Editor’s Note: Glorious Quests

Impossible dreams and heavenly causes

This is the third consecutive issue in which Newsweek correspondent-turned-monumentally-productive-freelancer Joshua Hammer has contributed a feature article to Smithsonian. In the October issue he wrote about the Mafia in Sicily. Last month it was Russia's cult of the czar. In this issue he writes about one man's determined quest to find a giant reclining Buddha buried in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, where, to the world's horror, the Taliban in 2001 dynamited two giant 1,500-year-old standing statues of the Buddha (see "Searching for Buddha,").

Hammer says archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi "is a passionate, engaging guy with this dream that may be a pipe dream. And in the course of pursuing it, he has peeled though layers of Afghan history."

In addition to profiling Tarzi, Hammer got to know some of the German and Japanese archaeologists and conservationists in Bamiyan who are trying to conserve what's left of the niches in which the Buddhas stood. They are debating whether to rebuild the destroyed statues, a course Hammer fears might well lead to more dynamite. Now that a plan to project laser images onto the empty niches at night has been put on indefinite hold, Hammer says, "just leave them empty as a testament to what happened there."

Ted Gup is a former staff writer for the Washington Post and Time who now chairs the journalism department at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. More important for our purposes, he is the grandson of a long-anonymous benefactor who wrote checks to needy families in his Canton, Ohio, community during the Depression more than 75 Christmases ago. Gup learned of these events only when his mother gave him a battered suitcase containing the canceled checks and the heartbreaking letters that had occasioned them. "The letters were so desperate," says Gup, "that it was just human nature to want to know: Did these people survive? Did times get better for them? What happened to them?"

Gup spent two years answering those questions, using a genealogy Web site, U.S. census reports, death records, city directories, cemetery records, military records and so many interviews that he stopped counting when he reached 500. See his inspiring story "The Gift."

Entries for Smithsonian's 8th annual photo contest are due by December 1, 2010, at 2 p.m. E.S.T. Please visit Smithsonian.com/photocontest for details and to enter.

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