Afghanistan’s Buddhas Can Be Rebuilt. But Should They?

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Ten years ago next month, the world watched in horror as Afghanistan’s Taliban regime blew up one of the ancient world’s most inspiring works of art: two standing Buddha statues, one at 125 feet and the other at 180, that had been carved in a cliff face in the remote Bamiyan valley. Within days the Taliban had all but decimated the remains of a magnificent Buddhist civilization that had for six centuries ruled this strategic valley at the crossroads of Central Asian trade. They rampaged through the caves that honeycomb Bamiyan’s cliffs, smashing thousands of smaller Buddha sculptures. They chiseled intricate frescoes from the walls, and where they weren’t able to tear off the plaster, they gouged out the eyes and hands of those depicted. It was the last gasp of a regime already in decline, a crime perpetrated out of fundamentalist frenzy as much as a taunt to the rest of the world. The Taliban were in effect holding the buddhas hostage. Sanctions, recently imposed following the regime’s refusal to give up Osama bin Laden, had ground the country’s population deeper into poverty. Lashing out, the Taliban went to work, firing at the statues first with RPGs and AK-47s, then stuffing the porous sandstone with sticks of dynamite. They celebrated their crashing success by sacrificing a cow, then turned international outrage into a PR stunt. The West, they said, was more interested in preserving ancient idols than in helping the poor and starving Afghans. Within the year, the Taliban would be (temporarily, it turns out) defeated by the incoming US military in the wake of 9/11. And slowly Afghans started piecing together lives that had been torn apart by more than two decades of nearly continuous war. Now, an international team of researchers think they can piece together one of the Buddhas as well.  But should they? As I wrote in a 2008 story:

In a process called anastylosis, original fragments of damaged statuary can be pieced together with cement or other materials — as has been done at Cambodia’s ancient Angkor Wat temple complex. But if less than half of the original material remains, says restoration experts, the new structure loses its historical value, and should be considered a replica. And being rebuilt as a replica could put the World Heritage Site status of the Bamiyan Buddhas at risk.

The residents of Bamiyan care little about the replica debate. Many think that rebuilding the buddhas will bring back the tourists that were once the mainstay of this remote, and stunning region.  And it is well worth the visit. While Afghanistan is hardly on most holidaymakers’ must-do list, Bamiyan is a tranquil oasis in the middle of war. Even before the Taliban took over, the Buddhas were not the only site luring visitors to the lush green valley. Today, the empty niches where the buddhas once stood have their own austere beauty. And, they speak to a more recent history that should not be forgotten.

The Taliban were not the first to attack the Buddhas, as I wrote:

One of Afghanistan’s early Islamic kings tore through the caves in the 11th century, smashing idols as he went. And at the end of the 19th century the mother of then King Abdul Rahman had cannons fired at the standing Buddhas. Afghan history… is filled with characters who attempt to erase the past. They, too, are part of Afghanistan’s heritage — a heritage that it is his job to preserve. So, Bamiyan’s Buddhas present a conundrum. Brutal though it may have been, the Taliban legacy is an important part of Afghanistan’s recent past. The empty niches of Bamiyan are testament to a ruthlessness that should not be forgotten — rebuilding the Buddhas would be a kind of erasure. “The present condition of the buddhas is in itself an expression of our history,” says [Abdul Ahad Abassy, head of Afghanistan’s Preservation and Restoration of Historical Monuments department] “No matter how good or bad the Taliban were, we cannot tear that page from the book.”

Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata has another solution: a laser light show  that replicates the buddhas using wind and water-powered laser systems that will cast colored images into the empty niches. The project was due to be completed in 2009, and may remain shelved for some time to come, considering the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. And, as my colleague Tim McGirk wrote back in 2002, there may yet be another solution that answers everyone’s needs: a long mythologized third Buddha that lies buried at the base of the cliffs.