Rebuilding the Bamiyan Buddhas

Today’s slide show: Bamiyan

The former home of the 175-foot Bamiyan Buddha at sunrise

It takes 10 hours by car to travel 90 miles on the nauseatingly bad road to the Bamiyan Valley. The first stretch of the highway is quite smooth—it was built recently to shuttle American troops between Kabul and the massive military base at Bagram—but thereafter it turns into a rutted, cratered nightmare over a mountain pass. Both sides of the road are heavily mined, so I asked the driver not to swerve off the shoulder for oncoming cars. The landscape is stunning: craggy, treeless mountains tower over valleys of mulberry and walnut orchards with crystal-clear rivers. Women in burqas turn away as cars pass, and Hazara children, descendants of Genghis Khan’s armies, hold out bags of fresh apricots and apples to sell to passing tourists.

Yes, tourists. It’s been 25 years of war, and Bamiyan is currently the only semi-functioning travel destination in Afghanistan. A steady trickle of aid workers, archeologists, and tourists travel there to see the massive niches carved into the valley’s cliff face that once held the 1,500-year-old Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in March of 2001. Scattered like mile posts along the road are the rusting hulks of Russian tanks, abandoned in the chaos of the Soviet withdrawal. Locals have made good use of them, and I saw tanks filled with rocks used as bridge anchorages, tank treads spread across the roads as speed bumps, and shell casings used as flower planters. In a stroke of advertising genius, a dozen or so tanks along the roadside were stenciled with a sign for “Afghan Tourism Association, Bamyan Hotel.” Afghan Tourism may be having a rough time now (Afghanistan’s tourism and aviation minister was assassinated in March), but even Lonely Planet is getting in on the game early, releasing its Central Asia guide last month with a section on Afghanistan, including a map of Bamiyan and a call to backpackers to “Get There First.”

As you descend into Bamiyan, the vast, empty, shadowed alcoves stand out in sharp contrast to the sandstone cliffs. Even though I had never been there before, there was an echo of the feeling I have returning home to New York, a twinned absence, a pair of empty seats at the table.

The great stone Buddhas, one 175 feet high, the other 125 feet, had stood watch over the valley since at least the 6th century. They had endured centuries of weather and a series of invaders, from Genghis Khan and the Emperor Aurangzeb to the British and the Soviets. Carved—along with a network of 800 caves, monasteries, and temples—out of the living rock, they were among the finest examples of early Buddhist art to be found anywhere. The statues were represented wearing Hellenic tunics, an echo of Alexander the Great’s contribution to the Central Asian mix almost a millennium earlier.

These very tangible symbols of Afghanistan’s extraordinary cultural diversity and place at the crossroads of history were too much for the Taliban to bear. Even though no Buddhists had lived in the Bamiyan valley since the 10th century, Mullah Mohammed Omar considered the statues to be “idolatrous” and “un-Islamic.” For several days in March of 2001, the Taliban fired away at the statues with anti-aircraft guns and artillery, damaging them but unable to completely obliterate them. They placed anti-tank mines at the bottom of the niches, so that when chunks of rock broke off from artillery fire, they would fall and be blown up again. Finally, amid desperate protests from the international community, from archaeologists and Buddhist and Islamic scholars, they tied ropes around some local Hazara men, lowered them down the cliff face, and forced them to place explosives into holes in the Buddhas. Two Hazara men I spoke to, Shiites who suffered horribly under the Taliban, described the thunderous boom and the cloud of dust that erupted from the alcoves when the Buddhas were destroyed. By any standard, it was a monstrous crime against history and culture, but the Taliban were unapologetic. Mullah Omar was quoted as saying, “What are you complaining about? We are only waging war on stones.”

Surrounded by towering cliffs and peaks, the scale of the statues doesn’t become apparent until you walk up to the empty alcoves. Their huge outlines still appear as ghostly shadows on the cliff face. The larger Buddha was as tall as a 15-story building. Today, behind a chicken-wire fence, are hundreds of tons of fragments. Reports have claimed that carved fragments from Bamiyan have showed up in the international black market. UNESCO, the U.N. organization charged with preserving cultural and historic sites the world over, rather belatedly declared the whole valley a World Heritage Site last year.

Now a fierce debate has cropped up in archeological circles over whether or not to try and rebuild the Buddhas. It is a Humpty Dumpty job of epic proportions, with the once-towering statues now reduced to a pile of crumbled rocks and sand. But Afghanistan’s interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, has called the reconstruction of the Buddhas a “cultural imperative.” A German restoration expert I met at the site compared rebuilding to the reconstruction of Europe after World War II: a crucial aspect of cultural healing.

Dr. Zemaryalai Tarzi, a French-Afghan archeologist conducting a dig near the site of the 125-foot Buddha, spent 23 years in exile and says he became a “militant for Afghan culture” the day the Buddhas were destroyed. Tarzi believes the niches should be left empty as a lasting monument to the darkness that descended on Afghanistan under the Taliban. The World Trade Center memorial planners came to more or less the same conclusion at their own site.

I hired a guide for 160 afghanis, about $3, and followed him up a winding path, the sides of which were scattered with red-painted rocks, to indicate that de-mining had not yet occurred there. I jumped at the sound of machine gun fire, but my guide assured me it was only the New Zealand troops stationed out by the airport having some target practice. I followed him through a dark tunnel in the rock, hand-carved and not much bigger than me, up winding staircases, until we came at last to a ragged hole at the top of the alcove. It used to be an entrance that allowed a viewer to sit on top of the great Buddha’s head, but it now offers a dizzying view down to the rubble pile 180 feet below. Cliff swallows had built a nest above the hole, and they hovered as they brought food to their nestlings. The view, over which the statues had gazed for 1,500 years, was a little-changed pastoral of willow copses, wheat fields, and adobe villages over which the 18,000-foot peaks of the Hindu Kush towered.

I expected to be filled with some sort of sadness at the senseless cruelty of the destruction. The Buddhas had represented the efforts of a long-vanished people to make something that would endure beyond themselves and had been unmade in moments by a group of illiterate vandals with rocket launchers. High up in the empty alcove, I was struck by the absurdity of trying to kill the Buddha with tanks and rocket-propelled grenades, and recalled the Buddhist practice of contemplating emptiness, and realized how utterly the Taliban had been defeated.