In March 2001, the world watched helplessly as Taliban forces in Afghanistan methodically dynamited two of the largest standing Buddha figures in the world. Located in the imposing Bamiyan Valley, the figures, standing 125 and 180 feet, had been carved out of sheer sandstone cliffs some 1,500 years earlier under the direction of Buddhist monks. The niches that contained them housed many smaller prayer niches and decorated caves—long used by the local Hazara population to shelter against Afghanistan’s harsh wars and harsher winters—which were also desecrated. Today, amid efforts to preserve the now-unstable cliffs and indecision over how to best honor or rebuild them, the statues remain as a collection of car-sized boulders and dust, a reminder of the worst excesses of the fundamentalist regime that brought them down.
The Land and Its People
Bamiyan Valley, which sits at an altitude of about 8,000 feet in the central highlands of Afghanistan, was first inhabited in the third century B.C. It became an important Buddhist center in the second century A.D., reaching its peak from the fourth to eighth centuries, during which time the Buddhas gazed down upon a valley with 10 monasteries, a thousand monks and tens of thousands of pilgrims. Lying along the historic Silk Road trading route, it was a meeting point of Indian, Chinese and the Greco-Roman–inspired Gandhara cultures, as well as a place where Buddhism coexisted peacefully with Hinduism and, later, Islam. The statues, categorized stylistically as Indo-Greek, spring from that cultural mingling.
The two standing Buddhas were carved into the cliff walls on the northern side of the valley. Art historians variously describe the smaller statue as a Shakyamuni or Mahayana Buddha, and the larger as a Vairocana Buddha, although some believe they are both representations of the latter. The Hazara know them, respectively, as Shamama, or “king mother,” for the lumps they say used to be breasts, and Salsal. Recent carbon dating of the remains dates the smaller statue to the year 507 and the larger to 554. Roughly carved from stone, the statues’ robes and exterior detail were added by means of rope- and wood beam-supported plaster, creating a rippling effect. The faces, most commonly believed to have been chipped away by iconoclasts, were more likely hewn that way to fit a plaster mask.
Two or three smaller seated Buddhas—none of which remain today—were sculpted into the cliff face between the two standing ones. In the cliff walls surrounding the Buddhas, caves were carved out where followers would come to worship, and over hundreds of years, monks painted colorful murals on the cave walls. There are about 1,000 man-made caves in the Bamiyan Valley, some of which are large sanctuaries and chapels with elaborate reliefs and frescoes, while others are simple monastic cells. In the nearby Karak Valley, a 33-feet-tall Buddha was also destroyed by the Taliban.
When central Afghanistan embraced Islam, through migration and conversion, in the ninth century, the statues remained intact. Although no longer an object of worship, they remained a source of pride for what eventually came to be known as the ethnic Hazara people, Shiite Muslims in a predominantly Sunni region. Over the centuries, attacks on the valley resulted in looting of the monasteries and artifacts, and iconoclasts damaged Buddhist monuments; illegal archeological digs brought about further loss of Afghan treasures and cultural heritage; and general neglect and lack of maintenance—compounded by two decades of war and civil unrest at the end of the 20th century—worsened the state of conservation. Nevertheless, the statues remained largely intact until 2001.
The Taliban first declared it would dynamite the Buddhas in 1997, but rescinded the threat following an appeal by the U.N. secretary general to political and military commanders in Afghanistan to protect the Buddhas. However, the threat re-emerged on Feb. 26, 2001, when Supreme Leader of the Taliban Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered the destruction of all statues in Afghanistan that depicted living forms, which, under the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of the Koran, was forbidden. Mohammed Omar also called the Bamiyan statues “idolatrous” and “the infidel’s gods,” in reference to the Hazara, whom the Sunni Taliban did not consider Muslim.
