UN, Afghans spar over statues ruined by Taliban

Afghans want to replicate the Bamiyan Buddhas. The UN wants them patched up.

The monumental stone Buddhas of Bamiyan, reduced to rubble by Taliban demolition experts last year, might one day rise again to defy the intolerance that destroyed them.

That is the hope of a UNESCO team of experts due to meet later this month to launch the delicate and controversial task of restoring Afghanistan's best-known historical monument. Enough large pieces of the big Buddha – which stood 175 feet tall in its cliffside niche – remain intact to re-create the statue, says Christian Manhart, a cultural-heritage specialist with the Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

"We'll never be able to rebuild these statues," he admits. "But everything that fell from the big Buddha is still there, and part of it is in recognizable big pieces. Perhaps 50 percent of it is useable."

That is enough for archaeologists and restoration experts to work with, using a method known as "anastylosis" – doing a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle with as much of the original stone as remains and filling in the gaps with modern materials.

It is not enough, however, for many Afghans, who would prefer to see replicas of the statues constructed out of concrete or resin – an idea that Western conservationists are doing their best to discourage.

Overlooking the ancient Silk Road, the massive Buddhas carved in sandstone cliffs had stood for around 1,500 years when the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban authorities ruled that they violated their religious ban on human images and idolatry, and ordered their destruction.

Local Taliban fighters, sentimentally attached to the figures, refused to carry out the command. Eventually, local inhabitants say, foreign demolition experts were brought in to set the explosives. Over three weeks and in three separate attempts, the Buddhas were blown up in March 2001.

At the time, UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura called the willful destruction "a crime against culture" and said it was irreversible. But two UNESCO missions to Bamiyan have decided that perhaps enough can be salvaged – at least from the bigger Buddha – to make a restoration effort worthwhile.

The plan, once spring thaws the high mountain plateau next year, is for archaeologists to hunt through the mountain of rubble at the foot of the bigger niche, and to lay out the identifiable pieces on the ground, so as to re-form the statue lying down. If all goes well, says Mr. Manhart, the job could be done by next October.

The Japanese-funded team will be able to draw on a wealth of studies conducted on the Bud- dhas over the years, from Indian archaeological records to geological research that will help pinpoint which layer of the cliff – and thus the statue – a particular block of sandstone came from.

Especially valuable will be a set of stereoscopic photographic images, made 30 years ago by an Austrian mountaineer, which will enable restorers to take the original monuments' measurements to within half an inch of accuracy.

"We'll put the big pieces together, and see what comes out," says Manhart. The holes will have to be filled with concrete, or some other material easily distinguished from the sandstone original, according to the principles of anastylosis.

That procedure "is quite a usual method in archaeology in many sites – tourists wouldn't see much if it wasn't for anastylosis" says Michael Petzet, head of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which oversees the conservation of historic monuments worldwide.

But the results will undoubtedly disappoint many Afghans, who "only want the figures back as they were before the dynamite," Dr. Petzet says.

"Why deny the Afghans the right to have a copy of their figures in place and to put the originals in a museum?" wonders Paul Bucherer, a Swiss expert on Afghanistan's cultural heritage

The local warlord in the Bamiyan region, Karim Khalili, who is now a vice president of Afghanistan, would rather have replicas of the statues built and installed. At one stage, it appeared as if President Hamid Karzai had commissioned an Afghan sculptor, Amanulah Haiderzad, to construct such replicas. The status of that commission is now unclear.

Other proposals to carve similar statues in similar cliffsides nearby, or to decorate replica statues with the bright golden, blue, and red paint with which they were adorned by Buddhist sculptors 1,500 years ago, have fallen by the wayside.

UNESCO advisers insist that any work on the site must conform to modern archaeological standards, which means no copies, and none of the damage to what is left of the site that would undoubtedly accompany the installation of a replica Buddha.

It is a question of authenticity, says Manhart. "We have to conserve the historical evidence, and the dynamiting of the Buddhas is now part of their history."

"Even before their destruction the Buddhas were already fragmentary," adds Petzet.

"We don't know what the heads looked like because they were destroyed centuries ago, so brand new Bamiyan Buddhas as they would have been in the 5th century cannot be done."

UNESCO officials, who stress that they can only advise the Afghan government, which will decide how to treat the site, believe they have won Kabul over to their thinking. What is clear, says everyone involved with the Buddhas, is the deep attachment Afghans feel for the statues.

"From the former king to common people in the bazaar, they told me that for their moral reconstruction they need the physical reconstruction of those statues," says Mr. Bucherer, who has been visiting Afghanistan for 35 years. "They say we need to get those statues back.

"The Buddhas have a symbolic value," he adds. "Reconstruction would show they had completely got rid of the Al Qaeda and Taliban yoke."

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