From Mining Site to Mining City: the Case of Mes Aynak, Afghanistan
— Elisa Iori
If I asked you to describe a mining city, the picture you will paint would be probably that of a dusty, smoky, ugly and polluted city dominated by a somehow melancholic atmosphere due to both the poor and dangerous conditions of the mining workers and the predictability of the city’s decline once resources are exhausted or extraction unviable.
Among the key features of the mining city, the legacy of an environmental degradation (e.g. deforestation), the negative health impact (e.g. water and air pollution), the economical and (often) physical peripherality and the dependence on non-renewable resources are definitively trans-temporal and trans-cultural (Martinez-Fernandez et al. 2012: 247-248). Indeed, in our perception, mining sites are quite unattractive spaces to live in and it is not by chance that, both in ancient and modern times, they actually developed as towns or mine-centered villages rather than cities. As for antiquity, several ancient mining sites have been documented by archaeologists around the world, however, only very few of them bear evidence of the urban. Even though the interest of archaeologists in technological aspects and trade network may have played a role when underestimating the urban environment of mining sites (research here is mostly associated to mining archaeology), the physical setting of mines, located in areas difficult to access and to dwell in, and the negative impact of extraction activity were often a deterrent for the construction of urban centres in these locations. In fact, cities grown as a result of mine exploitation did not develop in off-site locations where mines are, but in more strategic positions at some distance from the slag heaps and the smoke of the industrial area.
Yet human choices can trigger socio-economic dynamics which make unfriendly places attractive enough to turn them into cities.
Although the mining city is quite a rare phenomenon across space and time, archaeology has recently offered us an extraordinary example of it in the barren mountain landscape of eastern Afghanistan. The place I refer to is Mes Aynak, the largest ancient mining city in Eurasia, developed on the second largest copper mine in the world.
But what made Mes Aynak different from other mining sites in the world? Why did this mining site develop as city? Was the favourable environmental feature the key to its urban success?
Once we look at the geological and geographical features of the area, we notice that the fortune of this site cannot be linked either exclusively to the exceptionality of its deposit or to its particular strategic location.
Afghanistan is a country that is well-known for its rich soil (seeThomalsky et al. 2013). Deposits of gold, silver, tin, iron, copper, lapis lazuli were, and still are, grounds for competing interests in this land and Mes Aynak is certainly not a unique case of mineral deposits within the geology of this territory. Still, none of the ancient mining sites so far identified by archaeologists in this land (and beyond) show an urban development on the scale documented at Mes Aynak. Moreover, though not particularly far from Kabul (about 40 km NNW) and from the roads that conneceted Kabul to the southern ancient cities of the easternmost part of the Iranian Plateau (Ghazni and Gardez), the site did not enjoy a particular strategic position along any ancient trade routes. Thus, geology and topography do not seem to offer enough reasons for the urban success of Mes Aynak.
Then, which were the driving forces that fostered the urban development at the mountain copper deposit of Mes Aynak?
In this blog entry, I am going to sketch some conjectures about the possible reasons and actors behind the urban development of this mining site. But let’s first take a step back to get a sense of the ancient city of Mes Aynak and its recent history.
Mes Aynak is located in the Logar district, on the eastern side of the Baba Wali mountains at an average altitude of c. 2500m above sea level (Fig. 1 and 2).
First identified in the early 1960s, it is only in the last ten years that our knowledge and interest in this ancient city has increased progressively. Unfortunately, the reason of Mes Aynak’s fame is not the outcome of a successful, well-planned and long-term archaeological campaign, rather it is the result of the material that made the fortune of Mes Aynak in the first place, namely its huge copper deposit. Almost mocking the town’s association with the precious material, this very fact now threatens to condemn the ancient city to disappear forever.
In fact, the spotlights turned on Mes Aynak in 2007 when the Afghan government granted a 30-year lease for US$30 billion to a Chinese state-owned Mining Company (MCC) for the extraction rights of the copper mine through the creation of an open-pit mine that would have transformed the ancient city into a giant crater. Thanks to the activism of the Afghan Institute of Archaeology (AIA), Mes Aynak’s case has gained international resonance drawing the attention of archaeologists, UNESCO, cultural heritage organizations and media, also bringing to the production of a documentary film premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2014 (Saving Mes Aynak).
Since 2007, extensive rescue excavations have been carried out by the AIA, first in cooperation with the Delegation Archaeologique Francaise en Afghanistan (DAFA), then with several international partners thanks also to substantial financial support from different sources, especially the World Bank (Curvers 2017). Although at the moment both mining and archaeological activity are paused for security and funding reasons, Mes Aynak’s case is still a pending matter.
