Afghan archaeologist won't let sleeping Buddhas lie

Zemaryalai Tarzi could barely bring himself to look at the ravaged cliff face where two ancient Buddhas towered until the Taleban infamously blasted them to bits.

"For me, everything there is over," Mr Tarzi, an archaeologist, said, pointing towards the heap of peach-coloured dust and chunks of rock that used to be one of the massive statues. "It hurts my heart to go there and see what has been lost."

But the bespectacled scientist, who began his career in this sleepy valley in Afghanistan’s central highlands more than 35 years ago, refused to let the destruction get the better of him.

He turned his back on the cliff, stuck his trowel in the earth, and continued his hunt for a magnificent relic perhaps five times as large as the ones that incurred the Taleban’s wrath: the long-lost sleeping Buddha of Bamian.

"We are digging to find the greatest statue in the world," he said.

It’s hard to believe that the huge sculpture ever went missing. According to the writings of a Chinese pilgrim who reported seeing the reclining Buddha in the year 629AD, it stretched for 1,000ft.

Today, the pilgrim’s brief, 1,375-year-old account remains the most detailed description of the sleeping Buddha. Probably constructed in the late 6th century, the statue has not been seen for hundreds of years. And even experts who believe the sculpture exists doubt it is - or was - more than three football pitches long.

Should Mr Tarzi succeed in locating it, the discovery would mean more than uncovering the largest known statue of Buddha. It could be a psychic balm and a financial boon for Afghanistan, easing a collective guilt over the Taleban’s destructive acts and reviving Bamian’s fortunes as the tourism capital of the nation.

Already, the town of about 40,000 has started picking up the pieces of its pulverised history and economy.

Backpackers are trickling back to the grimy inns behind the new bazaar, built to replace the one razed by the Taleban. Foreign travellers are reserving £30-a-night yurts at the reopened state-run tourist hotel.

Japanese specialists have surveyed the area’s famed cave artwork and are building an archeology research centre. German experts will catalogue the massive chunks of the smashed Buddhas as debate continues over whether and how to rebuild them. And ground will soon be broken on a museum.

But it is Mr Tarzi’s mission that has sparked perhaps the highest expectations. "If the reclining Buddha is found, Bamian will have its value again," said Najaf Ali Ashana, general manager of the government-run Bamian Hotel.

The quest for the reclining Buddha is unfolding in nine pits a few hundred yards east of where the smaller of the two cliff statues stood. Seventy local men, paid about £1.70 a day, are busy shovelling dirt into wheelbarrows, digging with hand tools and picking away at promising areas with brushes and small instruments that look borrowed from a dentist’s office.

The excavation here began last summer and yielded several finds, the most significant being seven unbaked clay heads of Buddhist divinities, each about the size of a small melon.

Mr Tarzi believes that discovery confirms that he has found the so-called Eastern Monastery where the pilgrim Xuanzang reported seeing the reclining Buddha.

The team has also found what seem to be several thick retaining walls. Though these could be for the monastery, Mr Tarzi believes it is more likely that they belong to a huge covering that once shielded the sleeping Buddha.

"If you want to construct a wall that would support a massive structure, you would have to build it in this way," said Mr Tarzi, calculating that if the statue was in fact 1,000ft long, the length of a 100-storey building on its side, its dimensions would necessitate a covering at least 30ft high.

Other large statues of Buddha in the parinirvana pose exist in Thailand, Sri Lanka and other countries, though none come close to 1,000ft.

Smaller ones have been found elsewhere in Afghanistan. The posture depicts Buddha at age 80, reclining on his deathbed on his right side with his head pointing north, and entering into a state of final transcendence.

Should a reclining Buddha be found in Bamian, it is likely to be in extremely poor condition.

Even the standing Buddhas, which were protected from the elements by their niches in the cliff, were severely weathered. A reclining Buddha, which could have been made of clay bricks rather than a base of solid rock, would have been even more exposed to the elements once any protective covering was destroyed.

