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Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, the equation

[ by Charles Cameron — a question of value ]


Footprints: Saving artefacts in Afghanistan

The Buddha rests quietly in a corner of the National Museum of Afghanistan.

While a group of Afghan restorers — with more than four decades of experience between them — work to restore similar artefacts, the Buddha, dating back to at least the second century BC, sits cross-legged, arms folded, awaiting its public debut in the city.

The statue, set to be unveiled to the public in the coming weeks, is a testament to the rich history of a nation that has seen various empires and conquerors pass through its land.

“There are artefacts in every corner of this country,” said Fahim Rahimi, the director of the National Museum of Afghanistan. However, even the layers of sand, silt and time have not been able to keep these artefacts safe from the forces of conflict and capitalism.

[ .. ]

The Buddha itself, discovered near the nation’s largest copper mine, is an embodiment of the duelling threats facing the physical remnants of Afghanistan’s cultural history. The statue, sitting in a reconstructed stupa, was found in 2012 in the Mes Aynak area of the eastern province of Logar. Mes Aynak, meaning literally “the little copper source,” is home to a 2,000-year-old Buddhist city filled with ancient statues, manuscripts, frescoes, shrines and stupas. It is also at the centre of a $3billion Chinese mining contract signed in 2007.


William Bruce My NameSake and presumed Clansman Cameron wrote “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Equation implies equals. Here we have a tug of cash-and-peace.

8 Responses to “Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, the equation”

  1. Jim Gant Says:

    Afghanistan…a land of contradictions.

    Love and hate. Peace and war.


  2. zen Says:

    I recall the premonition I had when the Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up by the Taliban. it was in the era before social media days and on an academic listserv I denounced it as a marker of barbarism and worse to come. It was not a popular opinion or well received by list members, if I recall. as it turned out, I grossly underestimated.
    The restoration of this Afghan Buddha is something of a coming full circle, reminding us of the time when even such far-flung peoples as the Greeks and Buddhists could harmoniously live together in the shadow of the Hindu Kush

  3. Charles Cameron Says:


    such far-flung peoples as the Greeks and Buddhists

    I have long had a tiny footnote to that intersection of Greeks and Buddhists stashed in a far-flung corner of my mind. It concerns the names Ammonius Saccas (or Saccas Ammonius) and Shakyamuni — the former being a Greek philosopher and the tutor of Plotinus, the latter none other than Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha. Digging to see if I could find a succinct reference to the idea to help me comment on Zen’s remark, I got more than I bargained for:

    I know that the question: Who was Ammonius Saccas? will probably elicit a yawn from some of you. That is also a question that has been discussed threadbare. Even at the risk of a few yawns and frowns, let us see where we stand at the end of the threadbare discussion. It has been suggested by one imaginative speculator that Ammonius Saccas is a Latinisation or Hellenisation of the Sanskrit Muni Sakya or Sakyamuni, which is a well-known form of appellation for the Lord Buddha. If that were only demonstrable, we could have regarded Ammonius, whatever his nationality, as a Buddhist monk, who took on for himself one of the many names by which the Master was called. This was actually put forward by no less a scholar than Cardinal Danielou, in his lectures on The Fourth Century at the Sorbonne fifty years ago. Unfortunately it is probably only about as true as the other proposal that Pythagoras, or in Greek Puthagoras, was a Buddhist monk and that his Greek name was simply a Buddhist monastic name he chose for himself, meaning Putha (original Pali or Prakrit which was then Sankritized as Buddha), of the marketplace, taking agoras as genitive or Greek agora (=market). Let us leave aside these entertaining speculations, and get back to the question: who was this Ammonius Saccas? What in his teaching, according to Porphyry, made Plotinus say: “This is what I was looking for!” (touton ezetoun)?

    As an admirer both of Neoplatonism and Buddhism, not to mention a delighter in fanciful false etymologies as well as their authentic counterparts, I’ve always been fond of the notion that the name Ammonius Saccas might derive from Shakyamuni — now I know that the brilliant Cardinal Danielou gave his imprimatur to the same idea!

