Is there any hope for Afghanistan’s bro­ken Bud­dhas?

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

FOR cen­turies they stood, two mon­u­men­tal an­cient stat­ues of Bud­dha carved into the cliffs of Bamiyan, loved and revered by gen­er­a­tions of Afghans – only to be pul­verised by the Tal­iban in an act of cul­tural geno­cide.

It felt like the loss of fam­ily for many who live and tend their crops nearby. But some 15 years on they are hope­ful th­ese awe-in­spir­ing relics can be re­con­structed.

Ex­perts are di­vided on the value of re­build­ing the arte­facts, with some in­sist­ing it is more im­por­tant to pre­serve the re­mains of the en­tire crum­bling site.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists and re­stor­ers, mostly Afghan, Ger­man, Japanese and French, work­ing in the Bamiyan Val­ley in cen­tral Afghanistan will meet on De­cem­ber 1-3 in Mu­nich, Germany.

There they will try to move for­ward on the is­sue, as much a mat­ter of the con­ser­va­tion of the UNESCO World Her­itage Site as of the mem­o­ries and cul­ture of a bru­talised com­mu­nity.

All Afghans, es­pe­cially the peas­ants tend­ing pota­toes at the front of the cliffs, mourn the loss of the tute­lary sil­hou­ettes – the largest, the Sal­sal, was 56 me­tres high; its fem­i­nine coun­ter­part, the Shamama, 38 me­tres.

They were blasted in April 2001 by the Tal­iban, who had taken con­trol of the prov­ince and killed thousands of Hazara civil­ians, a Shi­ite Mus­lim mi­nor­ity in Bamiyan.

“For us, they were like par­ents,” said Hakim Safa, the 27-year-old rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the Afghan cul­ture min­istry sell­ing tick­ets at the site. “I feel as though I had lost my fam­ily.”

“In the vil­lages lo­cal peo­ple very much want the Bud­dhas to be re­built ... They are al­ways ask­ing us, when will you be ready to be­gin?” says Ras­soul Cho­jai, pro­fes­sor of arche­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Bamiyan.

But the stat­ues were so thor­oughly de­stroyed that it is not even clear if they ever could be re­con­structed.

UNESCO and the ar­chae­ol­o­gists have gath­ered frag­ments, a clut­ter of rocks and stones of var­i­ous sizes. But the bulk of the mon­u­ments has sim­ply van­ished, re­duced to dust.

“The de­struc­tion of the great Bud­dhas is to­tal,” con­firms Julio Ben­dezu-Sarmiento, di­rec­tor of the French Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Del­e­ga­tion in Afghanistan (DAFA) and mem­ber of the com­mit­tee for the preser­va­tion of Bamiyan which will meet in Germany.

The cliff, he says,is “pierced with thousands of dec­o­rated caves, con­nected by stairs, cor­ri­dors, used in the past by monks and her­mits” un­til the slow ar­rival of Is­lam from the 8th to the 11th cen­turies.

It was the Bud­dhist his­tory of the area that the Tal­iban wanted to erase in the name of Is­lam, when they blew the stat­ues up in 2001.

The ex­plo­sions left deep cracks along the niches, which over the years have ex­panded, weath­ered, the rock crum­bling against the el­e­ments.

Greatly weak­ened the cliff threat­ens col­lapse, Julio Ben­dezuSarmiento adds.

“The fo­cus for UNESCO is to pre­serve the re­mains of the stat­ues,” said Ghula Reza Mo­ham­madi, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the UN agency in Bamiyan.

UNESCO has re­in­forced the niche of the Shamama with the help of Japanese fund­ing, and is now work­ing on that of the Sal­sal, en­meshed in gi­ant scaf­fold­ing.

“Since 2001, Ger­man re­searchers have also worked on pro­tect­ing the wall mu­rals – there are more than 4000 caves in Bamiyan and all of them have de­signs and were painted,” says Ghula Reza.

Ger­man re­stor­ers, in favour of re­con­struct­ing the stat­ues, have al­ready re­built the feet of the smaller Bud­dha, nearly 10 me­tres long.

“We have some frag­ments of the orig­i­nal Bud­dhas,” says Bert Prax­en­thaler, a Bavar­ian art his­to­rian who has worked in Bamiyan since 2003.

“It would be a kind of statue with a lot of gaps and holes of course, but this is the first hon­ourable ap­proach to the his­tory,” he ar­gues. “If we have a re­ally good fund­ing, we could do it in a pe­riod of about five years.”

But why bother, won­ders Ben­dezu-Sarmiento. “In his­tory so much has dis­ap­peared yet we have still kept the mem­ory, the Bud­dhas will re­main in the col­lec­tive mem­ory even so,” he says.

“Leav­ing aside nos­tal­gia, the ur­gency is rather to pre­vent it from hap­pen­ing again,” he con­cluded, cit­ing Palmyra, the Greco-Ro­man oa­sis in the Syr­ian desert dev­as­tated in 2015 by the Is­lamic State group.

The de­bate sur­round­ing the Bud­dhas is not only tech­ni­cal, says Masanori Na­gaoka, di­rec­tor of cul­tural her­itage at UNESCO in Kabul, ar­gu­ing that con­sid­er­a­tion must also be given to eth­i­cal, hu­man­i­tar­ian and hu­man rights points of view.

“Stat­ues are not just a phys­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion ... they have mean­ing for peo­ple, to rep­re­sent their his­tory and their di­ver­sity of cul­ture or in depth re­spect for re­li­gious di­a­logue.

“So if the re­con­struc­tion of the Bud­dha stat­ues would con­trib­ute to re­vi­tal­is­ing such mem­o­ries or dig­nity, this has to be [con­sid­ered],” he added, de­scrib­ing a re­build as a po­ten­tial “con­tri­bu­tion to a peace­ful world.”

The de­bate will not be de­cided in Mu­nich, where ex­perts will sim­ply agree on the work to pre­serve the site, or in Abu Dhabi, where Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani will at­tend a separate con­fer­ence on safe­guard­ing cul­tural her­itage this week­end.

But the ques­tion is al­ready on the agenda of an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence on Bamiyan next au­tumn in Tokyo. –

Pho­tos: AFP

Afghan arche­o­log­i­cal guard Hakim Safam stands in front of the re­con­structed foot of the Sal­sal Bud­dha, which was 58 me­tres high be­fore be­ing de­stroyed by the Tal­iban in 2001, in Bamiyan prov­ince.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists and re­stor­ers meet this week­end to dis­cuss restora­tion ef­forts for the for­mer stat­ues, which stood for over 1000 years.

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