The Destruction of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Statues
Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddha Complex Receives the Breath of Life
(By; Robert J. Galbraith, in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, October 2005)
Four years after the ruination of Afghanistan’s greatest national treasure, the fabulous Buddha complex at Bamiyan, the site is being reborn amidst great expectations of a coming wave of tourism that will arrive after the war.
The destruction of the two gigantic Buddhas, by the country’s former fundamentalist Taliban regime, was broadcast into the homes of an international television audience in 2001. The sight of the Buddhas being blown to bits ignited worldwide condemnation.
Buddhist monks in the 6th century A.D chiseled the statues into the imposing sandstone cliffs of the breathtaking and agriculturally rich Bamiyan Valley. Situated at the foot of the ancient Silk Road, that once linked Europe and Central Asia, this UNESCO World Heritage Site of Buddha reliefs, caves, grottos and cave murals, is undergoing a damage inventory by conservation specialists and geologists; while the war grinds on.
“The first step is to explore the site and take an inventory of the damage,” explained site conservation specialist, Ernst Blochinger. “Then it is in the hands of UNESCO, who will decide what to do with it. But my job is to safeguard the remains and record the material, and to put aside the non-descript stones and boulders left over from the Buddhas,” said the ICOMOS-funded (the International Council On Monuments And Sites) specialist. “I put pieces with any carving on them into a separate, covered storage area, built specifically for the purpose of preservation. Much of the stone is very weak, with sand and siltstone layers in between,” he explained, “it crumbles easily.”
Most of the previous documentation of the site (primarily in the files of the Afghan State Conservation Office) were lost, stolen, or destroyed by the Taliban, leaving the current ongoing database as a crucial link for all future conservation work. (During the Taliban regime’s short rule, the National Museum in Kabul lost approximately 2,750 works of art).
Adding to the challenge faced by the conservationists and local workers, who clear away the cliffside debris left by the shelling, is the presence of unexploded ordinance, mainly mines and artillery shells.
“We found some mines in the rubble just two days ago,” explained Nazir Moudabbir, Director of the monument. “There are different kinds of mines being uncovered, like anti-tank mines, live bombs and anti-personnel mines.”
He said that, “before the Taliban destroyed them, there were no organized tours – people just showed up and looked at the sites on their own. But people didn’t only come to look at the Buddhas; there are cave paintings and different architecture. All the caves have paintings, murals, and most were destroyed,” said Moudabbir.
Some of the local people still live in the mural-covered caves, using them as a home, as they have for over a millenium. Because they burn firewood to cook their food and warm the caves, a thick layer of soot covers most of the remaining murals, another challenge-in-waiting for the preservationists.
Blochinger says that with the assistance of a geologist, they have been able to put the jigsaw puzzle of broken fragments into relative order. “Two weeks ago, a geologist measured and analyzed the stone. He can tell what level different types of stones came from, and where they fit together.”
Arriving at the base of the site, one sees ravens gracing the azure-blue skies above the cliffs, like great-winged sentinels, while local workers clear away the smaller chunks of debris with shovels below the statues. They sift through each shovel-full, looking for remains of mud and plaster. Pieces showing any carving, mud or plaster, are put aside (in the dry storage area). Boulder-sized chunks are moved to the storage area (safe from inclement weather which could further erode the stone) with a forklift or a 30-ton crane. These fragments and boulders are documented, describing size, find location, surface condition and signs of carving and physical characteristics.
“The Buddhas were carved out of the cliff face, then covered with two layers of mud, then painted,” says Blochinger. “Mud, animal hair and straw were mixed together to form the first mud coating. Then a second layer of finer mud was added over this. Then they were painted yellow, red ochre and blue.”
Helping to put a fairly precise date on the original construction of the Buddhas is done with the use of Carbon 14 dating, tested on some of the organic material discovered at the site.
Numerous holes (the size of a medium-sized carrot) were drilled or dug by the builders into the rock façade of the rough-carved Buddhas. Once this was done, they drove wooden plugs into the holes. Then a twisted rope was strung from plug to plug. The first layer of mud was smeared over the rope and plugs, which helped to stabilize and hold the mud onto the rock face. “The wooden plugs and rope were preserved so well because of low humidity,” said Blochinger. “Due to the Carbon 14 dating of the plugs and rope strands, we were able to determine that the smaller Buddha (38metres, or 125 feet tall) was build 1400 years ago, the second larger Buddha (55metres, or 180 feet tall), was carved approximately 40 years after.”
While it may have taken decades to carve out the Buddhas, it took only 2 weeks for the Taliban to destroy them, using anti-aircraft guns, dynamite and artillery shells.
Taliban commander, Abdul Haidi, the man who oversaw the destruction of the statues, told reporters in 2001, that, “first we destroyed the small statue. It was a woman. Then we blew up her husband, the big statue. We used explosive materials to blow them up.”
Afterwards, Taliban dignitaries were flown to the site for a period of festivities and celebrations, extolling the destruction of the statues. But what the Taliban failed to realize was that the Aghani people did not regard the Buddhas as religious artifacts, but rather as one of many historic monuments of their rich and diverse past – though considered the most impressive. And, it was soon exposed that it was the Pakistan Taliban that infiltrated Afghanistan to destroy the site, to demoralize the nation.
The honeycombed cave complexes dug into the cliffs once housed hundreds, if not thousands of Buddhist monks, who would gather after great pilgrimages, to see the colossal statues and meditate below them. The monks, who came from as far away as China and India, vanished when the Muslim culture swept the region around the 7th century.
As recently as 2002, countries such as Japan, Germany and China contributed funds to undertake surveys, aimed at the preservation and study of the site. These plans also include proposals to rebuild the statues by incorporating the remaining salvaged fragments with new sculpted pieces, to replace those that were pulverized. Another submission is to cast laser-beam images of the former reliefs upon the empty niches where the statues once stood.
But site director Nazir Moudabbir does not agree with the idea of rebuilding the statues. “It is not a good idea to reconstruct the statues. This destruction is also part of our history, and recent as it may be, they should not be rebuilt,” he explained emphatically. “It’s part of the story of the Taliban, and when in the future people visit, we will tell them the story of the Buddhas and how the Taliban destroyed them, destroyed our history. If they are reconstructed, it will not be historical, it will not be real.” A committee of UNESCO and Afghan representatives will make the final decision once the inventory is complete.
Moudabbir hopes that “the site will be saved and the tourists and their money will help the local people and their future. (Bamiyan’s present population is 10,000 people). When people visit, we will take the best parts of their foreign cultures and not use the bad side of these cultures.”
Local Bamiyan resident, and Parliamentary Election candidate, Nabid-Tanfan is a little pessimistic of the activities and decisions that are being made concerning the site. “I am concerned if they (the archaeologists and other internationals) are coming for the benefit of the local people, or for themselves. They should also be preserving our Muslim heritage in Bamiyan. The village of ruins that you see just outside the area of the statues is the site of an ancient Muslim bazaar (a marketplace).”
But Nazir Moudabbir does not think in terms of local jurisdiction in matters concerning the final decision that will soon be made for the future of the site and its shattered Buddhas and blackened caves. “This site doesn’t belong to Afghanistan, it belongs to the whole world!”
Footnote-the two journalists, doctor and driver risked life and limb to drive across some of the most hostile topography in the world, for their love of heritage. This was the only time that the journalists, during their time in Afghanistan, carried firearms because of that risk. This is also the first time that Galbraith would disclose this fact, after leaving Afghanistan. The route from Kabul to Bamiyan was no Disneyland.