Unesco proposes to rebuild the giant Buddhas of Afghanistan

It's been 20 years since the Taliban destroyed the emblematic sculptures, which are from the 6th or 7th century

4 min
One of the giant Bamian Buddha

On February 26, 2001, the Taliban, then in power in Afghanistan, decreed the destruction of all non-Islamic sculptures in the country, including the so-called Buddhas of Bamiyan: two huge sculptures that stand 38 and 55 meters high, respectively, representing two giant Buddhas, which had been excavated between the 6th and 7th centuries on a cliff in the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan. Hence their name. Unesco pleaded with the Taliban not to perpetrate this madness, sent a representative to Afghanistan to try to negotiate and succeeded in getting the majority of Muslim countries to support it and to demand that the Taliban not destroy the Buddhas. However, to no avail. In early March, the fundamentalists blew up the sculptures, which were smashed to pieces.

Almost 20 years after the destruction, the two cliff cavities once occupied by the ancient Buddhas are still empty, and the thousands of fragments into which the sculptures were reduced are stored in various warehouses in the Bamiyan valley. There are pieces as big as a car and others as small as an orange. Unesco has just published the book The Future of the Bamiyan Buddha Statues, in which they ask what to do with all this and propose, among other options, to reconstruct the sculptures.

Classified remains of the Buddhas dynamited by the Taliban.

"We protect the original heritage, so rebuilding is not an option. But this idea changed after the Second World War", Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre, said by telephone from Paris, suggesting that rebuilding the giant Buddhas would not be such a crazy idea. However, there is no consensus. Even the Afghan government itself is not clear on what to do.

On the one hand, he sees the reconstruction of the two sculptures as an opportunity: perhaps then the Bamiyan Valley would once again become a tourist attraction for thousands of visitors from other countries, which would create new jobs. On the other hand, he does not think it is feasible: after the destruction of the sculptures, only half of the pieces in which they were reduced were recovered. Moreover, in Afghanistan there are no experts who can work on reconstruction, but they would have to travel from abroad, which poses two further problems: funding and security. The country is still at war.

The book published by Unesco proposes options as diverse as placing two-dimensional fibre panels in the empty cavities of the cliff to recreate the shape of the Buddhas before the destruction; rebuilding only one of the two sculptures, but with white Carrara marble to ensure its durability and to give it as much importance as Michelangelo's works - this proposal, by the way, is from a team of Italian experts; the original Buddhas were sculpted into the rock and covered with raw earth - or do absolutely nothing, that is, leave the cavities as they are, the remains of the sculptures in the storerooms, and perhaps create a museum that explains everything that happened. In any case, the book does not reach any conclusions, and the Unesco official admits that it is difficult to reach any at present. The debate remains open.

One of the cavities in the cliff where the Buddhas were, which is now empty.

But while the Unesco continues to debate, a Catalan conservator-restorer and researcher, Mònica López-Prat, is about to conclude an investigation to understand the manufacturing process and the materials used to model monumental sculptures such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, precisely with the aim of developing specific treatments that will allow their conservation and restoration. As she says, the Buddhas are only "the tip of the iceberg". In Afghanistan there are countless similar sculptures. The country was one of the areas along the legendary Silk Road, which connected the Near East with China through Central Asia, and where Buddhism spread.

López-Prat began her research almost by chance: she went to Uzbekistan to work and was shown some monumental sculptures related to Buddhism: "They asked me if I could restore them and I did not know what to say. I couldn't understand how they were made". So she began to investigate and in 2018 she travelled to Afghanistan, where she visited two archaeological sites and managed to collect about ten samples of various sculptures.

Based on these exhibits, the conservator is leading a project funded by the National Geographic Society that compares the composition and technique used in the sculptures in Afghanistan with the knowledge preserved by an ancient Bengali clay artist caste, which may be using procedures very similar to those that enabled the creation of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The project involves researchers from the Polytechnic University of Valencia, the University of Barcelona, Pompeu Fabra, the University of Calabria, the University of Calcutta and the Institute of Archaeology of Afghanistan.

The sculptures have a rigid skeleton - made of wood, bricks or stone -, are covered with mortar made of mud and straw and applied in layers and are anchored to an architectural element, which in the case of the Bamiyan Buddhas was the mountain itself. Research, says López-Prat, opens the door to developing specific methodologies for the conservation of this type of work, which has traditionally been restored using procedures that are not very suitable for this type of sculpture, based on the use of resins and often devaluing its incalculable artistic value.

"It would be much better to preserve and enhance the many sculptures that still exist than to devote countless resources to trying to rebuild something that is already shattered", the conservator says of the proposal to rebuild the Buddhas of Bamiyan. At least this is her goal.