Exquisite Ancient Buddha Image from Mes Aynak to be Exhibited at National Museum of Afghanistan

By Craig Lewis
Buddhistdoor Global | 2017-04-26 |
Dating to at least the 2nd century BCE, this rare statue of Shakyamuni Buddha is poised to make its public debut at the National Museum of Afghanistan. Photo by Wakil Kohsar. From oberserver.newsDating to at least the 2nd century BCE, this rare statue of Shakyamuni Buddha is poised to make its public debut at the National Museum of Afghanistan. Photo by Wakil Kohsar. From

An ancient Buddha statue in a remarkable state of preservation—removed from one of the most dangerous regions of Afghanistan and believed to date to at least the 2nd century BCE—is set to go on permanent display in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.

A tantalizing monument to the rich tapestry of Afghanistan’s history that has seen the rise and decline of numerous kingdoms and empires, the sculpture, its vibrant hues barely diminished, was first discovered at the infamous Mes Aynak archaeological site in 2012 after being unearthed from accumulated layers of silt and soil, beneath which it was believed to have lain since between the 3rd–5th centuries.

This exquisite image is all the more remarkable as most examples of ancient Buddhist statuary in Afghanistan are headless due to widespread looting that serves the thriving black market for historic artifacts. Indeed, the head of this ancient image was already detached—perhaps due to an accident during excavation or an aborted attempt at looting—but archaeologist have been able to restore the sculpture to its former glory.

Photo by Ali M. Latifi. From dawn.comPhoto by Ali M. Latifi. From

“The statue was almost whole when it was discovered, with its head present, which is rare,” said Italian restoration expert Ermano Carbonara. “It was placed in the centre of a niche, which itself had been decorated with painted flowers, in the heart of a great centre of [an area used for] prayer. It was better to remove it from the site to protect it.” (Channel NewsAsia)

However, because the statue was crafted from clay sourced from the Mes Aynak River, it is particularly fragile and vulnerable to moisture. “A night of rain could destroy it,” said Carbonara. He noted that the remarkable quality of the craftsmanship—the facial details, the black curls of hair on its head, and the figure’s pink cheeks and blue eyes were testament to “truly sophisticated technique” of its creators. (Channel NewsAsia)

One of the world’s most significant archeological excavations, the remains of the ancient settlement of Mes Aynak lie in a barren region of Afghanistan’s Logar Province, some 40 kilometers from Kabul. Once a city on the fabled Silk Road network of trade routes that facilitated the exchange of cultures and spiritual traditions across the ancient world. This remarkable historical treasure trove, which French archaeologist Philippe Marquis has described as “probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road,” includes more than 400 Buddhist statues, stupas, and a 40-hectare monastery complex, along with forts, and a citadel spread over 19 separate archaeological sites. (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Yet even heavy layers of sand, silt, and time have been unable to protect this invaluable historical site from the vagaries of self-interested geo-politics and capitalism. According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, the site is also home to the world's second-largest copper deposit, reportedly representing estimated reserves of some 5.5 million tonnes of high-grade copper ore (Mes Aynak means “little source of copper” in Pashto), and two state-owned Chinese mining giants, Metallurgical Group Corp. and Jiangxi Copper, are seeking to establish a US$3 billion mining project to extract the underground wealth.

Aside from the remarkable and extensive remains of an ancient Buddhist settlement that dates to the Kushan Gandhara period (roughly contemporary with the Roman Empire and China’s Western Han dynasty), further archaeological evidence points to civilizations in the area flourishing as early as the 3rd century BCE. Discoveries at the site include clues pointing to an ancient monastic order that revered Siddhartha Gautama before he was enlightened, and manuscripts mentioning the presence of troops led by Alexander the Great.

“There are artifacts in every corner of this country,” observed National Museum of Afghanistan director Fahim Rahimi. However, he noted, “There’s a systematic group of smugglers who have profited enormously by taking advantage of local people who are either not informed about the value of these items or are driven by poverty to sell them.” (Dawn)

Between the beginning of civil war in 1990 and the US-led invasion in 2001, at least 70 per cent of Afghanistan’s historical and cultural artifacts were either looted, destroyed, or smuggled out of the country, said Nadir Shah Katawazi, head of public affairs at the museum.

See more

Ancient, near-pristine Buddha to make Kabul museum debut (Channel NewsAsia)
Kabul museum set to display ancient Buddha (Observer)
Footprints: Saving artefacts in Afghanistan (Dawn)
Ancient treasures on shaky ground as Chinese miners woo Kabul (The Sydney Morning Herald)

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