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Afghanistan: Plans To Remake Giant Buddhas Opposed By UNESCO

Scientists in Switzerland say they have created a detailed computer model of the largest of two giant Buddha statues destroyed in central Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley during the rule of the Taliban. The model would make it possible to rebuild exact replicas of the statues, a controversial idea that has not yet been decided on by the Afghan government or international donors.

Prague, 13 November 2003) -- The project by a team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has been two years in the making.

It required hundreds of thousands of measurements to create a three-dimensional computer image of the largest, 55-meter-high Buddha. The result reflects the condition of the statue before it was dynamited in March 2001 on the orders of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who considered the Buddhas as idols and an insult to Islam.

A smaller Buddha -- which stood a half-kilometer away and was about 38 meters high -- also is being mapped with the same technique. Both Buddhas stood for some 15 centuries in niches carved into a cliff face near the Afghan city of Bamiyan, about 140 kilometers northwest of Kabul.

In an interview with RFE/RL today, Swiss scientist Armin Gruen explained that detailed mapping of the statues was possible because of three high-resolution photographs taken in 1970 by an Austrian scientist.

"[Those photographs were made] by a colleague of mine from Austria at the University of Graz," he said. "He was on a mission at that time in Afghanistan to produce topographical maps. And on his way back to Kabul he took those photographs with a special camera -- we call it a photogrametric camera -- producing large-format glass plates [with high-resolution detail]. This makes it much easier to reconstruct the model and also allows us to do it much more precisely."

Gruen says he hopes Kabul approves of the project and that private financing can be secured to build exact replicas of both Buddhas in their original niches. After visiting the Bamiyan Valley in August, Gruen thinks it is not possible to rebuild the Buddhas using the remaining fragments of the originals.

"There is not enough original material left," he said. "You would need large pieces of leftovers. And those are just not here anymore. Most of it is dust or small gravel. And there are only a few very large pieces left. This is just not sufficient to put it together into a complete model."

Gruen recommends instead that replicas be built at the same location as the originals around a core of concrete -- a method experts estimate would cost around $30 million for each statue. Gruen says funds for such a project should be independent of aid for rebuilding Afghanistan's war-shattered infrastructure.

"I personally would use a kernel of concrete and some plaster on the outside, which can be used in order to model the details of the structure," he said. "This is, by the way, basically also the old technology. Originally the Buddhas were carved out of the rock, but only the core shape. And this was covered by mud and straw -- a mixture which allowed people then to model all the fine detail."

The idea of constructing replicas of the Buddhas at their original location is controversial. UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural agency in Paris, rejects the idea as a "profanation."

Muriel de Pierrebourg, a spokeswoman for UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, says rebuilding the statues in the original niches would be a "double treachery." She says the technique suggested by Gruen has been rejected by the vast majority of specialists. Instead, she says, UNESCO prefers to leave the niches empty as a "memorial to destruction."

UNESCO officials say funds used to rebuild the statues would be better used to develop the Bamiyan Valley as an area of cultural heritage, including a museum. UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage Site earlier this year.

But Gruen believes rebuilding the Buddhas would benefit all of Afghanistan by dramatically boosting tourism:

"The question really is: 'Do you want to help the Afghan people?' And if you want to develop the area -- for instance, touristically and economically -- then it would be appropriate to bring the Buddhas back because, I guess, tourists won't be coming just to look at the empty niche. But they want to have the Buddhas back. They want to see the Buddhas. And this is, of course, a very significant economic factor -- not only for the valley of Bamiyan, but for Afghanistan as a whole."

In any event, Gruen told RFE/RL his team at least plans to build a small-scale version of the largest Buddha:

"We have already made a small model [of the largest Buddha] at a scale of 1 to 200 with a milling machine, [and] we have donated it to some politicians in Afghanistan. Now, what we are doing is to plan a model at a scale of 1 to 10 which will be donated to the National Museum in Kabul. We are just in the planning phase. I would assume it may take something like three months [for the 1 to 10 scale model to be completed]."

He says he is confident he can secure the $10,000 needed to build that small-scale model from contributions from individuals and nongovernmental organizations.