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    I spent a month or so in Afghanistan on the “hippie trail” to India in the early seventies, and my companion at the time, Julian West, described our visit to Bamiyan years later in an article for the Telegraph:

    ON a brilliant winter’s day three years ago, I flew into Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley in a cargo plane. From high above the snowy Hindu Kush, I could see the colossal statues of Buddha, which the radical Taliban movement is now destroying, dominating the area. It was only as we landed, though, that their awesome size became truly apparent.
    Many years before, I had visited Bamiyan in winter as a student. The lovely valley was sealed by snow and ice and totally silent. On its northern edge rose a sandstone cliff, pockmarked with caves. There, set under a cerulean sky and dwarfing the village beneath them, towered the world’s two largest standing Buddha statues, 180ft and 125ft high. A slightly smaller, seated image was carved into the cliff, further along.
    The Buddhas have stood at the spot for something like 1,700 years. They were carved during the Buddhist dynasty of the Kushan king, Kanishka, which flourished on the old Silk Route between China and the Mediterranean. In their heyday, they were known as one of the wonders of the world: robed in brilliant red and blue cloaks, their faces and hands glittering with gilt, their heads adorned with jewelled ornaments. Pilgrims came from afar to see them and visit the yellow-robed monks who lived in the exquisitely frescoed monastic complex carved in the cliff.
    They have survived the ebbs and flows of empires and conquest, protected by their mountain fastness. Islam converted most of Afghanistan not long after they were carved, but the statues suffered little. Zealots hacked off their faces, but, if anything, such acts of religious vandalism rendered the faceless images even more powerful and god-like. I, like every visitor to Bamiyan, was awestruck.
    By the time I first arrived at Bamiyan, the original decorations had long gone, victim of centuries of biting winters, baking summers and human neglect. Many of the frescos were faded or broken. The lovely draperies remained, though, as a unique example of Gandhara style, the fusion of Greek and Asian art which flourished in Afghanistan and north-west India in the second to fifth centuries after Christ.
    A steep narrow staircase, which more recently had partly crumbled, climbed up through the rock and into a chamber leading out on to the larger Buddha’s head, itself the size of a small room. From there, I gazed out over the wheat fields and orchards of the valley and the tiny figures of herdsmen on donkeys riding by the river far below. Afghanistan’s many troubles seemed to melt away. It was a scene of paradisiacal serenity…
    [ more: They were faceless but even more powerful: I was awestruck ]

    Julian’s memory is far less clouded than mine, so I’ll let this stand in place of my own. Somewhere, I still have (somewhere) my notebook of that journey, and in it a leaflet about Bamiyan by a Chinese visitor that I picked up while there. Must have been Hsuan-tsang, mentioned in this article, which also mentions Bamiyan’s extensive Buddist monastic past, and how fundamental Bamiyan was back then “as tthe western terminus of three of the trade routes that connected China, India, the Near East, and the Western world.”

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Grurray has pointed me to his own comment on an earlier post of mine, Justice Scalia, St Hubert, and the Stag — one of my all time favorites, as it happens — and the comments that followed his..
    There’s some relevant context / comment in that comment-stream.

  6. Grurray Says:

    Charles, your posts on comparative mythology are always good. That one is one my favorites also. I made sure to bookmark it.
    I have been on a binge recently with the Crusades history and just came across St Eustace this weekend. His cult was popular in the coastal villages of Syria when the Crusaders arrived. I’m still trying to gather the details from the original sources. I wish my French was better.
    The Occitans probably brought the cult back to Southern France, helping to trigger the Albigensian Crusade.

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hm, the Crusades, Syria, St Eustace and the Cathars & trioubadours, that’s one hell of a salad of my own interests — pray tell us moreQ

  8. Grurray Says:

    This was mentioned in a new book I was reading on the County of Tripoli https://www.amazon.com/Counts-Tripoli-Lebanon-Twelfth-Century/dp/1472458907
    Only briefly unfortunately, and the original sources are locked up behind academic paywalls.
    Apparently, the locals living in the coastal plains around the border of Lebanon and Syria believed that place to be the location of St. Eustace’s shipwreck and his family’s kidnapping. According to the book, the veneration of St. Eustace traveled from there to France. During the Crusades that slice of Syria was under the control of the Knights Hospitallars. They were also notoriously close to the Cathars and at one point condemned by the pope for it. They must’ve been the vehicle of transmission.
    This seems to confirm Joseph Wilson’s article on the Eustace/neo-Manichaeism/Buddhist parallels.
    The Syro-Lebanese border is now home to Alawites, whose beliefs are thought to partially derive from Buddhism via Manicheaism, or Platonism, or both. It looks like that syncretism has deep roots going back a long time.
    All this new information also makes me wonder if there might be some other motives behind Pope Francis recent action to remove the sovereignty of the Knights of Malta, the Hospitallars modern descendants.

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