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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A short while after my outing with Tarzi, I climbed up some rickety metal scaffolding inside the eastern niche with Bert Praxenthaler, a Munich-based art historian and sculptor from the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a nongovernmental organization that receives UNESCO funding to shore up the niche walls, which were badly damaged by the Taliban blasts. In one of his first visits here some years ago, Praxenthaler recalls, he was rappelling inside the niche when he realized it was about to cave in. "It is just mud and pebbles baked together over millions of years," he said. "It lacks a natural cement, so the stone is rather weak. One slight earthquake would have destroyed everything." Praxenthaler and his team pumped 20 tons of mortar into cracks and fissures in the niche, then drilled dozens of long steel rods into the walls to support it."They are now stable," he said. Pointing to some faint smudges on the rough wall, he added: "You can see traces of the fingers of Buddhist workers, from 1,500 years ago." Praxenthaler's work led him to some serendipitous discoveries, including a tiny fabric bag—"closed with rope and sealed with two stamps"—concealed in a crevice behind the giant Buddha at the time it was constructed. "We still haven't opened it yet," he told me. "We think there is a Buddhist relic inside." (Praxenthaler is organizing a research project that will examine the presumably fragile contents.)

Preservation of the niches—work on the western one is scheduled to begin soon—is the first step, Praxenthaler said, in what many hope will be the reconstitution of the destroyed statues. During the past decade, conservationists, artists and others have floated many proposals, ranging from constructing concrete replicas to leaving the niches empty. Hiro Yamagata, a Japanese artist based in California, suggested that laser images of the Buddhas be projected onto the cliff face—an idea later abandoned as too costly and impractical.

For his part, Praxenthaler supports a method known as anastylosis, which involves combining surviving pieces of the Buddhas with modern materials. "It would be a fragmented Buddha, with gaps and holes, and later, they could fill in the gaps in a suitable way," he said. This approach has gathered strong backing from Governor Sarabi, as well as from archaeologists and art conservators, but it may not be feasible: most of the original Buddhas were pulverized, leaving only a few recognizable fragments. In addition, few Afghan officials think it politically wise, given the Islamic fervor and xenophobic sentiment of much of the country, especially among the Pashtun, to embrace a project celebrating the country's Buddhist past. "Conservation is OK, but at the moment they are critical about what smells like rebuilding the Buddha," Praxenthaler said. Others, including Tarzi, believe the niches should remain empty. New Buddhas, says Nancy Dupree, would turn Bamiyan into "an amusement park, and it would be a desecration to the artists who created the originals. The empty niches have a poignancy all their own." Tarzi agrees. "Leave the two Buddha niches as two pages of history," he told me, "so that future generations will know that at a certain moment, folly triumphed over reason in Afghanistan."

The funding that Tarzi currently gets from the French government allows him and his graduate students to fly from Strasbourg to Bamiyan each July, pay the rent on his house and employ guards and a digging team. He says he has been under no pressure to hasten his search, but the longer the work continues, the greater the likelihood his benefactors will run out of patience. "I've discovered sculptures, I've discovered the stupa, I've discovered the monasteries, I've developed a panorama of Bamiyan civilization from the first century to the arrival of Genghis Khan," he says. "The scientific results have been good."

Tarzi also continues to enjoy support from Afghan officials and many of his peers. "Tarzi is a well-educated, experienced Afghan archaeologist, and we need as many of those as we can get," says Brendan Cassar, the Kabul-based cultural specialist for UNESCO, which declared Bamiyan a World Heritage site in 2003. Nancy Dupree told me that Tarzi "wants to return something to Afghans to bolster their confidence and their belief [in the power of] their heritage. It's more than archaeology for him." But his ultimate goal, she fears, may never be realized. "What he has done is not to be sniffed at, he's found things there, but whether he will find the reclining Buddha, I really doubt."

After seven years of searching, even Tarzi has begun to hedge his bets. "I still have hope," he told me as we walked through irrigated fields of potatoes at the edge of his eastern excavations. "But I'm getting older—and weaker. Another three years, then I'll be finished."

Joshua Hammer reports from his base in Berlin. Photographer Alex Masi travels the world on assignment from London.


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