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Removing history leaves us blind, deaf, and dumb

Weekly Columnist

Published: Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08

Imagine something with me for a second: an historical site with thousands of years of records, art, and artifacts that could dramatically alter our understanding of history. Literally thousands of books can be written about this one location. Historians can describe how the people who lived there, detail the methods of building, or what happened at this place. Archaeologists could spend decades poring over religious artifacts and the ruined buildings. Buried deep in the site are documents in ancient languages that could shift the way we understand philosophy in this remote location, the primitive nature of ancient cultures, even the supposed “remoteness” of the region, or even provide certain details of vague chapters of human history.

The above description can fit a lot of historical locations. Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Giza (and the Sphinx), even the Tower of London. The above description also fits a little-known site in Afghanistan called “Mes Aynak.” There are two differences between Machu Picchu and Mes Aynak; Machu Picchu is protected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Mes Aynak is an unprotected site with the world’s second largest deposit of copper beneath it.

What makes Mes Aynak so special? It lies in southeastern Afghanistan almost on the border with Pakistan. Now, most people don’t know this, but prior to the advent of Islam in the region in the 7th Century, the area we now call Afghanistan was a major center of Buddhist civilization. Not only that, but it was the crossroads of civilization. The only reason Ancient Afghanistan became Buddhist was because of its crucial location on the Silk Road. The people of this region were introduced to not only Buddhism, but other Indian religions, Persian Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and even Socratic philosophy. The ruins of Mes Aynak, besides having hundreds of statues of the Buddha, contains historical records going as far back as Alexander the Great’s invasion of India. It goes without saying that the details of this epic war are incredibly rare.

Mes Aynak lies over the world’s second largest copper deposit. This isn’t any new information. The archeologists at Mes Aynak have been unearthing copper artifacts since the excavation began in the ‘60s. The ancient civilization that called it home knew about the copper too, and chose to settle the region to profit from the metal. Unfortunately, the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) also knows about the copper and leased the area for $3 billion in 2007. Amidst outcry from the archeological community, MCC gave archeologists three years to excavate the site. Even though that time has been extended to the end of 2012, MCC has had enough. Before the new year begins, the ruins are scheduled to be demolished along with hundreds of records detailing daily life in ancient Afghanistan.

However, we need that copper! Copper is incredibly expensive and we need it, but there are two problems with destroying a sacred historical site (both religiously sacred and historically sacred).

The first problem is the message it sends to future generations: nothing is sacred, especially if it means profit or short-term relief. Though we need copper, the fact remains that there’s only a finite amount of copper in the world and that money would be better spent trying to investigate possible alternatives.

The second problem is the perpetuation of our insanity. It’s no secret that the global food infrastructure is frighteningly fragile. But instead of investing in local agriculture in Afghanistan (the jobs spur Afghanistan copper mining will provide is finite, but plants can grow ad infinitum) where food can be a daily struggle especially with the Taliban at your back, we’re going to ignore that we’re cannibalizing our ancestors and history and go on with life as usual.

Maybe you’ve been to another country and have actually seen the Tower of London, or the Louvre. Maybe you have been lucky enough to climb Machu Picchu, or visit the Vatican, or the Pyramids. Regardless of your religious affiliation, these sites are all crucial keys to understanding our past. We inevitably lose a part of ourselves if we are the ultimate cause of their destruction.  

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