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Conserving v. Rebuilding Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas

By Lauren Bursey

feet of Bamiyan-Buddhas
Feet of Bamiyan-Buddhas
bamiyan valley
Bamiyan Valley

In March 2001, the Taliban, at the time the government in Afghanistan and later a terrorist group, ordered the destruction of the giant Buddhas, which had been carved into the Bamiyan Cliffs in the6th century. The Buddhas, standing 55m and 38m high, were a monumental expression of western Buddhism. The entire Bamiyan Valley had been an important spot for the Gandhara school of Buddhist art, an area which was a long-revered pilgrimage centre from the 1st to the 13th centuries. The Valley was determined by UNESCO to have “Outstanding Universal Value” and the Buddhas were designated a World Heritage site following a review in 2002. Since their destruction, the site has faced issues of reconstruction, insufficient funds, the need for continuing tourism in the Valley, and religious tension.

After the Buddhas were blown up, UNESCO tasked ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) archeologists from Germany with restoring the niches in which the Buddhas had rested, as well as the network of caves in the Bamiyan Valley. To explain, ICOMOS is an entity created by UNESCO in 1964 and only acts in an advisory capacity to the broader UN organization, and thus UNESCO has the authority over ICOMOS to enforce their decision to stabilize the site. UNESCO mandated that the goal of this project was to ensure that the area was safe for visitors (no falling rocks, a railing, etc.), that the niches were not subject to further damage, and that what remained of the artifacts was properly preserved. The Afghan Government made it clear by asking UNESCO for aid that they are in need of funds in order to stabilize their historic sites, and furthermore that they are reliant upon the funding that international organizations such as UNESCO and ICOMOS can provide. It is important to note that in 2011, at the 10th Expert Working Group Meeting for the Safeguarding of the Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley World Heritage Property, UNESCO decided not to rebuild the statues, arguing that they would be best remembered by their absence. Their decision was made in light of “the available scientific data and estimated financial requirement.” Nevertheless, according to UNESCO, ICOMOS took its mandate too far and started rebuilding the statutes. As a result, when it was discovered that the ICOMOS team had started to rebuild the legs of the Eastern statue, UNESCO furiously shut down the project.

A large part of the issue seems to stem from ICOMOS Germany overstepping its bounds with regards to what UNESCO had mandated. Yet statements by Afghan Government officials give support to ICOMOS’ actions. H. E. Omar Sultan, the Deputy Minister of Information and Culture of Afghanistan, made this remark at the UNESCO Forum, March 2 2011:

“I believe that if we are to undertake any sort of remedial measures to rebuild or

partially rebuild the statues of Bamiyan, it should be for this higher goal of the site of

Bamiyan as a symbol of memory of the tragedy of war and conflict in Afghanistan and

as a statement of peace and hope for a better future.”

For the Afghan administration, rebuilding one of the statues would be a symbolic victory over the militant Taliban. Not rebuilding the statue, the Afghans feel, would be akin to admitting defeat at the hands of the Taliban while depriving future generations of the opportunity to appreciate these monuments first-hand. Afghan monument protection law requires Afghan Government approval for changes made to heritage sites, which ICOMOS acknowledges, but due to funding control, UNESCO is the body with the real authority. Work was halted not because the Afghans had a problem with ICOMOS’ work, and thus ordered it stopped, but because UNESCO felt that ICOMOS was rebuilding rather than only stabilizing the site. The order to halt work was carried out despite the Afghan Ministry of Culture, the Bamiyan Tourism Association, and the Bamiyan deputy governor all being in agreement that at least one Buddha should be rebuilt. Further complicating the situation, UNESCO and the global heritage protection community are worried about offending Afghan Muslims in dealing with the Bamiyan Buddhas. Due to Islam’s ban on religious idolatry and anthropomorphic images, the monumental Buddhas were subjected to frequent harm over the years, so that by 2001, the statues were heavily pockmarked by bullet holes and missing their faces. While UNESCO is extremely sensitive to giving offense, this sensitivity hinders many restoration efforts, as ICOMOS has encountered. Contrary to UNESCO’s approach, current Afghan domestic policy seems intent upon a more progressive stance, which allows for multiple religious symbols to be displayed.

