2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery in Afghanistan under threat

From Huffington Post:

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.

Ancient Buddha statues inside a temple in Mes Aynak

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 ruins, including the monastery and domed shrines, will likely be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins

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.”

From Huffington Post.

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Angkor and The Khmer Empire

angkor wat

National Geographic recently featured an article by Richard Stone on the Angkor and the Khmer Empire.

[…Angkor is the scene of one of the greatest vanishing acts of all time. The Khmer kingdom lasted from the 9th to the 15th centuries, and at its height dominated a wide swath of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar (Burma) in the west to Vietnam in the east. As many as 750,000 people lived in Angkor, its capital, which sprawled across an area the size of New York City’s five boroughs, making it the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world. By the late 16th century, when Portuguese missionaries came upon the lotus-shaped towers of Angkor Wat—the most elaborate of the city’s temples and the world’s largest religious monument—the once resplendent capital of the empire was in its death throes…]

The article is accompanied by the set of excellent interactive sequences depicting the temples of Angkor, Khmer timeline and 3D animations.


Parthian Kuh-e Khajeh in danger of total destruction

Kuh_Khajeh_Rostam_CastleDespite frequent warnings by the experts, one of the most unique Parthian sites in Iran-proper known as the Kuh-e Khajeh (Parthian Ushida) remains in danger of total destruction, and the cultural authorities have not take any action to ensure its protection.

Speaking with the Persian service of ISNA on Wednesday, Rasul Haj-Mousavi, the director of Sistan’ Cultural Heritage Base (SCHB) said: “the daily destruction of the unique Parthian site has become very serious. [Saving] the site should become a matter of concern for Iran Cultural Heritage and Organisation (ICHTO), and [its protection] should be considered as a national programme.”

Haj-Mousavi said the two main difficulties that SCHB is facing are, “ICHTO would not follow the SCHB’s recommendation, when comes to prioritising the sites in the province for allocating the necessary budget, and also the lack of manpower. SCHB is a very large archaeological base, with no manpower.”

He recommended the protection of Khuh-e Khwajeh should become the priority and called for allocation of the whole of next years budget to save the site.

He added “a strong team of experts needed to conduct necessary work including surveying, cataloguing and damage-studies, which should lead to a restoration.”

As a sign of protest, Haj-Mosavi has submitted his resignation to ICHTO a few months ago, which was turned down. He submits his resignation for the second time.

Kuh_Khajeh_Rostam_Castle1In June 2006, Mohammadali Ebrahimi, the director of Sistan and Baluchestan province’s Cultural Heritage and Tourism Department asserted that the area badly needs vegetation to neutralize the destructive impacts of the strong winds, which occur for four months of the year with speeds reaching 120 km per hour. Despite his warnings in August 2006 one of the eastern walls of the palace has collapsed.

While the Iranian heritage sites are in desperate need of funding in order to be rescued from total destruction, the Islamic Republic is spending billions of dollars of the Iranian assets every year in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. In June 2008, Iran Focus revealed that the regime spends $2.5B every year on activities in Iraq, in which a fraction of the money that is being spent for futile aims could be used to save thousands of heritage sites like Kuh-e Khajeh.

Historical Background (by Khodayar Bahrami):

Mount Khwajeh, also spelled Kuh-e Khajeh, Kuh-i Khaja, is a flat-topped black basalt mountain located 30 km southwest of the town of Zabol and is located on an island in the middle of Hamun lake, in the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan.

The trapezoid-shaped basalt lava, situated 609 meters from the sea level, with a diameter ranging from 2.0 to 2.5 kilometers covering an area of 40,000 square meters, is the only natural height left behind the Sistan area. It is here we can find a citadel with palaces, fire temple, a pilgrimage centre and graveyard. Also there are number of small temples (possibly Mithraist or Anahit), known to the locals as the “Kouchakchal Ganjeh”.

Kuh_Khwajeh_PalaceThe Kuh-e Khwajeh historical complex is one of the most significant archaeological sites in Iran and the biggest model of unbaked mud brick architecture remaining in Sistan region, which dates back to the Parthian dynasty (248 BCE-224 CE).

The ancient site was identified by A. Stein, E. Herzfeld, and was investigated in part by G. Gullini in a short expedition conducted in the 1960. According to his findings the palace and the fire temple were already in existence in the Parthian period. The ruins on the southern slope, dates back to 1st century BCE and it is still known as Kuk-u Kohzadh.

Stein also discovered a Buddhist monastery at Mth. Khajeh in 1916. Roman Ghirshman pointed out that the art of Mth. Khajeh predates Gandhara art which disproves the widely accepted notion that Buddhism spread from Nepal or Eastern India, and it claimed that Mth. Khajeh was Kapilavastu, the birthplace of Gotama.

Stein’s work clearly shows that Buddhism was born in Iran but was later nurtured in modern India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

However, Khwajeh Mountain Complex is greatly respected by followers of the three faiths of Zoroastrian, Christianity and Islam and considered as a holy place. The mountain has been named after the mausoleum of “Khwajeh Mehdi”, one of the sympathizers of Alavi rulers, which is situated on this mountain, often referred under its Islamic name Kuh-i Ushida.

kuh-e_Khwjeh8The oldest and by far the most important structure of the site is an ancient fortress found on the eastern slope, referred to under various connotations such as Rostam’s castle, the Kāferūn castle, Kohan-Dež, etc.

