Countries Divided on Future of Ancient Buddhas

Bamian, Afghanistan — They were the picture-postcard view of a rural and mostly untouched Afghanistan: ancient, towering Buddhas that became a symbol of the Taliban’s religious fanaticism and intolerance.

Now, about 13 years after the Bamian Buddhas were blasted into rubble, the world faces a new quandary: whether to leave the gaping gashes in the cliff where the giant statues once stood, to rebuild the Buddhas from what pieces were left, or to make copies of them. And, as so often happens these days between Afghanistan and its mainly Western supporters, opinion is passionately split.

The major donor countries that would have to finance any restoration say the site should be left as it is, at least for now. The Afghan government wants at least one of the statues rebuilt.

At the heart of the conflict is a potent mix of political ideology, and an evolving theory of restoration policy usually relegated to heady debates among archaeologists. The Afghan government craves the symbolic victory over a still-threatening Taliban that rebuilding would allow it to claim. Many of those funding the restoration fear that rebuilding when so little of the original pieces remain would not be reconstruction at all, and more reproduction than a true accounting of history.

The debate has roiled Unesco and many of its donors, which years ago appointed an Expert Working Group that has been meeting annually for a decade on the fate of the site, and that so far has been able to agree only to preserve the niches where the statues stood and stabilize them against further damage. For the moment, the preservationists have the upper hand; the Bamian Buddhas and other ancient parts of the area have been declared a Unesco World Heritage site, and any modifications to the face of the Bamian cliff would, in practice, have to be approved by the working group.

But their ruling has not gone unchallenged. Last year, German conservators doing stabilization work on the eastern niche quietly began building pillars to support the stone work and protect visitors from potential collapse.

The pillars, however, looked strikingly like giant feet — similar, in fact, to those that Indian conservators built to replace the missing originals in the 1970s. Michael Petzet, an archaeologist who is the president of the German branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which has done much of the conservation work on contract for Unesco, makes no secret of his intent.

“These feet, it was only the idea for the safety of the whole structure,” Professor Petzet said, “and maybe in the future if the Afghan government wants to make a little bit more, they can build upon this.”

When Unesco discovered what was happening, it immediately asked the Afghan government to order the work suspended, a decision seconded during heated debate in last December’s meeting of the Expert Working Group.

“Our priority has been to stabilize iconic elements of the World Heritage site that are unstable,” said Brendan Cassar of Unesco. “To make a good restoration when you haven’t addressed steps 1 to 9 is misplaced.”

The western niche remains in danger of collapse, he said, with rocks and stones falling regularly, partly a legacy of the high explosives the Taliban set to destroy the monuments. Pledges from donors to fund even that basic work have fallen short by at least $700,000, Mr. Cassar said.

“Unesco’s position is that restoration is a case of putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “We need to save all options for future generations.”

Professor Petzet argues that rebuilding the Buddhas would be no different from past efforts to reassemble parts of the Roman Forum — another project criticized by some archaeologists — or repair damaged mosaics after the earthquake in Assisi, Italy. “It’s something human to want to do,” he said. “In France, whole cathedrals were reconstructed in Gothic style after they were blown up by Protestants in the 1600s.”

He said, “I’ve talked with many Afghans, and they do not want that their children and grandchildren are forced by the Taliban to see only ruins.”

People who knew little else about Afghanistan knew that there was something amazing in this high mountain province, where the ancient Silk Road crossed the Hindu Kush, and where a sprawling Buddhist monastic complex flourished in the sixth century.

The monks sculpted cliffs hundreds of feet high, flattening their faces in order to build a network of monastic and ceremonial chambers within, with more than 1,000 of them in the area of the destroyed Buddhas. The larger standing Buddha was 174 feet high — the world’s tallest and taller than the Statue of Liberty. The smaller one still towered at 115 feet.

Connecting the caves and the niches where the Buddhas stood was a network of tunnels, staircases and passageways hollowed out of solid rock, much of which remains intact.

The Taliban were not the first Muslim visitors to savage the monuments; Islam forbids any form of idols, and successive conquerors turned their artillery on the niches. By the 20th century the Buddhas were heavily damaged and both were missing their wooden faces, said to have once had jeweled eyes with huge lanterns burning behind them at night.

During the war against Soviet occupation, mujahedeen commanders obliterated a sitting Buddha in the cliff with heavy artillery and looted many of the caves. Domed ceilings in some caves were desecrated; the fighters built scaffolding that allowed them to leave their muddy footprints on the ceiling, a move highly offensive to Buddhists.

The Taliban, however, brought a more systematic destruction to the approximately 1,500-year-old statues, planting high explosives throughout the niches in 2001, reducing the remaining statues to rubble and leaving the niches and many passageways unstable.

Professor Petzet maintains that his conservators have managed to preserve, identify and catalog as much as 30 percent of the surface of the smaller standing Buddha, enough, he says, to restore it persuasively.

But Unesco says other experts are not so sure of that figure, putting the amount of material recovered at about 10 percent.

“The point is, a very small percentage of the surface remains,” Mr. Cassar said. “Some pieces are the size of a car and some a grain of sand.” In addition, the type of sandstone from which the Buddhas were carved is highly unstable.

“It’s a disaster that can never be put back together,” he said.

Abdul Ahad Abassi, head of monuments for the Afghan culture ministry, said the government formally requested that the smaller Buddha be rebuilt, and Unesco’s World Heritage Committee is studying the issue.

“In 10 years, the Expert Working Group has come to no final decision,” said Muhammad Asir Mubaligh, the Bamian deputy governor. “I know they have achieved some small things, but 10 years? The main problem is there hasn’t been a donor country to say, ‘We will pay for it.’ ”

South Korea recently announced a $5.4 million grant for the site, but it is earmarked to build a museum dedicated to Bamian’s ancient culture and to train Afghan staff. Rival Japanese and Italian proposals call for other museum and conservation projects in Bamian. None of the proposals include money for rebuilding the Buddhas.

“I say rebuild one of them to attract tourists, and one should remain like that to remind people what the Taliban did,” said Abdullah Mahmoodi of the Bamian Tourism Association. “The best way to protect our monuments is to make them valuable again.”