It was another day on the rocky hillside, as archaeologists and laborers dug out statues of Buddha and excavated a sprawling 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery. A Chinese woman in slacks, carrying an umbrella against the Afghan sun, politely inquired about their progress.
She had more than a passing interest. The woman represents a Chinese company eager to develop the world's second-biggest unexploited copper mine, lying beneath the ruins.
The mine is the centerpiece of China's drive to invest in Afghanistan, a country trying to get its economy off the ground while still mired in war. Beijing's $3.5 billion stake in the mine — the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan by far — gets its foot in the door for future deals to exploit Afghanistan's largely untapped mineral wealth, including iron, gold and cobalt. The Afghan government stands to reap a potential $1.2 billion a year in revenues from the mine, as well as the creation of much-needed jobs.
But Mes Aynak is caught between Afghanistan's hopes for the future and its history. Archaeologists are rushing to salvage what they can from a major seventh century B.C. religious site along the famed Silk Road connecting Asia and the Middle East. The ruins, including the monastery and domed shrines known as "stupas," will likely be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins.
Hanging over the situation is the memory of the Buddhas of Bamiyan — statues towering up to 180 feet high in central Afghanistan that were dynamited to the ground in 2001 by the country's then-rulers, the Taliban, who considered them symbols of paganism.
No one wants to be blamed for similarly razing history at Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar. The Chinese government-backed China Metallurgical Group Corp., or MCC, wanted to start building the mine by the end of 2011. But under an informal understanding with the Kabul government, it has given archaeologists three years for a salvage excavation.
Archaeologists working on the site since May say that won't be enough time for full preservation.
"That site is so massive that it's easily a 10-year campaign of archaeology," said Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist brought in by the U.S. Embassy to work on sites in Afghanistan. Three years may be enough time just to document what's there, she said.
Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist advising the Afghans, said the salvage effort is piecemeal and "minimal," held back by lack of funds and personnel.
Around 15 Afghan archaeologists, three French advisers and a few dozen laborers are working within the 2-square-kilometer (0.77-square-mile) area — a far smaller team than the two dozen archaeologists and 100 laborers normally needed for a site of such size and richness.
"This is probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road," said Marquis. "What we have at this site, already in excavation, should be enough to fill the (Afghan) national museum."
The monastery complex has been dug out, revealing hallways and rooms decorated with frescoes and filled with clay and stone statues of standing and reclining Buddhas, some as high as 10 feet. An area that was once a courtyard is dotted with stupas standing four or five feet high.
More than 150 statues have been found so far, though many remain in place. Large ones are too heavy to be moved, and the team lacks the chemicals needed to keep small ones from disintegrating when extracted.
MCC appears to be pushing the archaeologists to finish ahead of schedule. In July, the archaeologists received a letter from the company asking that parts of the dig be wrapped up by August and the rest to be done by the end of 2010.
A copy of the letter — signed by MJAM, the acronym for the joint venture in charge of the mine, MCC-JCL Aynak Minerals Co. — was provided to The Associated Press by the head of the archaeological team. MCC and MJAM officials did not respond to requests for comment.
August has come and gone, and excavations at Mes Aynak continue. But the Afghan archaeologist overseeing the dig said he has no idea when MCC representatives might tell him his work is over. So he tries not to think about deadlines.
"We would like to work according to our principles. If we don't work according to the principles of archaeology, then we are no different from traffickers," Abdul Rauf Zakir said.
The team hopes to lift some of the larger statues and shrines out before winter sets in this month, but they still haven't procured the crane and other equipment needed.
Mes Aynak, 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Kabul, lies in a province that is still considered a major transit route for insurgents coming from Pakistan. In July, two U.S. sailors were kidnapped and killed in Logar. Around 1,500 Afghan police guard the mine site and the road.
Promised funding from foreign governments has yet to materialize. The Afghan government has allotted $2 million for the dig and is trying to find another $5 million to $10 million, said Deputy Culture Minister Omar Sultan.
The United States has promised funding but hasn't yet figured out how much, said a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, Mireille Zieseniss.
Mes Aynak's religious sites and copper deposits have been bound together for centuries — "mes" means "copper" in the local Dari language. Throughout the site's history, artisanal miners have dug up copper to adorn statues and shrines.
Afghan archaeologists have known since the 1960s about the importance of Mes Aynak, but almost nothing had been excavated. When the Chinese won the contract to exploit the mine in 2008, there was no discussion with Kabul about the ruins — only about money, security and building a railroad to transport the copper out of Logar's dusty hills.
But a small band of Afghan and French archaeologists raised a stir and put the antiquities on the agenda.
The mine could be a major boost for the Afghan economy. According to the Afghan Mining Ministry, it holds some 6 million tons of copper (5.52 million metric tons), worth tens of billions of dollars at today's prices. Developing the mine and related transport infrastructure will generate much needed jobs and economic activity.
Waheedullah Qaderi, a Mining Ministry official working on the antiquities issue, said MCC shares the government goal of protecting heritage while starting mining as soon as possible.
A good resolution is important for MCC "because it is their first-ever project in Afghanistan," Qaderi said. MCC is expected to make an offer for another lucrative mineral prize — the Hajigak iron mine in central Afghanistan, estimated to hold 1.9 billion tons (1.8 billion metric tonnes) of iron ore. Kabul opened bidding to develop the mine in late September and is expected to award the contract late this year or in early 2011.
Still, a diplomat briefed on internal meetings says MCC has pressured Kabul to stop archaeologists from looking for new places to dig beyond the 12 sites already found. The diplomat spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Marquis said MCC has been cooperative and has helped the archaeologists, hauling dirt away and asking what more needs to be done.
Zakir, the Afghan archaeologist, laughs. "Yes, they are very helpful. They want to help so that we can finish quickly. They want us gone."