Resurrecting Afghanistan's Giant Buddhas

As one gazes up at the sandstone cliff face in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, today there is only empty space and rubble where two of the world’s largest Buddhist statues once sat.

The statues were built in Afghanistan in the 6th century – when the country was a center of Buddhist learning – and stood until they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

“The Taliban saw the Buddha statues as symbols, as idols. They wanted to show their power in Afghanistan, especially in Bamiyan province,” said historian Ali Payam.

Merza Hosain Ahmadi, a prisoner of war at the time, took part in the destruction. He says the Taliban brought in heavy weapons, even tanks, to destroy the ancient monuments.

“They demanded all war prisoners like me to drill into the statues and put explosive materials there. Every day we made holes in the Buddha statues and put a huge number of bombs inside,” he recalls.

Ahmadi says the biggest statue was destroyed after 25 days of constant drilling and bombing.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2003, archaelogists and historians discussed the possibility of rebuilding the Buddhas. A year later, the Afghan government started the Buddha reconstruction project with the assistance of UNESCO and financial help from Japan and Germany.

But the project didn’t last long because the winter, which can run up to 7 months of the year, was too cold for the workers.

Murad Ali, 35, used to work as a guide for people visiting the Buddha ruins. He says excavators worked to rehabilitate the statues but didn’t have much success.

“They didn’t bring any big change to the destroyed statues. Everyday we can see big stones falling from the place where the biggest statue used to stand,” he says, “If nobody pays attention, the remaining parts will be destroyed too.”

But last year UNESCO decided to stop the reconstruction project and leave the statues in the hands of the Afghan government, which is reluctant to continue the project without any financial aid.

For now the site has been left as is as a way to remember the Taliban’s violence, but many would like to see the site rebuilt. A German group of archaeological conservationists, for example, are pushing for the Buddhas to be rebuilt. They have been working on the site to salvage any remaining fragments of the sculpture – some weigh up to 40 tons – and put them under a protective covering to preserve them as best they can.

Archaeology student Assadullah Husaini is convinced the Buddha reconstruction project is still possible.

“Our next goal is to rebuild the Buddha statues and challenge the Taliban with our work,” he says.

Many locals support reconstruction because the Buddhas were once a great source of income from tourists. Nasir Ahmad Bihzad, 25, is a university student who lives in the village near the Buddha statues. He says there is a good reasons to reconstruct the statues.

“Tourists who come to the site will pay money. And the benefit also goes to the local people, because tourists will buy food and other things here, stay in hotels,” he says. “We can also show our good culture to them too.”

But not everyone in Afghanistan agrees. Though many clerics and religious leaders may not have condoned the destruction of religious idols, they don’t support rebuilding them.

That includes former prisoner of war Husain Ahmad Ahmadi.

“In Islamic society, the existence of idols is haram or taboo. Especially in the society where the knowledge level is low like Afghanistan,” he says. “Some people might think that the statues are the real God and worship them.”

Produced by Asia Calling, a regional current affairs program produced by Indonesia’s radio news agency KBR68H