Bring Back the Buddha

Archaeologists plot a recovery from the Taliban's cultural vandalism.

By Matthew Power and Katherine KiviatNov 25, 2004 6:00 AM


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After picking my way through a minefield and groping along a narrow tunnel carved by hand perhaps 1,500 years ago, I emerge near the top of the enormous cliff-face alcove. The walls frame a sweeping pastoral of Afghanistan’s buckwheat fields, mud-brick villages, and apple orchards, crowned by the Hindu Kush mountains. What’s missing, of course, is the great Buddha of Bamiyan: It, and a slightly smaller neighboring Buddha, were dynamited by the Taliban, who considered representations of the human form idolatrous and offensive.

Almost immediately after the United States forced the Taliban from power at the end of 2001, archaeologists, art historians, and politicians began debating what to do with the site. Afghan president Hamid Karzai calls the reconstruction of the Buddhas “a cultural imperative.” Others, such as the French-Afghan archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi, say the niches should be left empty to memorialize a dark chapter in the nation’s history. Both sides are busily tapping the tools of science and technology as they formulate their vision of how to honor what was, until recently, one of the finest examples of early Buddhist art.

The enigmatic statues, 125 and 180 feet tall, were hewn directly into the face of a sandstone cliff around the fifth century A.D., possibly by the Buddhist rulers of the Kushan empire. The sculptures were dressed in Greek tunics, reflecting the unique blend of cultures that have shaped Afghan history: Bamiyan lies on a nexus of the Silk Road and served as a key point for the exchange of goods and ideas that flowed across Asia in the first millennium. The cliff face of Bamiyan is carved with more than 800 caves. They were used as temples and monastic residences, centers of Buddhist thought for five centuries. Much of the region remains poorly documented; archaeological efforts here largely ceased with the Soviet invasion of 1979 and are only now resuming.

The people who live in Bamiyan, the tourism capital of Afghanistan before the Soviets arrived, want the statues rebuilt. Last December Armin Gruen, a professor of photogrammetry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, made a small advance in that direction. He and his team digitized photographs of the great Buddha and combined them into a three-dimensional computer model. Gruen then used a software-guided casting technique to create a polyurethane replica of the Buddha 1/200 the size of the original. In the same way, his model could serve as a template for rebuilding.

One type of reconstruction—a Humpty Dumpty project on a vast scale—would bring thousands of tons of rubble back together again. In his office 100 yards from the great Buddha’s niche, Edmund Melzl, a German restoration expert working with the International Committee on Monuments and Sites, is cataloging and preserving fragments from the blast site. He shows me a piece of stucco used to form the intricate folds of the Buddhas’ robes. The plaster is reinforced with straw and sheep’s wool, still intact after 15 centuries. Melzl and his team will soon begin to sort the collection, analyzing the sedimentary profile of the adjacent sandstone—a kind of geologic DNA—to place the fragments back in their original order.

“Right now we don’t even know what’s there, and the engineering problems of reconstruction are immense,” Melzl says. “But we will do it, using all the pieces from the original, even the rocks that have turned to sand.” That would be fantastically tedious, but Melzl believes the reconstruction of the Buddhas is as vital to Afghan national reconciliation as the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche in Dresden was to Germans after World War II.

Less than a mile away from Melzl’s office, near the site of the smaller Buddha, Zemaryalai Tarzi is dealing with the loss in a very different way. The Buddhas’ demolition drew Tarzi, after 23 years of exile, back to the valley where he began his studies 40 years before. His dig is intended to find an even greater relic. The journal of seventh-century Buddhist pilgrim Hiuen-Tsiang describes a third Bamiyan Buddha, in a sleeping position, 1,000 feet long. If Tsiang’s account is correct, the remains of a mud-brick sculpture the size of the Chrysler Building lie buried somewhere under the buckwheat fields.

Tremendous advances in the methods and practices of archaeology since the site became inaccessible in 1979 should help unravel Bamiyan’s mysteries. Tarzi has already found tantalizing clues, including several small sculptured Buddha heads and a wall that might be part of a monastery. According to Tsiang’s journal, a monastery adjoins the sleeping Buddha. “I think perhaps we are near his feet,” Tarzi says.

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