"It is likely to be extremely eroded,’’ said Edmund Melzl, a German restorer working on conserving the pieces of the standing Buddhas. "Or people could have stolen the bricks and used them to build their houses."

Mr Tarzi harbours no illusions that he will unearth a gleaming gold giant. "It will be very degraded if we find it," he said. "All I hope to find is perhaps the folds of garments, or other small parts. The extremities are almost certainly gone."

Regardless of the sculpture’s condition, just searching for it is an opportunity Mr Tarzi, 65, never thought he would have.

After working throughout much of the 1970s as Afghanistan’s director of archeology and conservation of historical monuments, he fled to France when the Soviets invaded his country in 1979. Ten years of occupation led into another decade of factional fighting and Taleban rule. Mr Tarzi became a French citizen and professor at the Marc Bloch University in Strasbourg.

"I turned the page on Afghanistan and never believed I would return," said Mr Tarzi, whose work has been funded by the French government for the last two years; National Geographic magazine is also contributing.

The Taleban period was perhaps the hardest on the archeologist. Many objects he had unearthed, particularly at Hadda near Jalalabad, were destroyed by the regime. The hard-line rulers ordered the smashing of all pre-Islamic relics, including Greek statues and figures of ancient royalty, on the grounds that such items were idolatrous.

"I suffered a lot after the destruction of the Buddhas and other monuments by the Taleban. When an archaeologist finds an object, it’s like having a child. We do everything we can to restore it, to preserve it, like a mother would do for a child. It’s a very special relationship.

"For me, it was like having 1,000 children. But they killed my children. Now, I’m trying not to be too attached here."

Given its humble nature today, it is hard to believe the Bamian valley was once home to opulent monuments. These days, it is dotted with mud-brick homes and covered in a patchwork quilt of potato and grain fields.

It is a quiet place, where muddy water trickles through narrow irrigation canals and breezes skirt spindly trees, interrupted only by the occasional distant honking of a mule.

But in the 7th and 8th centuries, the town was a thriving crossroads for travellers voyaging along Silk Road routes between Rome, China and India. Its rise as a major centre of Buddhism began perhaps as early as the 2nd century and lasted 700 years, until the arrival of Islam.

The experts who doubt that Bamian’s reclining Buddha could have been 1,000ft note that Xuanzang’s original text has never been found. Some suggest that an extra zero might have been added to his description of the Buddha’s dimensions as the document was copied and recopied and passed down through the centuries.

"I think 1,000ft is not plausible, unless this was some kind of natural formation that was then turned into or regarded as a Buddha," said Deborah Klimburg-Salter, an art history professor at the University of Vienna who has written extensively about Bamian. "If it was 1,000ft, then it certainly wasn’t in a building."

Xuanzang’s other observations, however, have proved most accurate. He recorded the height of Bamian’s larger standing Buddha as 140-150ft; it was 180. And his description of a reclining Buddha at Kushinagar, India, led Sir Alexander Cunningham to uncover the 18ft-long statue in 1876.

Mr Tarzi insists that a vast sleeping Buddha is not out of the question. He notes that in other Buddhist centres where standing and reclining Buddhas have been found, the sleeping statues are always larger than the standing ones, and a mathematical formula dictates the various dimensions.

How, then, could such a large object go missing?

Mr Klimburg-Salter says it is possible the long-lost Buddha could be entombed in rubble from the numerous earthquakes that have rattled Afghanistan over the centuries. She notes that large chunks of the cliffs that housed the standing Buddhas have fallen, creating a layer of debris several yards thick. If the reclining Buddha was along the base of the cliff, it might simply be buried.

So Mr Tarzi, four French graduate students and dozens of other men in the pits toil on optimistically.

Mr Tarzi is now wrapping up his work in Bamian for the year, since his students are returning to school and snows are expected as early as October. He does not yet know if his funding will be renewed, but he is determined to return next year to continue his search.

"I do not want to dig just to wash away the shame of the Taleban," he said. "I am doing this for the people of Bamian, and because I love what I am doing. Bamian is part of my country, and when I die, part of me will be here."