The Afghans and UNESCO can agree on at least one thing: the need for tourism in the Bamiyan Valley. The Valley’s importance to world heritage had made it a site to which tourists flocked, helped by the site’s presence on the World Heritage list, at least until the destruction of the statues. Since then, unsurprisingly, tourist visits have declined significantly, along with the much-needed revenue. UNESCO has plans to reinvigorate the area economically without rebuilding the Buddhas, including the building of a cultural centre and museum, a bazaar, and the restoration of the interconnected caves at the site of the ancient city Shahr-I Ghulghulah. Whether or not these plans have been discussed with the Afghan government and found appropriate by the Afghans has yet to be determined. Abdullah Mahmoodi of the Bamian Tourism Association, for his part, believes that rebuilding at least one of the two statues is the best way to encourage tourism.

The final large issue that UNESCO is struggling with is the ethical dilemma between restoration and reproduction. Perhaps most importantly, UNESCO officials claim that the niche in which ICOMOS was working had not even been stabilized prior to the archaeologists starting to restore the statue’s feet. Both Michael Petzet, leader of the German ICOMOS team and former head of ICOMOS, and Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO’s assistant Director-General for Culture, each report that the Afghan government was in full agreement with the aims and activities undertaken by their respective organizations. ICOMOS Germany’s report on the matter continues to emphasize that their “safeguarding and stabilizing” measures were carried out with the knowledge and consent of Afghan authorities and UNESCO representatives. Whether or not the feet should be restored depends upon the amount of shards which remain after the Buddhas were blown up, a quantity about which once again the two organizations disagree. Regardless of the exact number of shards however, little of the once-monumental statues seems to remain, leaving archaeologists in the precarious position of either leaving the site as-is, which UNESCO would prefer, or attempting to rebuild part or all of a statue, the attempt which led to the controversy.

The Venice Charter of 1964, the same year of ICOMOS’ establishment, outlines that only anastylosis, or “the reassembling of existing but dismembered parts” is permitted on excavation sites, rejecting reconstruction outright. Otherwise, there is the possibility that the ruin will be distorted and its integrity damaged. With a lack of pieces (or shards), there would be little to preserve and thus no way the statues could be rebuilt without starting from scratch. However, the 1970s saw reconstruction of the Buddha’s feet carried out during a restoration campaign by an Indian/Afghan team. According to ICOMOS’ report of July 2013, when the current ICOMOS team arrived on the scene, they determined that the best way to properly stabilize and reinforce the Eastern niche was to create a system whereby the rear wall was coupled with the remains of the statue, necessitating that the feet were rebuilt. In a New York Times article this past March, Petzet references the Roman Forum and numerous French cathedrals as places where renovation work leaned more to reproduction and re-creation than anything else. He believes that there is no reason why a similar approach could not also be employed in Afghanistan. UNESCO, on the other hand, feels that only that which can be preserved with original material should be, and would prefer to uphold the principles of the Venice Charter.

At present, there is only one other site in Afghanistan with World Heritage status, the Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam, which is also listed as a cultural site in danger along with the Bamiyan Valley, all at the request of the Afghan government. A site’s status as a property in danger provides it with access to further conservation funds and “encourages corrective action.” The World Heritage List includes 981 properties, a mix of both cultural and natural monuments, across 190 countries. A site can be removed from either or both lists if the characteristics of its original nomination no longer exist. Hopefully the confusion as to the mandate of the UNESCO/ICOMOS project in the Valley isresolved before the collapsing niches and deteriorating shards of the Bamiyan Buddhas permanently debase the historic site.

About the Author: Lauren Bursey is a BA candidate at the Trinity College, University of Toronto; she is working toward a double major in History and Classical Civilizations and Language Citation.


Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking representation.