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Latest Archaeological and Cultural News of Iran and the Iranian World


PHOTOS: Searching for Afghanistan's Third Giant Buddha


11 June 2009



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(Click to enlarge)

By: Hannah Bloch

Photograph courtesy Zemaryalai Tarzi


LONDON, (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.

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The 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.


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Archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi uses a brush to clean the face of a fourth-century Buddhist clay head.

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.

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Ancient 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.


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Afghan 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 his country.

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 2001.


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An 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."


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An 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.


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The 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 succeeds.

He's basing his search on a detailed account by a seventh-century Chinese pilgrim who visited the region.



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Bamiyan 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."


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An 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.


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Tarzi's 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."

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Fortification 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.




Extracted From/Source: National Geographic [*]




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