In response, UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura urged Mohammed Omar to reconsider the decision, obtaining pledges of support from representatives of other Islamic countries, enlisting Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to personally intervene, and sending a delegation of Islamic leaders and law experts to Afghanistan to consult with Omar and other Taliban leaders on their strict interpretation of Koran; U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan held a last-minute meeting with a Taliban official as well. Nevertheless, by March 11, the day after the delegation’s arrival in Afghanistan, Taliban forces had demolished the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
The destruction began with artillery and tank fire, which didn’t do much to harm the statues, so the Taliban reportedly hired al-Qaeda explosives experts to do the job. They forced the Hazara to rappel down the cliffs and jackhammer holes in which to stick the timed explosives. The Taliban was so thorough about its desecration that it destroyed much of the honeycomb of niches and caves surrounding the statues, including the frescoes, of which only about 20 percent remain. When they were done, all that was left was a spray-painted inscription, “The just replaces the unjust.”
Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts
In 2003 the entire Bamiyan area was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and its List of World Heritage in Danger, under the name “Cultural Landscape and Archeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley.” At the time, threats included the imminent collapse of the Buddha niches containing remaining fragments of the statues, further deterioration of what remained of the frescoes, and inaccessibility of parts of the site due to antipersonnel mines.
Today the gigantic niches stand empty, but thanks to Japanese-funded UNESCO preservation work they are no longer threatening to fall down. Sections of murals, as well as whole ones miraculously overlooked because of heavy soot coverage, also stand preserved. Phase two of the safeguarding project will include, among other things, conservation work on Shamama and Salsal. Though it was originally reported that chunks of the statues were carted off to market, conservationists now agree that the missing rock was simply blown to bits. The remainder is covered for now, as the soft stone tends to decay quickly in rain and snow.
Meanwhile, the debate over what to do with the boulder-sized remains of the Buddha figures continues. UNESCO has warned that in order for the site to maintain its protected status, no new building can occur, only conservation. The World Monuments Fund added the site to its 2008 List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, noting, “Afghan officials have expressed interest in reconstructing the Buddha sculptures, thereby restoring the site’s tourism potential. While some believe it may be possible to reassemble the smaller of the two Buddha figures from surviving fragments, hasty reconstruction of both statues could result not only in a loss of authenticity of the site, but also cause further damage.”
One restoration option is a method called anastylosis, whereby the parts are reconstructed with only a minimum of supporting material added where necessary. However, in Afghanistan there is a lack of cranes capable of moving the largest pieces, which weigh up to 90 tons. In addition, restoration experts say that if less than half of the original material remains, the new structure can only be considered a replica, without historical value; although a full survey is not complete, archeologists have estimated that only about 50 percent of the original stone remains. Another problem is that the $50 million estimated for such a task could arguably be used to help the Hazara rebuild after years of war and persecution in a country that still requires food aid. The provincial governor favors anastylosis, but the central government, which is ultimately responsible, has not yet made a decision.
Some preservation experts have proposed another option: do no restoration work and simply leave the Buddhas’ empty niches as a memorial to what once was and a testament to the Taliban’s desecration. An alternative, supported by Bamiyan’s governor, is to restore one Buddha while leaving the other niche empty.
In the meantime, Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata has begun work on a $64 million installation, slated to open in 2012, which will project laser images of Buddhas against the cliff face. Hundreds of windmills will power the project while also supplying electricity to the local population. The project is also expected to provide jobs for some 400 Afghanis.
The great paradox of the statues’ destruction is that it has allowed researchers unprecedented access to new discoveries, such as precise carbon dating of the statues. For archeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi, an Afghani now based in Paris, it has meant reviving a project he has worked on for more than 30 years: uncovering a reclining Buddha said to be almost 1,000 feet long and “decorated with gold and fine jewels,” according to the accounts Xuanzang, a Chinese Buddhist monk who visited the region around 630. Tarzi’s team has been digging since 2004, and has found what he believes is the “Eastern Monastery” described by Xuanzang as housing this statue. In September 2008, the team discovered portions of a 62-foot-long reclining Buddha buried in the sand. The team will return during the 2009 digging season to look for more pieces in the hopes of having at least one statue reconstructed while they continue their quest.
What You Can Do
Consider supporting the Association for the Protection of Afghan Archeology, headed by Zemaryalai Tarzi and his daughter, which promotes understanding and international public awareness of Afghani archaeological and cultural heritage, and of the plight of Afghani people regarding the loss of their heritage.
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Report by: David Curiel
Posted on: May 14, 2009
Updated on: May 14, 2009