular array of finds. There are, you know, thousands of Buddhist statues, ancient frescoes on the walls, manuscripts that are being deciphered, cascades of old copper coins from that era from 1,500 or 2,000 years ago. And they've also found evidence that there was copper mining done in antiquity on a huge, almost industrial scale.

VIGELAND: All right, well, when we are talking about the copper ore, it is a stunning amount that is under all these shrines and monuments. And the Afghan government has basically leased the mining rights for the area to a Chinese company. What kind of money are we talking about here?

BLOCH: I mean, in terms of quantity of copper, they've estimated maybe 12.5 million tons of copper. It's one of the largest copper deposits in the world. And the Afghan government did lease the rights to a Chinese mining consortium. And it was a $3 billion deal, which was unprecedented in Afghan history. And the mine ministry had been estimating that this would bring in a huge windfall to the Afghan economy, which, you know, it's been dependent on foreign aid for such a long time.

VIGELAND: Then can you give us some sense of how close the copper mining is to the excavation area? I mean, how much of a threat is that in terms of trying to make sure that you don't knock out any of the priceless history that's there?

BLOCH: Well, there's actually no mining going on at the moment. And it's going to be several years before any minding is going to begin. There have been a number of delays in getting this underway. And because of all the delays in the mine, this has been to the archaeologists' advantage. In fact, it's only because of the mine that the archaeology community raised concerns about this being lost that money was put into the archaeological dig. So in a funny way, it's actually the mine that is helping the archaeology.

VIGELAND: Let's talk about security. This story comes on the heels of ISIS beheading a Syrian archaeologist in the ancient city of Palmyra, a reminder certainly of how dangerous it can be to preserve and study ruins in these war zones. What precautions are being taken at this site in Afghanistan?

BLOCH: Yeah, it's a huge concern. And there is an enormous security presence at this site; something like 1,700 paramilitary police patrolling the whole site. And the Chinese camp that was built for the Chinese engineers who are going to be working on the mine and plans for the mine, it was rocketed a couple of years ago. And it's been abandoned since then. They haven't been back.

VIGELAND: Hannah, you reported from Afghanistan for years. You were in Kabul on September 11. This area of this archaeological dig also has some modern history. It was used as an al-Qaida training camp?

BLOCH: That's right. It's so strange to think about it, but the 9/11 Commission said that Mes Aynak was the site of an elite al-Qaida training camp in the 1990s. And, in fact, some of the 9/11 hijackers were trained at this very place. So I was taken to a cave that was used by the fighters. I was taken by one of the archaeologists. The ceiling was completely blackened from a U.S. firebomb from late 2001. And he sort of showed me around. And this is basically the living quarters for these al-Qaida fighters. And he pointed out a stone slab, and he said, well, here's a sofa. And he just said, you know, this, too, is a kind of archaeology. And it really brings it home that this is going to be studied in the future, this part of Afghanistan's long history with just hope the country sees more peaceful days.

VIGELAND: NPR's Hannah Bloch writes about this archaeological effort in Afghanistan in the September issue of National Geographic magazine. Hannah, thank you so much.

BLOCH: Oh, thank you for speaking with me about this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Bloch is lead digital editor on NPR's international desk, overseeing the work of NPR correspondents and freelance journalists around the world.
Tess Vigeland