Bringing Mes Aynak to the attention of the media was of course not only because of a scientific interest in protecting an ancient mining site, but mainly because of the outstanding quantity, diversity and quality of conservation of Buddhist sculptures, wall paintings and monuments brought to light at the site (Figs. 3-5). Indeed, Mes Aynak is without any doubt the most stunning archaeological discovery of the last 50 years in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the haste in which the excavations were conducted, the unsystematic documentation of the finds and the lack of a coordination among the numerous partners involved in the excavations prevent any coherent reconstruction of the biography of the city despite the huge amount of buildings, sculptures and paintings brough to light.
The chronology of the site, based on few indirect elements such as architectural features, style and iconography of wall paintings and sculptures (Filigenzi 2013, Klimburg-Salter 2018) and few elements of material culture (Engel 2011, Alram 2014, Lerner 2018, Noori et al. 2019), suggests that Mes Aynak’s urban development started in the Late Kushan/Kushano-Sasanian phase (c. 3rd/4th century CE) with a main peak during the Turkic-Hunnic phase, 6th-7th century CE, although the exploitation and occupation of the site started in all likelihood much earlier.
The city, at its maximum extension, covered a surface of approximately 50 ha and had its core in a fortified area of ca. 11 ha extending between the western slope of Kuh-e Aynak – where the main entrance to mines (in the form of galleries or shafts and vertical pits) were located – and the hill of Shah Tepe (Fig. 6). The access to the city was from the West where during the UNESCO survey in 2019 the stretch of another fortification wall was documented. The road that led from the main gate to the fortified city, crossing by a narrow gorge, was framed by graveyards consisting of cenotaphs lined by large stones and probably covered by earthen tumuli. Once past the gorge, the ancient visitor could access the fortified city surrounded by other (still little explored) buildings, with mostly residential and religious functions. Beyond it, on the southern slope of Kuh-e Aynak was another necropolis with cenotaphs of the same type like those documented along the passageway, while monumental (kurgan-like) funerary complexes for urban elites were immediately outside the southern stretch of the fortification.
The city of Mes Aynak can be roughly distinguished into five different spatial zones: the fortified city, the industrial area, the ‘sub-urban’ area, the necropolis and the external belt made up of Buddhist complexes that embrace the whole urban space.
The core of the city, defined by the fortification wall, consists of three main ‘quarters’. In the ‘western quarters’ is the manufacturing area arranged on connected terraces along the eastern slope of Kuh-e Aynak (Fig. 6 (green shade) -8). This area has an intricate and dense layout made up of numerous small rooms and narrow passages. Two entrances to the copper mines were located within the quarters itself while others were in the immediate surroundings (see Eley et al. 2019). In this zone, copper was extracted, processed (crushed, ground, sieved, selected and roasted), refined and probably recorded in on-site archives.
Copper smelting was carried out in the industrial area extending to the south of the western quarters (Fig. 6, gray shade). Furnaces and slag heaps extending from mount Aynak down to the lower plain immediately outside the fortification wall mark the industrial and discharge area of the city (Fig. 7, see Eley et al. 2019).
The ‘central quarter’ (Figs. 6 (red shade) and 9), in the lower plateau, has a more articulated street network with a clear node in a central massive building possibly with administrative functions, located in proximity to what has been interpreted as a fire temple (see the video below, which at 0:16 shows the administrative building with the singular quadrilobate shape and from 0:21 to 0:44 part of the Buddhist complex MA013).
At the eastern limit of this quarter, a workshop for the production of copper coins was recorded (Eley et al. 2019: 275-277).
The ‘eastern quarters’, on the slope of the hill facing Kuh-e Aynak (Fig. 6, blue shade), consist of a residential area with large buildings separated by a well-defined road network, water channels and minor urban Buddhist shrines containing small stupas and sculptures. The presence of luxury artifacts, such as silver plates with Sasanian-like decoration (e.g. Alram 2014: fig. 3a) attest to the wealth of the residents of this part of the city. The recovery of a cache containing jewelry made from gold, copper and semi-precious stones along with bronze tools suggests the presence in this area of skilled artisans who worked on the production of luxury objects, also made with imported materials (Faticoni 2014).
In the extreme East of the fortified city, on the top of the hill that stands above the residential quarters, is an imposing monumental building, the so-called Shah Tepe, towards which the northern and southern stretches of the fortification wall seem to converge (Fig. 6 and 10; see also the video below). This must have been the most important urban religious building. Interestingly, the monument, that has been heavily looted in the past, does not seem to be Buddhist, while similarities with other Centro-Asiatic non-Buddhist cultic monuments may be noted.
