Clad in a safari suit, sun hat, hiking boots and leather gloves, Zemaryalai Tarzi leads the way from his tent to a rectangular pit in the Bamiyan Valley of northern Afghanistan. Crenulated sandstone cliffs, honeycombed with man-made grottoes, loom above us. Two giant cavities about a half-mile apart in the rock face mark the sites where two huge sixth-century statues of the Buddha, destroyed a decade ago by the Taliban, stood for 1,500 years. At the base of the cliff lies the inner sanctum of a site Tarzi calls the Royal Monastery, an elaborate complex erected during the third century that contains corridors, esplanades and chambers where sacred objects were stored.
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"We're looking at what used to be a chapel covered with murals," the 71-year-old archaeologist, peering into the pit, tells me. Rulers of the Buddhist kingdom—whose religion had taken root across the region along the Silk Road—made annual pilgrimages here to offer donations to the monks in return for their blessings. Then, in the eighth century, Islam came to the valley, and Buddhism began to wane. "In the third quarter of the ninth century, a Muslim conqueror destroyed everything—including the monastery," Tarzi says. "He gave Bamiyan the coup de grâce, but he couldn't destroy the giant Buddhas." Tarzi gazes toward the two empty niches, the one to the east 144 feet high and the one to the west 213 feet high. "It took the Taliban to do that."
The Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved out of the cliff's malleable rock, long presided over this peaceful valley, protected by its near impregnable position between the Hindu Kush mountains to the north and the Koh-i-Baba range to the south. The monumental figures survived the coming of Islam, the scourge of Muslim conqueror Yaqub ibn Layth Saffari, the invasion and annihilation of virtually the entire Bamiyan population by Mongol warriors led by Genghis Khan in A.D. 1221 and the British-Afghan wars of the 19th century. But they couldn't survive the development of modern weaponry or a fanatical brand of Islam that gained ascendancy in Afghanistan following the war between the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen in the 1980s: almost ten years ago, in March 2001, after being denounced by Taliban fanatics as "false idols," the statues were pulverized with high explosives and rocket fire. It was an act that generated worldwide outrage and endures as a symbol of mindless desecration and religious extremism.
From almost the first moment the Taliban were driven from power at the end of 2001, art historians, conservationists and others have dreamed of restoring the Buddhas. Tarzi, however, has another idea. Somewhere in the shadow of the niches, he believes, lies a third Buddha—a 1,000-foot-long reclining colossus built at roughly the same time as the standing giants. His belief is based on a description written 1,400 years ago by a Chinese monk, Xuanzang, who visited the kingdom for several weeks. Tarzi has spent seven years probing the ground beneath the niches in search of the fabled statue. He has uncovered seven monasteries, fragments of a 62-foot-long reclining Buddha and many pieces of pottery and other Buddhist relics.
But other scholars say the Chinese monk may have mistaken a rock formation for the sculpture or was confused about the Buddha's location. Even if the reclining Buddha once existed, some hypothesize that it crumbled into dust centuries ago. "The Nirvana Buddha"—so called because the sleeping Buddha is depicted as he was about to enter the transcendent state of Nirvana—"remains one of archaeology's greatest mysteries," says Kazuya Yamauchi, an archaeologist with the Japan Center for International Cooperation in Conservation, who has carried out his own search for it. "It is the dream of archaeologists to find it."
Time may be running out. Ever since U.S., coalition and Afghan Northern Alliance forces pushed the Taliban out of Afghanistan, remote Bamiyan—dominated by ethnic Hazaras who defied the Pashtun-dominated Taliban regime and suffered massacres at their hands—has been an oasis of tranquillity. But this past August, insurgents, likely Taliban, ambushed and killed a New Zealand soldier in northern Bamiyan—the first killing of a soldier in the province since the beginning of the war. "If the Taliban grows stronger elsewhere in Afghanistan, they could enter Bamiyan from different directions," says Habiba Sarabi, governor of Bamiyan province and the country's sole female provincial leader. Residents of Bamiyan—as well as archaeologists and conservationists—have lately been voicing the fear that even if new, reconstructed Buddhas rise in the niches, the Taliban would only blow them up again.
To visit Tarzi on his annual seven-week summer dig in Bamiyan, the photographer Alex Masi and I left Kabul at dawn in a Land Cruiser for a 140-mile, eight-hour journey on a dirt road on which an improvised explosive device had struck a U.N. convoy only days before. The first three hours, through Pashtun territory, were the riskiest. We drove without stopping, slumped low in our seats, wary of being recognized as foreigners. After snaking through a fertile river valley hemmed in by jagged granite and basalt peaks, we arrived at a suspension bridge marking the start of Hazara territory. "The security situation is now fine," our driver told us. "You can relax."
At the opening of the Bamiyan Valley, we passed a 19th-century mud fort and an asphalt road, part of a $200 million network under construction by the U.S. government and the Asian Development Bank. Then the valley widened to reveal a scene of breathtaking beauty: golden fields of wheat, interspersed with green plots of potato and bordered by the snowcapped, 18,000-foot peaks of the Hindu Kush and stark sandstone cliffs to the north. Finally we came over a rise and got our first look at the gaping cavities where the giant Buddhas once stood.
The vista was probably not much different from that which greeted Xuanzang, the monk who had left his home in eastern China in A.D. 629 and followed the Silk Road west across the Taklamakan Desert, arriving in Bamiyan several years later. Xuanzang was welcomed into a prosperous Buddhist enclave that had existed for some 500 years. There, cut from the cliffs, stood the greatest of the kingdom's symbols: a 180-foot-tall western Buddha and its smaller 125-foot-tall eastern counterpart—both gilded, decorated with lapis lazuli and surrounded by colorful frescoes depicting the heavens. The statues wore masks of wood and clay that in the moonlight conveyed the impression of glowing eyes, perhaps because they were embedded with rubies. Their bodies were draped in stucco tunics of a style worn by soldiers of Alexander the Great, who had passed through the region on his march to the Khyber Pass almost 1,000 years before. "[Their] golden hues sparkle on every side, and [their] precious ornaments dazzle the eyes by their brightness," wrote Xuanzang.
A member of a branch of Afghanistan's royal family, Tarzi first visited the Buddhas as an archaeology student in 1967. (He would earn a degree from the University of Strasbourg, in France, and become a prominent art historian and archaeologist in Kabul.) During the next decade, he returned to Bamiyan repeatedly to survey restoration work; the masks and some of the stucco garments had eroded away or been looted centuries earlier; the Buddhas were also crumbling.