Afghanistan's Buddhas may rise again

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The Independent Online

The 100-ton rubble pile that was once a colossal Buddha statue until the arrival of a Taliban demolition squad three years ago, still lies at the bottom of its surviving giant niche, a heap of rocks and sand dwarfed by the vast space cut into a sandstone escarpment 17 centuries ago.

The 100-ton rubble pile that was once a colossal Buddha statue until the arrival of a Taliban demolition squad three years ago, still lies at the bottom of its surviving giant niche, a heap of rocks and sand dwarfed by the vast space cut into a sandstone escarpment 17 centuries ago.

In a deep hole where a twin, smaller Buddha used to be, half a mile away along the spectacular cliff dotted with caves that were once monks' meditation chambers, a ghostly outline of the second vanished statue can be made out, against a back wall.

At dusk it almost looks as if the larger Buddha is still there, seen from across the lush valley of wheat fields and stands of poplar trees which was once home to the creators of these destroyed marvels.

Close up to the rubble pile, not much is identifiable. Villagers claim two lorries arrived soon after the demolition to be packed with the most saleable pieces, shipped off to the illegal antiquities market in Peshawar, Pakistan. But the Taliban's final demolition job was tragically effective.

The statues looked solid but they were fashioned out of the cliff here because the sandstone is soft. Now the remains are mostly sand.

The idea of rebuilding seems laughable. But these piles are the cause of one of the most passionate debates in archaeology.

Some experts believe the gaping Buddha-shaped holes should be left, a tribute to the barbarity of the Taliban.

Others argue that two wonders of the ancient world can be recreated from the rubble.

Meanwhile, hare-brained schemes abound. A former warlord threatens to reconstruct them in concrete. A shadowy Japanese billionaire is said to have a rebuilding plan. An Italian sculptor wants to carve them anew further along in the cliff. Another artist wants to recreate them in polystyrene.

Afghan businessmen are lobbying the government for rights to start son et lumière shows, to spur the trickle of tourists already returning to the Hotel Bamiyan's yurts - felt nomad tents with lavatories attached.

But the fate of the Buddhas may lie with a veteran Bavarian art restorer with a walrus moustache who has spent a lifetime in German castles and cathedrals.

Edmund Melzl has been sent out by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) for the summer to sort through the rubble piles to evaluate whether they contain the raw material to rebuild. Mr Melzl knows what a minefield he is in - literally. Clearance experts check for landmines in the rubble.

It is also a political minefield, centring on a potentially lucrative symbol of Afghan reconstruction. For academics, it promises to be a battlefield when a Unesco conference is held in December in Tokyo to decide the future of the site.

Mr Melzl will tell them reconstruction can be done."Yes, we think it is possible to recreate the Buddhas," he said. "In restoration terms, this is the biggest challenge imaginable. Really good restorers could do it. A giant scaffold is needed, and a lot of money. It could take years.

"We could train local people so Afghans would do most of the work."

So far he has collected large amounts of fragments - especially original surfaces made from plaster.

He disbelieves the tales of looting from the site. The volume of rubble seems to correspond to the bulk of the statues.

Recovering fragments from the small Buddha - which still measured 125ft high - is a problem because it collapsed on a steep slope, scattering the parts more widely.

The surface fragments could be stuck together in an exercise of forensic complexity to restore them to their former glory.

Nobody thinks all the pieces will be found. The destruction was too thorough - the Taliban used electric drills to burrow out holes for explosives deep inside the statues. Missing pieces in the puzzle can be filled from detailed photogrammatic pictures taken by Austrian and Japanese experts in the mid-1990s, photos taken from a scaffold at different angles which give a detailed three-dimensional record.

Among experts in Afghan archaeology the consensus is probably against rebuilding.

In Afghanistan, however, there is no debate. Afghans themselves are desperate to rebuild the most famous symbol of their country - Afghan Ariana Airlines still has the Buddhas on promotional posters.

Last year, Professor Armin Gruen from Zurich created a virtual dummy of the main statue.

He believed it was smashed into about 4,000 fragments, and estimated reconstruction would cost around £20m. If resurrection is agreed, the Buddhas will be rebuilt to resemble the way they were in 2001 - already battered over the centuries, with legs missing through earthquake damage and faces destroyed, perhaps by early Muslim iconoclasts.

In Bamiyan itself, which suffered ethnic cleansing in a brutal Taliban campaign that culminated in the destruction of the statues, pressure is growing to do something.

Mohammed Rahim Ali Yar, a former warlord and now governor of Bamiyan province, said: "The Buddhas were a kind of symbol of our history and culture, something that introduced us to the world. We are less without them."

He is determined to see the statues rebuilt, even if it means his own people doing it - and making the replacements in concrete.

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