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Afghanistan's Surviving Treasures

UNESCO advices not to rebuild the Bamyan Buddha's

Published on 14 March 2011

Author(s): Daily Outlook Afghanistan/Abbas Daiyar

Type:  News

Meeting with a survivor who had taken part in planting explosives in the roof holes and body structure of the statues.

Coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the Bamyan Buddha by the Taliban, an exhibition was opened at the British Museum the past week showcasing more than 200 examples of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage over the last 4,000 years. The exhibition, which has toured internationally since 2006, was inaugurated by President Karzai.

The show, one of the most fabulous archeological collections, starts with a statue of young Greek man that was found by French archeologists in 1960s on the Oxus River in Northern Afghanistan. It is from Hellenistic Greek city founded in Bactria on the Oxus River, by a general of Alexander the Great. The first rescue of this 2 century BC limestone statue was made during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the National Museum in Kabul and it remained safeguarded until the second rescue failed in 2001 when the Taliban smashed part of it.

Among the items on show are 2,000-year-old artifacts from the ancient city of Bagram, north of today’s capital, Kabul. “These are an extraordinary set of ivories stolen from the National Museum in Kabul, bought by a London dealer specifically to return them, restored by conservators at the British Museum … and after the exhibition they will go back,” says Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

According to estimates, more than 70% of the artifacts at the National Museum in Kabul were looted and destroyed during the civil war of 1990s. The Taliban ransacked and destroyed much of our cultural heritage and the surviving items are a credit to the bravery of some Afghans who risked their lives to save them. If you are in London, do visit the exhibition to see the richness of our cultural heritage, and a different picture from Afghanistan than the headlines of war.

It was not the looting of the museum in Kabul that brought the brutalities of the Taliban to the world’s attention, but the blowing up of the Bamyan Buddha in 2001. Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual leader, ordered their destruction on February 26 2001. Kofi Annan, the then UN secretary general, sent his special envoy to urge the Taliban leadership not to destroy the centuries’ old treasures.

UNESCO asked the Organization of Islamic Countries to pressurize the Taliban and three OIC members – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – made appeals. The director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York even invited the Taliban leadership to sell the Buddhas to western museums, but all in vain. Pictures of the destruction caused widespread horror and the world finally recognized the face of Taliban.

bamyan and taliban.jpg
Taliban before the big Buddha in Bamyan

But few reports at the time told the story of how it happened. During frequent visits to Bamyan, in 2008, I managed to meet a survivor who had taken part in planting explosives in the roof holes and body structure of the statues. Abdul Rahim told me that after offering Friday prayers, the Taliban forced some arrested local people to carry explosives on to the roof of the statues and plant them in the holes.

“Some people refused to do this,” Rahim said, “and they were shot dead.” He continued: “Seeing their fate, we trembled and took the materials on our backs, tied with rope on our waist, [and were] lowered from the roof down to the body of the Buddhas to put the dynamite.” It took almost a week of dynamiting to complete the destruction. Rahim added: “They [the Taliban] slaughtered 50 cows in celebration.”

A local resident, Khaliq, put it like this for me: “It took two centuries to build Shamama and Salsal [local names of the female and male Buddha statues] and the Taliban destroyed them in one week.”

The UN marked the 10th anniversary of the Buddhas’ destruction last week. UNESCO held a conference in Paris to discuss plans for preserving the heritage of Bamyan valley. A delegation from Afghanistan, including the female governor of Bamyan, Habiba Sarabi (an active advocate of the reconstruction of the statues), attended.

To the utter surprise and disappointment of Habiba Sarabi and other Afghan and international activists, UNESCO after the conference said it doesn’t support reconstruction of one of the Buddha statues. They have announced to help establish museums in Bamyan. But that can’t be equivalent the giant Buddha statues. I believe its complete political influence of the Government of Afghanistan that UNESCO has retreated from calls of reconstruction.

Despite the attempts of the German scientists who presented their findings in that conference, the UNESCO panel was divided on supporting a reconstruction. The argument that a rebuilt statue will be “fake” is completely flawed as the scientists say that more than 70% of the remains of statues will be used in reconstruction.

The recent report by the scientists saying that one of the statues could be reconstructed had stirred hope among Afghan and international activists, who have launched a petition asking the Afghan government, parliament and the UN for support. Hundreds of people in Bamyan had already signed a petition in 2008. But alas their hopes have been devastated by the stance of UNESCO in last week’s conference.

The government of Afghanistan opposes rebuilding, saying the cost does not make sense when people are living below the poverty line. Other critics say a reconstructed statue will be a “fake”. And this has influenced the decision of UNESCO as well.

I believe the majority of people in Afghanistan would support the reconstruction of the statues. Hasan Malistani, an Afghan geologist and assistant professor of Bamyan University (currently a research associate at the University of Bonn), told me: “The destroyed Buddha statues should not only be a matter for Bamyan, or Afghanistan. It is human heritage for the whole world. Reconstruction of the Bamyan Buddhas is an important part of the preservation and restoration of human history and civilization.”

He believes a reconstructed Buddha wouldn’t be fake as it would be rebuilt from the remains of the statue. Archaeologists and computer scientists have already made fabulous 3D model of the statues.

In an interview in 2008, Governor Sarabi told me: “At least one of the Buddhas should be [re]built. It would be a great support to the economy of this poor province, attracting tourists.” The financial cost of the reconstruction could be partly met from a world tour of parts of the destroyed statues, such as the exhibition at the British Museum, to generate donations and income.

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