At Mes Aynak the fortification wall did not represent the topographical boundary of the city that, as we said, actually extended beyond it, with an industrial area in the South and other religious and residential buildings in the North. The religious complexes placed all-around the city fixed the urban space physically and symbolically instead. There are five Buddhist complexes, consisting of a sacred area and monastery, strategically located at the main entrances of the city (MA 001, MA 003), on the top of the hills that naturally enclose the city at N (MA013) and E (MA 007) and on the rocky spur of the Kuh-e Aynak ridge (MA 045) that marked the southern limit of the city here delimited by the Sisokhwar river (Fig. 6).
Placed at the edge of the city in highly visible locations, the monumental Buddhist complexes were, together with Shah Tepe, urban landmarks arranged in such a way as to create a sort of symbolic ‘belt’ around the city.
It was the monumentality and rich decorations of these Buddhist complexes that make Mes Aynak a case that is interesting for scholars around the world, as they are among the most richly decorated and best preserved Buddhist sites ever found in Asia.
The amount and quality of stupas, wall paintings, painted or gilded sculptures of Buddhas and Bodhisattva (also functioning as pillars of pillared halls of two-storey monasteries), shrines with colossal clay sculptures, woodcraft, schist steles with stylistic influences from both Central Asia (e.g. Fayaz Tepe, Miran) and Gandhara can only give us a taste of how spectacular these monuments must have appeared in the past.
It is indeed surprising that Mes Aynak was not included into the (coeval) Buddhist pilgrimage (as well as trade) road network extending between India and Central Asia and passing through the Kabul valley. Then, its network of devotees and donations must have had a more regional character.
At any rate, the economic capital invested by laymen – often represented as donors or worshippers in centro-asiatic dress in Mes Aynak’s sculptures and paintings – in these Buddhist complexes was substantial and we can presume that the urban services offered by the monastic community and the social prestige gained in exchange for such investments must have been equally worthwhile.
Despite the peripheral position, Mes Aynak’s Buddhist complexes were an integral part of the cityscape and urban daily life in the sense that they were visually ‘intrusive’ and ever-present in the city skyline. This, in a city where the main urban religious monuments (Shah Tepe and the fire temple) and burial practices were likely not Buddhist, is quite interesting.
The spatial practice of encircling the city with Buddhist sites placed in highly visible locations might have actually have been a staging of religious power and to symbolically appropriate the urban space. But was this spatial practice only part of a religious strategy? Or was it connected to a more worldly hold on authority over the city by Buddhist communities? Finally, has the role of Buddhist communities anything to do with the rise of a city at the mining site of Mes Aynak?
Answering these questions is not possible given the tiny data we have in hand, but the possible contemporaneity of urban development and monastic foundation (from late Kushan/Kushano-Sasanian phase) invites conjectures that I am going to sketch below as a purely speculative exercise.
As we learn from ancient textual sources, Buddhist monks had private and collective business, could own money and properties and engaged in urban dynamics (e.g. see Schopen 2004). Moreover, their role as “human infrastructure” for the economic and socio-political empowerment of the urban elites has been suggested on the basis of the archaeological evidence. In fact, in the last decades, archaeological surveys and investigations carried out in some regions of South Asia, such as the Swat valley in NW Pakistan (see Olivieri et al. 2006) and the Sanchi hinterland in Madhya Pradesh (see Shaw 2007), have suggested that during the late centuries BCE and the first centuries CE, Buddhist monastic communities with their well-qualified and hierarchically organized staff, capable of managing, administering, and accounting for resources, were in charge – in close connection with urban elites – of managing or supervising extra-urban resources, which in those regions mainly meant agricultural land.
In particular, in Swat, the engagement of monastic community with local economy and, hence, local power, triggered a phenomenon of ‘urban sprawl’ with the development of infrastructures, monastic settlements and Buddhist monuments in the hinterland of the city of Barikot. Here, in spatial terms, the result of religion and the urban working in concert was the creation of a peri-urban zone that provided the ground whereby not only the economic fortune of the city was built, but also urban aspirations and self-representation of local authority were materialized through monumentalization.
A similar model, mutatis mutandis, may be suggested for Mes Aynak, though it is necessary to replace some terms of the expression, that is (a) the type of natural resource managed by the Buddhist community and (b) the spatial form taken by the urban development.
(a) The landscape of the Logar Valley is indeed quite different from that of Swat (or central India) and whereas fertile land was not a good resource to invest in, another profitable extra-urban natural resource was at stake here, the copper mines.
