Searching for Buddha in Afghanistan

An archaeologist insists a third giant statue lies near the cliffs where the Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed in 2001, once stood

A cliff-face cavity is all that remains of one of two sixth-century Buddha sculptures, sublime expressions of Bamiyan's ancient kingdom. (Alex Masi)
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"I visited every square inch of Bamiyan," he told me. It was during this time, he said, that he became convinced, based on Xuanzang's description, of the existence of a third Buddha. The monk mentioned a second monastery, in addition to the Royal Monastery, which is near the western Buddha. Inside it, he wrote, "there is a figure of Buddha lying in a sleeping position, as when he attained Nirvana. The figure is in length about 1,000 feet or so."

In 1978, a coup led by radical Marxists assassinated Afghanistan's first president; Tarzi's search for the sleeping Buddha was put on hold. Believing his life was in danger, Tarzi fled the country. "I left for Paris and became a refugee," he told me. He worked as a waiter in a restaurant in Strasbourg, married twice and had three children—daughters Nadia and Carole, and son David. Tarzi began teaching archaeology and became a full professor at the University of Strasbourg.

Back in Bamiyan, trouble was brewing. After several failed attempts to conquer the province, Taliban forces cut deals with Tajik and Hazara military leaders and marched in unopposed in September 1998. Many Hazara fled just ahead of the occupation. My interpreter, Ali Raza, a 26-year-old Hazara who grew up in the shadow of the eastern Buddha and played among the giant statues as a child, remembers his father calling the family together one afternoon. "He said, 'You must collect your clothes; we have to move as soon as possible, because the Taliban have arrived. If they don't kill us, we will be lucky.'" They gathered their mules and set out on foot, hiking south over snowy mountain passes to neighboring Maidan Wardak province; Raza later fled to Iran. The family didn't return home for five years.

In February 2001, Al Qaeda-supporting Taliban radicals, having won a power struggle with moderates, condemned the Buddhas as "idolatrous" and "un-Islamic" and announced their intention to destroy them. Last-ditch pleas by world leaders to Mullah Omar, the Taliban's reclusive, one-eyed leader, failed. During the next month, the Taliban—with the help of Arab munitions experts—used artillery shells and high explosives to destroy both figures. A Hazara construction worker I'll call Abdul, whom I met outside an unfinished mosque in the hills above Bamiyan, told me that the Taliban had conscripted him and 30 other Hazaras to lay plastic explosives on the ground beneath the larger Buddha's feet. It took three weeks to bring down the statue, Abdul told me. Then "the Taliban celebrated by slaughtering nine cows." Koichiro Matsuura, the head of UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural organization, declared it "abominable to witness the cold and calculated destruction of cultural properties which were the heritage of...the whole of humanity." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell deemed it a "tragedy."

Tarzi was in Strasbourg when he heard the news. "I watched it on television, and I said, 'This is not possible. Lamentable,'" he said.

Over lunch in the house he rents each summer in Bamiyan, he recounted the campaign he waged to return to Afghanistan after U.S. Special Forces and the Northern Alliance drove Osama bin Laden's protectors from power. In 2002, with the help of acquaintances such as the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, Tarzi persuaded the French government to give him funding (it has ranged from the equivalent of $40,000 to $50,000 a year) to search for the third Buddha. He flew to Bamiyan in July of that year and announced to a fiercely territorial warlord who had taken charge of the area that he planned to begin excavations. Tarzi was ordered to leave at once. "There was no real government in place, and I had nothing in writing. [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai wasn't aware of the mission. So I went back to France." The following year, Tarzi returned to Kabul, where Karzai received him warmly and gave a personal guarantee of safe passage.

One morning, I joined Tarzi in a tent beside the excavation site; we walked along a gully where some digging was going on. During his first excavation, in 2003, he told me with a touch of bravado, "The valley was filled with mines, but I wasn't afraid. I said, 'Follow me, and if I explode, you can take a different route.' And I took out a lot of mines myself, before the de-mining teams came here." Tarzi stopped before a second excavation pit and called to one of his diggers, a thin, bearded Hazara man who walked with a slight limp. The man, Tarzi told me, had lost both legs to a mine five years ago. "He was blown up just above where we're standing now, next to the giant Buddha," he added, as I shifted nervously. "We fitted him with prostheses, and he went back to work."

The archaeologist and I climbed into a minibus and drove to a second excavation site, just below the eastern niche where the smaller Buddha stood. He halted before the ruins of a seventh-century stupa, or relic chamber, a heap of clay and conglomerate rock. "This is where we started digging back in 2003, because the stupa was already exposed," Tarzi said. "It corresponded with Xuanzang's description, 'east of the Royal Monastery.' I thought at the beginning that the Buddha would be lying here, underneath the wheat fields. So I dug here, and I found a lot of ceramics, sculptures, but no Buddha."

Tarzi now gazed at the stupa with dismay. The 1,400-year-old ruin was covered with socks, shirts, pants and underwear, laundry laid out to dry by families living in nearby grottoes. "Please take a picture of the laundry drying on top of my stupa," he told one of the five University of Strasbourg graduate students who had joined him for the summer. Tarzi turned toward the cliff face, scanning the rough ground at its base. "If the great Buddha exists," he said, "it's there, at the foot of the great cliffs."

Not everyone is convinced. To be sure, Xuanzang's account is widely accepted. "He was remarkably accurate," says Nancy Dupree, an American expert on Afghan art and culture who has lived in Kabul for five decades. "The fact that he mentioned it means that there must have been something there." Kosaku Maeda, a retired professor of archaeology in Tokyo and one of the world's leading experts on the Bamiyan Valley, agrees that the monk probably did see a Sleeping Buddha. But Maeda believes that the figure, which was likely made of clay, would have crumbled into dust centuries ago. "If you think of a 1,000-foot-long reclining Buddha, then it would require 100 to 130 feet in height," he said. "You should see such a hill. But there is nothing." Kazuya Yamauchi, the Japanese archaeologist, believes Xuanzang's description of the figure's location is ambiguous. He contends it lies in a different part of the valley, Shari-i-Gholghola, or the "City of Screams," where the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan massacred thousands of inhabitants.


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