Antiquities and Archaeology Conservation News Afghanistan

Unesco stops unauthorised reconstruction of Bamiyan Buddhas

Organisation says actions of German archaeologists who have partially rebuilt one of the statues “border on the criminal”

German archaeologists have rebuilt the lower appendages of the smaller statue

The international community has reacted furiously to news that a German-led team of archaeologists has been reconstructing the feet and legs of the smaller of the two Bamiyan Buddhas, the monumental Afghan sculptures blown up by the Taliban in 2001. News of this reconstruction, which has taken place without Unesco’s knowledge or permission, was revealed during the 12th meeting of Unesco’s Bamiyan working group, in Orvieto, Italy, in December.

A team of archaeologists from the German branch of Icomos (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), led by Michael Petzet, who himself served as the head of Icomos from 1999 to 2008, spent most of last year rebuilding the smaller Buddha’s lower appendages with iron rods, reinforced concrete and bricks, an operation that Francesco Bandarin, Unesco’s assistant director-general for culture, describes as “wrong on every level”. He says: “Unesco has nothing to do with this project. It was undertaken without the consent of the Afghan government and has now been stopped.”

Andrea Bruno, the architectural consultant to Unesco for the past 40 years, confirms that the work was carried out “against Unesco’s decision [taken in 2011] not to rebuild the Buddhas” and says the organisation was never made aware that the project was going ahead. Bruno says the work has caused “irreversible damage, bordering on the criminal”. He adds that the work had not yet started when he visited Afghanistan last March.

Petzet told The Art Newspaper that he and his team “just wanted to preserve what can be preserved”. He says: “Everything we have done was discussed with the Afghan authorities: this [project] is nothing new.” However, Bandarin says that the Afghan minister of culture was not aware of the work when Bandarin asked him to put a stop to it.

Petzet says that his team’s funding was originally provided by Unesco. Bandarin has confirmed that Unesco “has a contract with Icomos Germany to build a platform [where the smaller Buddha once stood] to protect visitors from falling rocks”, but reiterates that the reconstruction work was not part of the deal and that Unesco wants to dismantle the results.

The question is: how did Petzet’s team manage to carry out such extensive work without anyone noticing? “Things like this can happen in such a remote Afghan province,” Bandarin says, “especially since they have worked there for years before this.” Icomos, which was founded in 1965 and works to conserve and protect heritage sites around the world, advises Unesco on World Heritage Sites, but Unesco remains in charge of their management, conservation and restoration. Experts at Unesco asked the central Icomos office to file a report to the Afghan authorities by the beginning of this month, and an additional report on the matter is due to be presented to the World Heritage Committee in June.

The Buddhas once stood along the ancient Silk Route in the remote Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, around 250km west of Kabul. The sculptures—53m and 35m tall—were carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley in the sixth century, at the height of the Kushan empire and before the Islamic invasion of the late seventh century. Several attempts were made to destroy the statues during centuries of Islamic rule, until the Taliban brought them down with anti-aircraft guns, artillery and dynamite.

When less is more

The future of the site was formally decided at a Unesco meeting in Tokyo in 2011. The organisation reviewed numerous plans for the site’s conservation or restoration, ranging from laser projections of the Buddhas onto the cliff face to Michael Petzet’s proposal to reassemble the surviving fragments of the smaller Buddha in its niche using metal frames. But the final decision was to leave the niches empty. Andrea Bruno told The Art Newspaper in May 2012 that “the void is the true sculpture” and that the Buddhas would be best remembered through their absence. Rebuilding them could also cause offence to the country’s Muslims, because Islam forbids religious images.

Nevertheless, their destruction was a disaster for the local population of Shia Muslims, who have been persecuted by the Taliban, because it deprived them of what little income they had from foreign visitors. A Unesco-led project aims to encourage visitors in the future with a series of initiatives.

The future of the Afghan sculptures

Unesco has asked Andrea Bruno’s architecture studio in Turin to supervise four projects:

• The largest initiative is a cultural centre and museum devoted to the area’s rich Buddhist and Muslim history. This “goes beyond the missing Buddhas”, says Andrea Bruno (below). The building, inspired by the traditional Afghan “fortress-house”, will sit on a plateau that faces the cliff into which the statues were hewn. South Korea has said that it will foot the $5.4m bill. The building is expected to be finished in October 2016, if conditions on the ground permit.

• A concealed underground viewing chamber will be built at the foot of the larger Buddha. A small replica of the statue will stand at the end of the chamber and visitors will be able to see the empty niche through an opening in the ceiling. “This construction will be discreet and unobtrusive,” says Bruno, who adds that it can be built with just a fraction of the South Korean funds.

• A bazaar is being planned along the remains of the ancient Silk Route, on the esplanade that lies between the cliff face and the plateau where the museum will stand.

• Three interconnected caves in the nearby ancient site of Shahr-i Ghulghulah, a 13th-century city in the Bamiyan valley that was conquered by Genghis Khan, are to be restored with a $1m grant from the Italian government. Bruno hopes they can be used to host temporary exhibitions and other cultural events.