That local authorities could have signed ‘mining contracts’ with local partners who would have ensured the continuity of exploitation in these off-site locations was, in all likelihood, a known practice. The Arthaśāstra, the most famous Indian theoretical treatise of political economy (c. 4th century BC – 3rd century CE), as reported by R. Chakravarti, recommends rulers that:
“those [mines] requiring heavy expenditure to work out should be given to (actually leased out) non-governmental enterprises against the payment of shares and other dues, something analogous to a licensing fee” (Chakravarti 2011: 7).
Thus, it seems that the engagement of non-governmental actors in the extraction and management of mining sites was a known practice in South Asia and the fact that Buddhist communities, well-known entrepreneurs of rural areas, might have served this role of non-governmental partner at Mes Aynak is not such a far-fetched hypothesis (see also Filigenzi 2013: 50).
(b) According to the urban model attested in Swat, the exploitation of the rural area managed by the monastic community may lead to a phenomenon of peri-urbanization of the hinterland.
Then, if we tentatively presume that at Mes Aynak the Buddhist community might have had some rights in managing the mining resources, we could conjecture that here as well the interplay between Buddhist community and local authorities (probably settled in cities like Kabul) led to an urban growth in proximity of the economic pool managed by monks.
However, if so, at Mes Aynak this mechanism might have taken not the form of the urban ‘sprawl’, but instead this might have led to the blooming of a city where before there was probably only a mining-centered village or town, as is common at mining sites.
Indeed, as stated at the beginning, the vibrant urban fabric of Mes Aynak is a clear exception within the category of ancient mining sites. However, the speculations formulated above show that a possible answer to our initial question “which was the driving force that fostered the development of a city at the mountain copper deposit of Mes Aynak?” may actually be the ‘business virtuosity’ of the Buddhist communities, their distinctive ability to brand new enterprises outside the boundary of the city in concert with local elites or authorities.
The good management of the mining resources might have created job opportunities not only for labourers working in the mines and in monasteries, but also for artisans, carpenters, goldsmiths, accountants, catalyzing other economic investments and the usual chain of patronage activity (with consequent flows of painters and sculptors), that eventually led to the formation or relocation (from other cities) of urban elites who eventually decided to settle in (‘eastern quarters’) and to be buried at the mining site.
Nothing of this hypothetical genesis of the city of Mes Aynak can be archaeologically proved, moreover the tiny knowledge of the stratigraphy of Mes Aynak does not allow us to fix with any degree of confidence what came first, monasteries or city.
However, our knowledge, from texts and other archaeological case studies, about the active role played by Buddhism and monastic community to boost urban dynamics opens up different possible scenarios, among which the one discussed above seems likely.
We can only hope that the translation of the texts found at Mes Aynak and the continuation of stratigraphic excavations at the site will allow us in the near future to make inferences about the city of Mes Aynak, that are less foggy and speculative than the ones sketched here.
But most of all, I hope we will not find ourselves regretting another missed opportunity for the archaeology of Buddhism, standing in front of a giant crater.
— Elisa Iori.
Elisa Iori is a post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity”. She is an archaeologist specialising in the religious history of South Asia. She worked at Mes Aynak as consultant for the UNESCO project “Mes Aynak, Consultancy Services in GIS/Topographic and Archaeological Survey” in 2018-2019.
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 Major mineral deposits are in the areas of Herat (mostly copper), Zarkashan-Anguri (copper, silver, tin, gold), Mes Aynak (copper and iron), Balkhab (copper), Panjshir (silver, copper, tin, lead) and Badakhshan (tin, gold).
 Between 2018-2019 AIA and UNESCO (project Mes Aynak, Consultancy Services in GIS/Topographic and Archaeological Survey) have worked on a final report and a rescue plan for the renegotiation of the mining agreement between the Afghan government and the Chinese company.
 Manuscripts were found in small rooms from this area and are currently being translated.
 Other slag layers are visible on the opposite side of Kuh-e-Aynak, to the north of the fortified area and under Shah-tepe. Excavations carried out on the lower plateau by the DAFA revealed a deposit of approximately 12 m of slags.
 Although there are still no evidence for the presence of a mint at Mes Aynak, the fact that coins were here produced is highly possible (see Eley et al. 2019: 277-278).
 MA001 or Ghol Hamid is immediately outside the second fortification of the city; MA003 or Kafiryat Tepe, is in proximity of the gorge that gave access to the fortified city from west.
 For the analysis of wall paintings see Filigenzi 2013 and Klimburg-Salter 2018.
 The chronology of Mes Aynak is particularly vague. Although from the stylistic analysis of paintings the Buddhist complex does seem to be earlier than the late 4th century CE (see Filigenzi 2014) earlier structural phases were documented, in particular at the Buddhist site MA003.
Main picture by Jerome Starkey. See here for details.