Unique murals decorated the walls of the fortress, few of which have survived. Recently, a complete documentation of the site was carried out. In addition, partial restoration and fortification of the castle were conducted on its walls and arches.

Sistan, known as the birthplace of Iranian hero Rostam, has very strong associations with Zoroastrianism. According to Zoroastrian mythology, Lake Hamun was the keeper of the Prophet Zoroaster’s seed. And when the world’s end is at hand, three maidens will enter the lake, and afterwards will give birth to the messiah known as the Saoshyant, who will then be the “final saviour” of mankind.

SOURCE

China’s Mount Wutai inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List

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The World Heritage Committee has inscribed China’s Mount Wutai on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as a cultural landscape.

With its five flat peaks, Mount Wutai is a sacred Buddhist mountain. The cultural landscape numbers 53 monasteries and includes the East Main Hall of Foguang Temple, the highest surviving timber Building of the Tang Dynasty with life size clay sculptures. It also features the Ming Dynasty Shuxiang Temple with a huge complex of 500 statues representing Buddhist stories woven into three dimensional pictures of mountains and water.

Overall, the buildings on the site present a catalogue of the way Buddhist architecture developed and influenced palace building in China over more than one millennium. Mount Wutai, literally, the five terrace mountain, is the highest mountain in northern China and is remarkable for its morphology characterized by precipitous sides with five open treeless peaks. Temples have been built on the site since the 1st century AD to the early 20th century.

SOURCE

Aztec royal tomb discovered in Mexico City

moctezuma maskArchaeologists working amid the smog and din of Mexico City may be on the verge of unlocking an extraordinary time capsule.

The leaders of a team exploring a site opened up by earthquake damage believe that they have found the first tomb of an Aztec ruler. If they are right the site may yield one of the great treasures of antiquity, the sort of haul that fires the imagination of people far beyond academic circles.

None of the finds has been put on public display but Britain will get an early preview. Fourteen gold objects from the site will feature in the British Museum’s exhibition on Moctezuma II, the last great Aztec ruler. These could prove to be the early pickings of a much richer harvest. Colin McEwan, head of the British Museum’s Americas section, said: “There is no question that this has the potential to be a once-in-a-generation find”.

The dig is in the middle of what was the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Near by stands the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, which was built from the stones of Moctezuma’s Templo Mayor, which was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521. The temple’s ruins were subsequently lost for nearly five centuries and discovered only by accident in 1978. Colonial buildings built around it made further exploration difficult but an earthquake in 1985 cleared the way for the present dig.

The site of Templo Mayor, where archaeologists believe a royal tomb lies waiting to be discovered

The new finds appear to be offerings left at the entrance to a tomb. Among them is a fearsome stone sculpture of Tlaltecuhtli, goddess of the Earth. Dr Lorenzo López Luján, who discovered it, thinks that it is a capstone to a burial chamber. When archaeologists moved the sculpture in 2007 they found four containers filled with more than 3,000 items, including animal skeletons, a fire god sculpture, blocks of incense and wooden masks.

Next to this they detected what looks like an entrance. Electronic checks indicate that there is an anomaly beyond it, which Dr López Luján believes is a royal tomb, although some suggest it may be the equivalent of an ancient Greek bothro, where offerings to the underworld were placed.

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Gold was not especially significant for the Aztecs in religious terms but it was associated with the nobility, another hint that there is a ruler behind the entrance. It won’t be Moctezuma, who was killed in 1520, but it could be his predecessor, Ahuitzotl, who ruled from 1486 to 1502.

The archaeologists found several plaster seals, which means that the site has not been looted. Between the seals there are several offerings blocking the entrance, including the skeleton of a dog, an animal that traditionally led the dead to the afterlife. “This is a good signal that under these offerings we will find a royal tomb,” Dr López Luján said. “In more than 30 years of excavating this site this is totally new.”

Just how rich a seam they have hit will become clear over the next year, probably within months.

Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler runs from September 24 to January 24, 2010 in British Museum

SOURCE

Women get to see Mount Athos treasures for first time in 1000 years

Karakallou

The legendary treasures of Mount Athos have been out of bounds for woman for almost 1000 years.

But an exhibition that has opened in Paris means the fairer sex can finally lay their eyes on the ancient Byzantine artifacts. Almost 200 works of art from the male-only Orthodox enclave in northern Greece are on show at the Petit Palais until July. Most of the works have never left the peninsula, from which women – and some female animals – have been banned since 1045.

The Mount Athos treasures, housed in 20 monasteries, are one of the largest collections of Christian art in the world, according to the Independent. Direct access to the treasures is notoriously hard to obtain for men, and impossible for women. That was until Paris was granted the privilege of hosting this “world premiere”.

Dora Bakoyannis, Greek minister for foreign affairs, described the exhibition as a “cultural event of the first order”.

“The treasures exhibited here are a part of European culture,” Ms Bakoyannis told the paper. “A large number of these relics are going ‘beyond the walls’ of Mount Athos for public viewing for the first time by men and women.”

Previously, only two very small exhibitions have been held of Mount Athos artefacts, both in Greece.

Gilles Chazal, director of the Petit Palais, said the exhibition would be “hugely significant”.

The original ruling banning women, and female animals (except cats, which help control the rat population), from the enclave was issued by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Monomachos in 1045. Under Greek law, a breach of the ban by a woman can still lead to a jail sentence.

SOURCE