The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
LONDON, (CAIS) -- The empty niches that once held Bamiyan's colossal Buddhas and the Sasanian mural, depicting Emperor Shapur II in a feast with Hephthalite king, now gape in the rock face -- a silent cry at the terrible destruction wrought on this fabled valley and its 1,500-year-old treasures, once the largest standing Buddha statues in the world.
In March 2001, when and then the US backed Taliban and their sponsors in al Qaeda were at the zenith of their power in what is today known as Afghanistan, militiamen acting on an edict to take down the "gods of the infidels" laid explosives at the base and the shoulders of the two Buddhas and blew them to pieces. To the outraged outside world, the act encapsulated the horrors of the Saudi breed of Islamic fundamentalist government.
Five years after the Taliban were ousted from power, Bamiyan's Buddhist relics are once again the focus of debate: Is it possible to restore the great Buddhas? And, if so, can the extraordinary investment that would be required be justified in an overwhelmingly Muslim country crippled by poverty and a continued Taliban insurgency?
This valley, where in the sixth century tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to worship at its temples and monasteries and meditate in its rock caves, is attracting new international attention. In 2003, the United Nations designated the Bamiyan ruins a World Heritage site, but also listed them as endangered, because of their fragile condition, vulnerability to looters and pressures from a post-Taliban boom in construction and tourism.
Intensive efforts have been under way to stabilize what remains of the cliff sculptures and Sasanian murals. Archaeologists have been taking advantage of the greatly increased access that became possible once the statues were gone to make new discoveries.
"The history of Bamiyan is beginning to be revealed, in a concrete sense, for the first time through both works of conservation and excavations of archaeological remains," said Kosaku Maeda, a Japanese historian who has studied Bamiyan for more than 40 years.
UNESCO has been overseeing a program of emergency repairs to the niches, drawing teams of archaeologists and conservationists from all over the world. "The site is in danger," said Masanori Nagaoka, a cultural program specialist at UNESCO's Kabul office.
Gedeone Tonoli, a tunnel engineer from Italy, has been overseeing the most urgent task: securing the cracking cliff face.
One morning two Italian mountain climbers swung on ropes at the top of the niche that held the eastern Buddha, which, at an astounding 125 feet tall, was the smaller of the two. Wire netting covered the back wall of the niche, which still occasionally rattles with falling rocks and stones. A great scar marks the inner left wall where the explosion tore away the side of the niche, threatening the whole cliff.
The right side of the niche, however, has been stable for two years, anchored with steel rods and tons of concrete pumped into the fissures. Tiny glass slides are taped to the rock, and sensors linked to a computer keep track of every tremble in the cliff face. Before, Tonoli said, "you could see the sky here and birds were flying in."
At the base of what had been the larger Buddha, workers were still shoveling away at rubble left from the explosions. German restorers from the International Council on Monuments and Sites have spent two years carefully sorting through the debris from both statues, lifting out the largest sections by crane -- some weigh 70, even 90 tons -- and placing them under cover, because the soft stone disintegrates in rain or snow. The smaller fragments and mounds of dust are carefully piled up at the side.
Reports that the Taliban had taken away 40 truckloads of the stone from the statues to sell were not true, said Edmund Melzl, one of the restorers. "From the volume, we think we have everything," he said. Yet only 60 percent of that volume is stone, he said. The rest crumbled to dust in the explosions.
The most exciting find, Melzl said, was a reliquary containing three clay beads, a leaf, clay seals and a parts of a Buddhist text written on bark. The reliquary is thought to have been placed on the chest of the larger Buddha and plastered over at the time of construction.
The fragments have been carefully stored while the main task continues: to gather all the rubble so that the Afghan government and experts can decide what to do with it. There have been calls to rebuild the Buddhas, mostly from Afghans who feel that restored statues would provide a greater tourist attraction, and a righting of wrongs. UNESCO has warned that for Bamiyan to retain its status as a World Heritage site, there must be no new building, only preservation.
Yet the alternative of displaying 200 tons of recovered material in a museum does not seem feasible, said Michael Petzet, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites.
The one restoration approach considered acceptable by UNESCO and other experts is called anastylosis, in which the original pieces are reassembled and held together with a minimum of new material. Michael Urbat, a geologist from the University of Cologne, has analyzed pieces of the larger Buddha and from the rock strata has been able to work out what part of the vast statue they came from.
But reassembling pieces that can weigh up to 90 tons would be extremely difficult; Afghanistan does not even have a crane strong enough to hoist them, Melzl said.
The reconstruction project, which the governor of Bamiyan province has estimated would cost $50 million, would probably also become a political issue in this impoverished country, where more than 10 percent of the population remains in need of food aid.
Nevertheless, Gov. Habiba Sarabi favours rebuilding the Buddhas using anastylosis, and said she would propose that the central government make a formal request to UNESCO. Maeda, the Bamiyan scholar, said he supports the idea of reassembling one of the Buddhas and leaving the other destroyed as a testament to the crime.
The government also approved the proposal of Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata to mount a $64 million sound-and-laser show starting in 2009 that would project Buddha images at Bamiyan, powered by hundreds of windmills that would also supply electricity to surrounding residents.
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