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PHOTOS: Searching for Afghanistan's Third Giant Buddha
Photograph courtesy Zemaryalai Tarzi
(CAIS) -- In Bamiyan, Afghanistan, archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi is unearthing and restoring important reminders--like this fourth-century Buddha head--of a more peaceful past.
When the Taliban blew up two colossal Buddha statues in Bamiyan in 2001, nobody was more aggrieved than Tarzi, who had protected them with steel reinforcements in the 1970s as Afghanistan's Director of Archaeology.
Now he is determined to bring Bamiyan's other ancient riches to light. He returned to begin new excavations in 2002, after 23 years in exile. Tarzi is searching for a third giant Buddha--one that's reclining and is believed to stretch 1,000 feet (300 meters) long underground.
Silk Road traversed central Afghanistan and brought cultural, artistic, and
religious influences to the region from ancient Greece, China, Persia, and
India. More recently constructed mud fortresses, like the one pictured here,
also dot the Bamiyan landscape.
Nearby is Afghanistan's Band-i-Amir national park, the country's first. Could
Afghan tourism flourish someday? "While the political climate is
discouraging now, the results of my excavations are already promising for when
tourism will restart," Tarzi said in spring 2009.
Zemaryalai Tarzi uses a brush to clean the face of a fourth-century Buddhist
Restoration is a vital aspect of his work, which is supported in part by the
National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council. Tarzi and his team of
students, archaeologists, and museum restorers have cleaned and restored
numerous other Buddhist clay sculptures found in Bamiyan.
Tarzi hopes someday these will fill exhibit cases in Afghan museums, which have
suffered from damage and looting.
Bamiyan was an influential hub of Buddhist learning and practice. Monks and
pilgrims traveled there from as far away as China.
Tarzi and his team have unearthed this and various other Buddha heads dating
back more than 1,500 years.
"These objects from the past, and the story of the sites they originate
from, will become a source of inspiration and help the people of Afghanistan to
reconnect with their roots," Tarzi said in spring 2009.
archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi hopes discoveries like this mask of a Buddhist
divinity, dating back more than a thousand years, will help his country
understand its common heritage and heal from three decades of war and
instability. Tarzi went into exile in 1979, the same year Soviet forces invaded
After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, Afghanistan descended into civil war. The
Taliban ruled for five years, until U.S. and Afghan forces defeated them in
ancient Buddhist monastic complex uncovered by archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi
includes these stupas, or places of worship. This is one of several monasteries
he's excavated in Bamiyan. Other finds include gold coins, clay statues, even an
ancient glass-blowing studio.
"We unearth, protect, and restore," Tarzi said. "Afghanistan
today is in a dire crisis. Without having recovered its national identity, it is
essential it must seek teaching from its historical and cultural past."
empty niche (left) remains where a 174-foot (53-meter) Buddha--carved 14
centuries ago into sandstone cliffs and pictured in inset--overlooked
Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley.
In 2001 the Taliban blew it up, along with its 125-foot (38-meter) companion
statue, an act that outraged the world. Buddhist monks once lived in the caves
that pock the cliff face.
Zemaryalai Tarzi is searching for a third giant Buddha, believed to be buried
underground and to extend 1,000 feet (300 meters) reclining.
feet are all that's left of half a dozen standing Buddhist statues in Bamiyan's
Eastern Monastery, excavated by archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi.
In 2008, Tarzi and his team uncovered a 62-foot (19-meter) reclining
Buddha--much smaller than the 1,000-foot (300-meter) Sleeping Buddha he's
determined to find, but still a tantalizing hint of what may await if his quest
He's basing his search on a detailed account by a seventh-century Chinese
pilgrim who visited the region.
was a hub along the ancient Silk Road, and its art synthesizes diverse roots.
This bust unearthed at a Buddhist temple by archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi
reflects ancient Greek influences, said National Geographic's Fredrik
Hiebert, an expert on Afghan antiquities.
Tarzi said his excavations are helping to provide evidence for Bamiyan's key
role "in the exchange process of artistic currents between India, China,
and Central Asia."
ancient Kushano-Sasnian gold coin uncovered in Bamiyan by Tarzi's team in 2007
depicts the fourth-century king Kidara, shown standing.
Tarzi's team found the coin stacked carefully with four other similar, convex
gold coins. Each is roughly one and a quarter inches (3.4 centimeters) in
diameter, a little bigger than a U.S. half-dollar coin.
team excavates Bamiyan's Great Stupa, a Buddhist place of worship, in 2006. His
assistants include local residents, some of whom he's training in basic
excavation and preservation.
"My excavations are part of a scientific program that benefits
everyone," Tarzi said in spring 2009. "The local inhabitants who work
on the site every year otherwise are unemployed. In two months of work they are
able to go through winter and provide for their families."
towers crown a Bamiyan cliffside site surveyed by archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi.
A 29-foot (9-meter) Buddha stood in the now empty niche (center, bottom) before
being destroyed by Taliban.
Here in Bamiyan's Kakrak Valley, Tarzi is surveying a monastery and remnants of
a pre-Islamic town (not shown). As the 2009 field season begins, he looks
forward to uncovering more layers of Bamiyan's rich history.
National Geographic [*]
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies