Should Buddhas Blasted by the Taliban Be Rebuilt?

June 26, 2008

Author: Aryn Baker

Source: TIME Magazine,8599,1818299,00.html

Mirza Hussain, and other prisoners like him, had labored for hours to stack mines, bombs and dynamite beneath the feet of Afghanistan's most iconic public artwork — a 175-foot standing statue of the Buddha carved from the sandstone cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley sometime in the 7th century. Finally, the local Taliban commander blew his whistle, and hundreds of observers plugged their ears, held their breath and waited for the Buddha to fall. It didn't. The first load of explosives only destroyed the statue's feet. "They were disappointed," says Hussain, of the Taliban leaders who had decreed in March of 2001 that the famous Buddhist monument was idolatrous, and would be demolished. Initially, Taliban fighters had fired at the Buddha with assault rifles, stinger missiles and RPGs, to little effect. When the stacked explosives at the statue's base failed, Hussain and other prisoners were dangled over the edge of the cliffs to stuff dynamite into holes in the soft stone. "Our soldiers are working hard to demolish the remaining parts," announced Mawlawi Qudratullah Jamal, the Taliban's minister of information and culture, at a press conference in Kabul a day later. "It is easier to destroy than to build."

He was right. Within days the Taliban had all but decimated the remains of a magnificent Buddhist civilization that had for six centuries ruled this strategic valley at the crossroads of Central Asian trade.They rampaged through the caves that honeycomb Bamiyan's cliffs, smashing thousands of smaller Buddha sculptures. They chiseled intricate frescoes from the walls, and where they weren't able to tear off the plaster, they gouged out the eyes and hands of those depicted. Locals say the figures in the images bore facial features typical of the Hazara, the persecuted Shi'ite minority group that populates the province. The Taliban massacred hundreds of Hazaras when they took control of Afghanistan; many in the valley believe that the destruction of the Buddhas was an extension of their genocidal campaign. "The Buddhas had eyes like ours, and the Taliban destroyed them like they tried to destroy us," says Marzia Mohammadi, a midwife. "They wanted to kill our culture, erase us from this valley."

Seven years on, archaeologists and volunteers from around the world are doing what they can to put the symbols of Bamiyan's Buddhist legacy back together again.