Accessibility links

Afghanistan: World Ponders New Life For The Treasures Of Bamiyan

  • Don Hill

The Taliban's destruction of the ancient statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, sparked international outrage. Now, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has opened a fact-finding mission to look into restoring as much of the monuments as possible. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that the story is a complicated mix of archaeology, theology, and international relations.

Prague, 10 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Two colossal statues of Buddha, surrounded by intricate frescoes, stood for almost 2,000 years against a cliff face in the lush, spectacular Bamiyan Valley west of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

In March of 2001, Afghanistan's Islamic Taliban Militia destroyed them with dynamite and shelling because they considered them to be blasphemous idols. The Taliban's fundamentalist interpretation of Islam forbids paintings or artistic depictions of human figures. The Taliban rejected appeals from the United Nations, the 55-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, Buddhists, and individual nations around the world to preserve the monuments.

Now, with the Taliban's grip on the country broken, UNESCO, is considering whether to restore these ancient treasures, and if so, how.

In a telephone interview from London, the personal assistant to the Dalai Lama, Migyur Dorjee, welcomed the initiative. However, Dorjee -- speaking as a Tibetan Buddhist -- said that what has been lost is lost forever: "That can never be replaced. That is something lost forever. And this loss, I personally believe, is not a great loss to the Buddhist world. But [it] is the greatest loss to the Afghans themselves because it is the cultural heritage of Afghanistan's people."

UNESCO's assistant director-general for cultural affairs, Mounir Bouchenaki, says UNESCO has involved itself deeply in the issue of the Bamiyan Buddhas: "This question, of course, is of very great interest for UNESCO because, as you know, UNESCO has been following -- unfortunately -- the disaster of this destruction since the end of February last year [2001]."

At Bouchenaki's initiative, Swiss Afghan scholar Paul Bucherer-Dietschi has been in Bamiyan for the last two weeks examining the remains of the Bamiyan colossi to help determine what remains at the site that could be built upon in any restoration.

Bouchenaki says he has asked Bucherer-Dietschi to enclose the remains in fiberglass to preserve them through the fierce Afghan winter.

Bouchenaki, himself an archaeologist, says the issue of restoring the Buddhas and frescoes is complex -- involving archaeology, theology, and international relations.

"Concerning the reconstruction itself, we want to have first a meeting of experts on the site in order to discuss what kind of reconstruction [should occur]. With which material?" Bouchenaki says. "Is it [desirable] to really reconstruct something there if we don't have all the elements? Because then it would be just a copy and nothing [of the] original. There are a number of questions which have to be addressed."

The Taliban, in defying international appeals and destroying the Buddhist monuments, had said that Islamic law justified and required the action. Bouchenaki says that was one of the first issues that UNESCO addressed. He says he and UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura conferred in December with the culture ministers of Islamic nations meeting in Qatar and joined in a unanimous statement condemning such destruction under the mantle of Islamic principles.

The creators of the Bamiyan colossi are lost to antiquity. They sculpted the two huge masterpieces -- 50 and 35 meters high -- out of a sandstone cliff face. They carved the Buddhas with the traditional features of most Buddhas of the Asian subcontinent but draped them in Greek robes -- fusing traditional art from the subcontinent with Hellenic traditions, no doubt imported into Afghanistan along with the armies of Alexander the Great.

Over the centuries, the giant Buddhas survived Ghenghis Khan's Mongol hordes, Islamic iconoclasts, and the severe weather. They were among the Wonders of the Ancient World and a famous stopping point along the Silk Road trading route between Europe and the Orient.

Then came the Taliban and their strict interpretation of Islam.

A U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition, allied with Afghan anti-Taliban forces after the September terror attacks on the United States, now has driven the Taliban from power. An interim Afghan government has taken over in Kabul.

Interim Information and Culture Minister Raheen Makhdoom said in December in an interview with Reuters that several countries have expressed interest in contributing to the restoration of the Buddhas. He said his government wants to start the work as soon as possible.

UNESCO's Bouchenaki told our correspondent that Director-General Matsuura will travel to Kabul in the coming days and will likely visit the Bamiyan site.

Bouchenaki also said that UNESCO may recommend that the ruins of the Kabul Museum of Afghan Heritage, looted and destroyed during the Taliban's rule, be left untouched. He said that instead of restoring the museum, UNESCO may propose building a replacement museum on another site and leaving the ruins as a monument to Taliban depredations.