The proposed cultural centre, designed by Andrea Bruno and to be funded by South Korea, will look towards the Buddhas from across the valley
More from The Art Newspaper


19 Jan 15
16:19 CET


As a muslim I say rebuild them ..the Taliban are an abomination and it's time to reclaim the sanity of my religion and not pander to the idiots Art music science flourished under Islam and the ottomans as it will again flourish once the west stop pandering to wahhabi idiots

13 Jan 15
16:59 CET


Any updates on Cultural Center and Museum building? Is it already under construction or it was just a proposal itself? Thank you!

14 Feb 14
1:50 CET


I agree wholeheartedly with Alexander Shechtman's comment, that one argument to not rebuild/ restore/ reconstruct the monumental sculptures is to not offend the Muslim community. The sculpures, from my recolection, were World Heritage monuments, as they were deemed so very important/unique/special, because they combined many different 'religious styles'. The act of the Taliban to destroy them was a demonstration that they do not value the need for preservation and protection of internationally agreed ethics. That no one (ICOMOS and UNESCO) seems to have been aware of this work being undertaken also highlights that there are serious issues in the communication, debate and management of such sites which I assumed would be at the heart of these organisations. Instead of blaming and accusing the German team, I hope that UNESCO, ICOMOS are finding the time, space and resources to debate the future intervention, preservation of this site as the antidote to the bullying of terrorists.

12 Feb 14
17:33 CET


For further information please find the report of ICOMOS Germany on the reinforcement measures in the lower gallery of the Eastern Buddha niche, including plans and photo documentation at: "ICOMOS Germany wishes to emphasise that the measures carried out in safeguarding and stabilising the fragments of the Eastern Buddha niche have been done in agreement with the Afghan authorities and representatives of UNESCO."

12 Feb 14
17:33 CET


It is my understanding that reconstruction may be one means of, that may be acceptable in some communities, of intervention to a cultural property. The reasons for such intervention need to be critically assessed and evaluated before judgement. not known to me. Indeed, reconstruction is in ICOMOS vocabulary because it has a room in icomos daily activities. Venice charter does not rule out completely reconstruction. I agree with Marilyn that, icomos instead of cursing such intervention should take it as a challenge. Kasubi tombs are being reconstructed after it was completely destroyed by fire. Let us accept such challenge and see hat can be done on such incidences. It is my humble opinion that any intervantion will most of times have an impact on our properties. We are only safe by doing nothing, something i also personally oppose.

11 Feb 14
21:23 CET


Listening to the other side, as Stefan Simon demands, would be a wonderful thing – if the other side would say something. Another sentence of Roman law says: qui tacet consentire videtur – silence means consent. Members of ICOMOS Germany are still waiting for their president's comments in this matter.

10 Feb 14
20:47 CET


Audiatur et altera pars - this principle of Roman jurisdiction comes to my mind while reading such an obviously biased and flawed article which reveals an unprofessional attitude on indeed, all levels.

10 Feb 14
16:34 CET


The action of the ICOMOS German National Committee at Bamiyan is scandalous and potentially very harmful to the image of ICOMOS within UNESCO, and in particular the World Heritage Committee. I would therefore strongly urge the ICOMOS Executive Committee to consider the status of the German National Committee, together with that of ex-President Petzet.

8 Feb 14
17:20 CET


This awful intervantion is entirely unacceptable to the majority of ICOMOS members, we are shocked. I have not yet spoken to Professor Petzet and therefore cannot judge what happened here, but ICOMOS will certainly investigate and deeply discuss the whole question of reconstruction as a result of this incredible activity.

8 Feb 14
17:21 CET


I very much agree with Christina Cameron's suggestion that the matter of reconstruction be looked at more closely by ICOMOS. As we know in certain situations and cultures reconstruction may be the right way to go, for example, certain intangible associations and meanings may only be sustained that way. This may not be the case for the Bamian Buddhas, but may be appropriate at other times. In this 20th anniversary of the Nara document on authenticity, revisiting that thinking and other issues related to reconstruction are timely.

8 Feb 14
17:22 CET


I find the idea of the cultural centre and the museum no less appropriate than the reconstruction. "Rebuilding them could also cause offence to the country’s Muslims, because Islam forbids religious images" - how hypocritical! Let us accept the fact that the sculptures were destroyed by fanatics and leave this site as it is. I wonder how many tourists will visit the place like Bamian in order to see the empty niches and to contemplate.

7 Feb 14
16:32 CET


Mr. Petzet's unacceptable undertaking shows a lack of respect for UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee's decision not to reconstruct the Buddhas. It does however present a challenge to ICOMOS from a doctrinal perspective. Other reconstructions at World Heritage Sitesm such as the monastary at Rila (Bulgaria) and the bridge at Mostar (Bosnia-Herzegovina) have been supported by this same organisation. It would be helpful to heritage conservation professionals around the world if ICOMOS international could further study and clarify its doctrinal position.

7 Feb 14
16:31 CET


A thorough rebuttal from German icomos and site staff is required here, as well as local partners

6 Feb 14
22:2 CET

DR JONATHAN KEMP, LONDON Their 'reconstruction' is so so terrible on so many levels!!

6 Feb 14
20:43 CET


As President of ICOMOS, I want to assure the readership and the general public that the actions taken by our German National Committee were their own independent decision. Neither I nor the Executive Committee of ICOMOS nor our staff in the Secretariat were involved, informed or consulted about any of these activities, which are the exclusive and sole domain of ICOMOS Germany or its designated responsible members.

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this