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An ancient Buddhist city discovered in the mountains near Kabul is in danger of disappearing forever, absorbed by a Chinese consortium that exploits one of the largest copper deposits in the world.

At the confluence of Greek and Indian culture, Mes Aynak, which is between 1,000 and 2,000 years old, was once a huge city organized around copper mining and trading.

Archaeologists have discovered Buddhist monasteries, stupas, fortresses, administrative buildings, and wells, and continue to unearth hundreds of statues, frescoes, ceramics, coins, and manuscripts.

Despite looting at the turn of the century, Mes Aynak is “one of the most beautiful archaeological sites” in the world, says Bastien Varoutsikos, an archaeologist with the French firm Iconem, which is working to digitize the city and its legacy.

But these jobs may end due to the financial needs of the Taliban, in power since last August, who are looking for new sources of income after the freezing of international aid.

– Pompeii or Machu Picchu –

The objects date mainly from the 2nd to the 9th century AD, but Bronze Age pottery pieces suggest an earlier occupation, even before the birth of Buddhism.

Forgotten for centuries, the site was rediscovered in the 1960s by a French geologist. Due to its extension and its historical value, Mes Aynak has been compared to Pompeii or Machu Picchu.

The ruins, which occupy some 1,000 hectares, are on the heights of a massive summit whose brownish slopes betray the presence of copper.

In 2007, Chinese mining giant Metallurgical Group Corporation led a state-owned consortium, later renamed MJAM, and signed a $3 billion contract to mine the site for 30 years.

Fifteen years later, the mine still does not exist due to delays caused by insecurity and disagreements over the financial issues of the contract between Beijing and Kabul.

But now the project is once again a priority for both parties and talks are underway about how to proceed.

– Duty of preservation –

The fear grows to see what was once one of the most prosperous commercial centers of the Silk Road disappear from one day to the next.

In early 2010, it was “one of the largest archaeological projects in the world,” says Varoutsikos.

The MJAM group originally suspended the start of operations for three years so that archaeologists could focus on the area threatened by the mine.

The deadline was extended due to insecurity problems in the area, which prevented the construction of the facility and allowed the recovery of thousands of objects stored in museums.

Although in their first regime they dynamited the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001, the Taliban say their duty is to “protect” Mes Aynak’s heritage, Esmatullah Burhan, a spokesman for the Ministry of Mines, told AFP.

But the remains are too fragile to be moved and seem destined to disappear. In addition, China tends to bet on open mines, instead of underground, which would open up the mountain.

– Environmental consequences –

Afghanistan sits on a vast amount of mineral resources of copper, iron, bauxite, lithium and rare earths estimated at more than a trillion dollars.

The Taliban expect to earn more than 300 million a year from Mes Aynak, 60% of the 2022 annual budget, and they want to speed up the process.

“This project must start and cannot be delayed any longer,” says the ministry spokesman. The talks are “80% done,” with technical points to resolve, he adds.

The project is also accompanied by concern about its environmental consequences.

The extraction of copper is very polluting and requires large amounts of water. Logar, the region where the deposit is located, is itself an arid zone.

According to Burhan, the ministerial spokesman, the Taliban are paying “strict attention” to these issues and will ensure that the Chinese consortium fulfills its obligations.

For its part, MJAM has not responded to AFP requests.

For now, the delays are saving archaeologists.

Although no work is currently underway at the site, Varoutsikos hopes to resume excavation before mining operations begin.

But even this will depend on international collaboration and financing, he warns.

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