Disagreement over possible resurrection of Bamiyan Buddhas

Unesco sends out conflicting press releases

A Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) mission to Bamiyan has found that virtually all of the large Buddha survives on the site, either as boulders or rubble—and it might be possible to reconstruct the statue using much of the original material. This has come as quite a surprise, since earlier reports had suggested that most of of the two statues had been removed by the Taliban after they were blown up in March 2001. However, the question of the wisdom of reconstructing the Buddhas has generated considerably controversy, both inside Unesco and among international specialists.

New investigations reveal that much of the material of the 55-metre-high Buddha remains in the form of large blocks, many with original surface plaster and carvings. “The experts who were in Bamiyan in October found that virtually the entire volume survives, and at least half of it is in a form that could be used for reconstruction,” Unesco official Christian Manhart told The Art Newspaper.

Some of the experts believe that up to 80% of the material could usable. In addition to Mr Manhart, the 13 members of the October mission included Professor Michael Petzet (president of Icomos, the International Council on Monuments and Sites), Abdul Wasey Feroozi (director general of the Afghan Institute of Archaeology) and Professor Claudio Margottini (rock mechanics specialist at Modena University).

The piecing together of original fragments would initially be done with the Buddha lying horizontal, and it then might be possible to reconstruct the full statue, using materials such as cement, plaster or a metal framework to fill the gaps.

Mr Manhart stressed that reconstruction using the original material would be in accordance with the Venice Charter, which permits the reassembling of existing but dismembered parts of a monument (with modern material used to the minimum and clearly recognisable)

Other international specialists (including some Unesco officials) are much more sceptical about the idea of reconstruction, pointing out that although large boulders do survive, it might well be impossible to calculate their position in the original monument—even using computer technology.

Everyone agrees, however, that it is important to preserve the boulders and rubble of the Buddhas. “The material should be safely stored for future study or use—even if it has to be buried for a while,” explained Robert Knox, keeper at the British Museum.

Although Mr Manhart believes that reconstruction of the large Buddha may well be feasible, he is concerned that it should not become the first priority. What is much more urgent is to “consolidate the large number of monuments and sites at risk of collapsing”.

There are deep cracks in the niches of the Buddhas, particularly the smaller one, leading to serious concerns that they could simply collapse, taking with them many of the adjacent decorated caves.

The question of what happens to the Bamiyan Buddhas has become highly political. Mr Khalili, Vice-President of Afghanistan and head of the Hazara political party which controls Bamiyan, favours a speedy reconstruction of the two Buddhas, partly to encourage tourism and also to symbolise a reversal of Taliban policies. He has therefore been critical of Unesco, which has reflected the concern of most international experts who do not want to see a hurried decision to reconstruct.

Political disagreements may well lie behind conflicting statements by Unesco, which issued a press release on 17 October and then withdrew it eight days later and replaced with with a shorter text. The original release pointed out that it should be possible to “partially reconstruct the statue using the anastylosis method”, but the later one made no mention of reconstruction or anastylosis.

Instead the revised statement listed three priorities: “the consolidation of the upper part of the cliff recess of the small Buddha, the conservation of the remains of the statues, and the protection and conservation of the caves dug into the cliffs of Bamiyan and two neighbouring valleys.”

On 21-22 November Unesco’s newly formed Expert Working Group on the Preservation of the Bamiyan Site is meeting in Munich, and among those attending will be Afghanistan’s minister for culture, Mr G.R. Yusufzai. This group will be discussing priorities in greater detail and making detailed plans for the most urgent work.