Race to Save Buddhas from Bulldozers ; China Is to Turn One of Afghanistan's Most Historic Sites into a Mine. Robert Fox Reports on a Battle to Rescue the Treasures

Article excerpt

IT might be called the battle of the Buddha's feet, a struggle to rescue one of the great Buddhist sites in Afghanistan. The deadline has just been cut to a year for a team of Afghan and foreign archaeologists to rescue what they can from the sites of four shrines and temples round Mes Aynak -- the Copper Mountain -- in the plains of Logar, 25 miles south of Kabul.

The Chinese have signed a 20-year lease to make this the biggest open-cast copper mine in the world outside Africa. They plan to blow up the mountain and what is left of the Buddhist temples, hoping to dig as much as they can of the copper estimated to be worth Pounds 45 billion. Initially, they're offering Pounds 800 million a year for the concession.

It is a race between Afghanistan's cultural past and commercial future. A team of 32 archaeologists is moving everything it can from the site, rediscovered in the Sixties, rebuilding one of the temples and putting the treasures in a custom-built museum. They are helped by 900 local Afghan workers.

Initially they were given three years, but under pressure from the Chinese, President Karzai has said the conservation must end for the blasting and mining to begin late next year.

"The site is very important because this was a main junction on the Silk Road. The monks came here and settled between the 5th century and the 8th century, lured by the copper," said Philippe Maquis, the leading French archaeologist at the site. …