"An absolute political priority": Bamiyan Buddhas may be rebuilt

Unesco will convene an international meeting next month to discuss reconstruction

Unesco is to convene an international meeting in Afghanistan next month to discuss the reconstruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Rebuilding these symbols of the country’s illustrious heritage has already received the support of Afghan minister of information and culture Raheen Makhdoom. The work would take up to four years and cost an estimated $30 to $50 million.

News of official backing for the reconstruction of the 1,700-year-old Buddhas has come from Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, director of the Bibliotheca Afghanica museum-in-exile at Bubendorf, near Basel. He returned a month ago from a five-week Unesco mission to Kabul, where he found universal support for rebuilding the three statues destroyed by the Taliban. “When I talked with people in the bazaars, I pointed out that restoring one statue might cost as much as 30 bridges,” he reported. Afghanis then told him: “The bridges we can rebuild ourselves, and we will anyway. But the Buddhas must also be rebuilt—it’s our heritage.”

Reconstruction at Bamiyan is regarded as “an absolute political priority”. Symbolically, it would be a dramatic rejection of what the Taliban and Al-Qa’eda represented. Economically, it would encourage foreign tourists to return to Bamiyan. “Why else would they make an eight-hour drive on gravel roads from Kabul?” Mr Bucherer admits that the question of whether it is “responsible” to proceed with the reconstruction is a question which needs to be seriously addressed by archaeologists at the Unesco meeting.

Mr Bucherer’s recent visit to Bamiyan has enabled him to give a detailed account of the terrible events of a year ago. “I had hoped that some of the feet of the Buddhas might still survive under rubble, but the destruction was done in a highly professional way,” he reported. Local Taliban had been reluctant to undertake the task, so foreign Al-Qa’eda supporters were brought in from Kabul, along with two Chechen explosives specialists.

On 20 February 2001 they began at the base of the statues, drilling holes up to 1.8 metres-deep with sophisticated machinery. Explosives were placed in the cavities, destroying the feet. Work then continued until 8 March. Mr Bucherer found that the destruction had been extremely thorough: “Absolutely nothing remained of the Buddhas, other than a few boulders from the inner core. I made a long search, and found only one small piece of the outer plaster, the size of my hand.” This he took with him, for chemical and technical analysis. Local people told Mr Bucherer that all the plaster had been removed by six lorries and taken to Pakistan, where it was apparently sold as paperweights.

The most expensive task in the reconstruction will not be the statues, but the adjacent cliff, which was damaged by numerous explosions. It may well require the insertion of steel rods to anchor the walls. Fortunately, highly detailed photogrammetric measurements of the largest 53-metre statue were taken in 1970 by Austrian specialist, Robert Kostka. Other data were gathered by Professor Takayasu Higuchi of Kyoto University in the 1980s. It should therefore be possible to reconstruct the statues so that they would appear virtually indistinguishable from the lost originals.

The remains of the rubble would be quite unsuitable for the reconstruction and various materials have been proposed, ranging from local stone to concrete. One idea is to build horizontal supports every three metres or so, and cover this profile with a lightweight cladding. This would show the shape of the original, without the deception of using solid material. It would also make it possible to build an internal spiral staircase to the top. Another option would be to build the replicas a few hundred metres away, not in the original niches.

Mr Bucherer also visited the remains of the Kabul Museum, which was devastated last year by Taliban militants. “Virtually the entire collection was reduced to a mound of six cubic-metres of debris,” he explained. Curators told Mr Bucherer how every box of artifacts was methodically emptied onto the ground, and objects depicting human or animal forms were then individually and systematically smashed with a hammer. Hardly any of the pieces were bigger than a thumbnail. It took 10 people three weeks to complete the task. Sadly, very little was saved, although occasionally curators were able to move small objects into boxes which had already been combed. This may have saved up to a hundred items.

Mystery still surrounds the Bactrian gold which had been stored in a secure vault within the ministry of finance. The 20,000 gold objects, excavated in 1978, are said to have been sealed in boxes which required seven keys to open. Despite extensive inquiries, Mr Bucherer was unable to discover the fate of the Bactrian treasure. The fact that none of the items discovered in 1978 has come onto the market gives grounds for optimism, although they could have been melted down.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bamiyan Buddhas may be rebuilt'