The Taliban's vandalism of Afghanistan's greatest cultural treasure may be their most permanent legacy
‘Excuse me,’ says a young man in Bamian’s one and only high street, ‘may I practise my English with you?’ Anywhere else in the world, this approach could be brushed aside as a poor attempt at a social interaction, but this is Afghanistan and the young man is in earnest. ‘Our teacher has emphasised that when we see a foreigner we must try to practise our English.’ As I indicate my willingness to linger in the street, he is immediately joined by several others. The impromptu English class turns into a discussion about their life in Bamian, located 140 miles north-west of Kabul in a valley once traversed by Alexander’s armies in the 4th century BC, and devastated by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. In modern times, Bamian was famed as a tourist attraction throughout Afghanistan because of the presence of two gigantic statues of the Buddha, rising to 180ft and 125ft. Dating from the 4th/ 5th century, they had been carved out of the rock face, and stood in niches, adorned with paintings, many of which had survived into the 20th century. Also carved out of the cliff face is an intricate network of caves in which Buddhist monks once passed their austere lives.
After the destruction of the Buddhas in 2001 by the Taliban, discussion amongst the local people revolves around their restoration. Abdullah, the first young man who approached me, and who is a student at Bamian University, wants to see them reconstructed. ‘They are part of our heritage. They will bring the tourists back to Bamian.’ The local inhabitants, who are Hazaras of Shia Islamic faith, are also especially bitter against the Sunni Pashtun Taliban who slaughtered them in their thousands when they took the valley. Abdullah was a young boy and remembered fleeing across the mountains. ‘It was a very sad time. Bamian was so peaceful. When we fled, there was no food, we had to eat grass.’
But the problems of reconstructing the Buddhas are immense, especially in terms of the cost. ‘You can spend billions on reconstructing the Buddhas,’ says Nancy Dupree, author of one of the best books on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, ‘or you can spend those same billions on the people of Afghanistan.’ In 2003 the United Nations designated the Bamian ruins as a World Heritage site, but, if reconstruction (as opposed to preservation) commences, they will lose that status.
And even before discussion on reconstruction can begin, there is a graver danger. The dynamite explosions carried out by the Taliban have destabilised the cliffs out of which the Buddhas were carved. Mines are still believed to be in the vicinity of the large Buddha. Repairs are currently being undertaken on the niche which once housed the smaller Buddha. A German conservation team, under the auspices of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a sub-organisation of UNESCO led by Edmund Mezl, has erected scaffolding – which had to be imported from Germany – to stabilise the niche. ‘Our job is to find all the stones and to make sure that nothing is destroyed,’ says Mezl. While the Afghan government deliberates on the future of the Buddhas, all the fragments are being carefully stored under tarpaulin on the site.
One form of restoration which has been considered acceptable by the United Nations is a process called anastylosis, whereby the original pieces are reassembled and held together by minimal new material . But the pieces which have been salvaged are barely recognisable and the process of hoisting material weighing as much as 90 tons is another challenge for a country which does not possess a crane large enough to lift them. And since Bamian is covered in snow during the winter, they can only work in summer. ‘We must finish our work now by October,’ says Mezl. ‘And then we will start again in the Spring.’
The people of Bamian also recognise that they have other problems facing them. Asif, another student at Bamian University, wants to study literature, especially Shakespeare and Chaucer. ‘But,’ he says, ‘we don’t have any literature books.’ Abdullah is concerned that Bamian is neglected because, unlike other provinces in Afghanistan, it does not have a drug problem. ‘Because we have no opium, it means that the government does not pay attention to us. We are forgotten. We have no doctors, no clinics. Our girls are not educated.’
There is also a feeling that reconstruction of the Buddhas would never make up for their destruction. ‘If you do reconstruct, to what lengths do you go?’ asks Dupree. Before their destruction, the Buddhas had already been extensively damaged over time, with the faces and some limbs missing and all the gold and paint with which they were once adorned gone. ‘So do you put them back as we have known them, half damaged, or do you try to reconstruct them as they once were with all the paint and gold?’ Professor Zemaryalai Tarzi, a French-Afghan archaeologist who is ‘a 100 per cent’ sure that, during excavations he is currently undertaking, he will find a third gigantic reclining Buddha, believes that there is a political reason for not reconstructing the Buddhas. ‘The niches should stand as two empty pages to show to future generations in which year the stupidity of people destroyed the culture of Afghanistan.’