Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bamiyan Buddhas - should they be left as rubble?

The taller of the two Buddhas of Bamiyan in 1976

A story on NPR about the broken Afghan Buddhas. They are being put back together following destruction by the Taliban ten years ago. The work is being done by UNESCO (UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization.)

Audio clip (4 mins) and transcript.

A human rights activist is interviewed who says the rubble should be left where it lies, to show the destructive force of religious fanaticism. The remade Buddhas are not history he says. History is the destroyed Buddhas.

He has a point. Those Buddhas no longer exist. When the reconstruction work is finished, what we shall be looking at is not the Buddhas, but something else.


The Buddhas overlook the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan, and indeed had already been doing so for several centuries when Islam reached the region, having been built in 507 CE, and 554 CE. But the Taliban, fanatical about eliminating everything they considered un-Islamic, declared they were "idols". In March 2001, on orders from leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the statues were dynamited.

One Buddha stood nearly 180 feet tall and the other about 120 feet (55 and 37 metres).

The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs, but details were modelled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco. This coating, practically all of which was worn away long ago, was painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands and folds of the robes.

It is believed that the upper parts of the faces were made from great wooden masks or casts. Rows of holes (some visible in the photograph) were slots that held wooden pegs to support the outer stucco.

The cliffs are at an altitude of 2,500 meters (8,202 ft).

This Newsweek article from December 2001 is worth reading for a detailed account of the demolition, and opposition amongst local Afghanis.

Archaeology and restoration - some thoughts

So. Back to this question of restoring them. It’s a thorny one for archaeologists. Many these days (well, the two I've discussed it with) are disinclined to reconstruct ancient sites. One told me that sometimes people restore things as they think they would have looked originally, and in some cases they end up resembling a set for a Hollywood movie. (He didn’t say if he meant New Grange. See New Grange restored all wrong?)

My friend John says : “the past is composed of many alternative narratives but a reconstruction offers one point of view, it offers no alternatives, so any single reconstruction will be misleading. I say leave it to the imagineers at Disney, and leave the rest of us to make our own reconstructions!”

When restoration does take place, it’s considered essential to mark where what survives ends and where the restoration begins. Archaeologists feel very strongly about this, architects do not, commented one wryly.

Other examples of controversial restoration are Skellig Michael in Co Kerry and Knossos in Crete.

The Buddhas on the other hand seem to raise different considerations. The reconstruction, so far as I can ascertain, is not intended to bring them back to their original state, just to how they were before 2001. And there's no doubt what they looked like then, there's photographic evidence and very precise measurements. But then there's this: they were carved in the name of religion, and they were destroyed in the name of religion. That’s history. Like the empty niches in medieval English churches, originally filled with statues, which were smashed in the Reformation.