How Chinese Mining is Destroying Afghanistan's Historic Ruins

A decade after the Taliban demolished the Buddhas of Bamiyan, there is a new threat to country's cultural heritage


In Afghanistan recently, supreme Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued an edict against un-Islamic graven images, which means all idolatrous images of humans and animals. As a result, the Taliban are destroying all ancient sculptures. Explosives, tanks, and anti-aircraft weapons blew apart two colossal images of the Buddha in Bamiyan Province, 230 kilometers (150 miles) from the capital of Kabul.

The Taliban's decision in 2001 to destroy the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan, the enormous sandstone statues of Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in central Afghanistan, is one of those shocking cultural memories even foreigners remember: an act of spite so vicious, so cruel, that it overshadowed even the mass slaughter happening nearby.

People attach enormous value to their monuments to past cultural glories. In a way, those monuments represent the best we can achieve -- they offer hints of exotic triumphs made so long ago as to be forgotten. That is why, when even the wanton slaughter of innocent men, women, and children goes mostly unreported in the international press (as in the Taliban's brutal campaigns against the Hazaras of Bamiyan in 1998 and 2000), the slaughter of culture inspires hand-wringing, condemnation, and global attention.

But even wanton cultural destruction, when carried out for long enough, can inspire yawns. The shorter of the two Buddhas destroyed at Bamiyan was 120 feet tall. Its demolition, alongside its larger, 175-foot tall cousin, sparked global cries of horror. Yet when the Taliban destroyed a 1,300 year old, 131-foot tall statue of Buddha in the Swat Valley, of Northwest Pakistan, in 2007, there was barely more than a shrug. Much like in Bamiyan, this destruction was worse than vicious, it was directly insulting to Swat's cultural history (which very may well have founded the Tantric Buddhism now widely practiced in Tibet).

The region encompassing Eastern Afghanistan and Western Pakistan -- modern day Pashtunistan, if you will -- was once known as Gandhara, a thousand-year old Kingdom that produced stunning works of art and philosophy. For the Taliban to attack this history is simply appalling.

Then again, we have the Chinese.

The ruins poke out of a monotonous stretch of scrub and beckon the world to visit Afghanistan as it was more than 1,400 years ago, when Buddhist monasteries dotted the landscape. Sometime soon, perhaps in as little as 14 months, the sprawling, 9,800-acre Mes Aynak site will be crushed by Chinese bulldozers hunting for copper -- a clear choice of economic development over historic preservation in a country trying to overcome decades of war, religious extremism and occupation.

While the Taliban's relentless quest to erase Afghanistan's Buddhist past for the sake of Islamic purity drew condemnation (however decreasing as time goes on), the Chinese quest to erase Afghanistan's Buddhist past for the sake of some copper ore is drawing silence. There are many reasons for this: people can understand the desperate need for income and exports for the Afghan economy, the Chinese are not making a grandiose display of specifically targetting cultural heritage in the development of their mine, and, again, probably some measure of outrage fatigue.

Then again, the Chinese government didn't seem particularly concerned when it flooded thousands of years of its own past in building the enormous Three Gorges Dam. It's not like China is behaving out of character in Afghanistan.

Still, there is value to saving the cultural heritage of a country even at the expense of economic development. In an ideal world, the two imperatives could be matched in a compromise: perhaps delayed development of the mine until its artifacts and architecture could be properly surveyed and preserved, or perhaps a less intrusive mine that doesn't require cultural destruction.

Sadly, Afghanistan is not an ideal world, and it hasn't been for a long time. The ancient Buddhist caves of Aynak will soon be turned into dust, just as the ancient Buddhist statues of Swat and Bamiyan have been. Whether Taliban or state-run mining corporations, the result for Afghans is the same: the death of their own history.

Image Credit: Adrees Latif / Reuters