Rebuild the Buddhas of Bamiyan?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 18 2002 11:04 AM

Wonders Never Cease

Destruction was the luckiest thing to happen to the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Bamiyan Buddha
Bamiyan Buddha

Can the Bamiyan Buddhas be put back together again? Afghanistan's new government wants to restore the giant pair of carved Buddhas destroyed last year by the Taliban. "They need to be rebuilt," Raheen Makhdoom, Afghanistan's new minister of information and culture, told the press. Makhdoom characterized the ancient Bamiyan statues—one was 1,800 years old; the other dated from the 5th century—as "a sign of our identity and a sign of our tolerance and our history."

Afghanistan is in fact coming late to the reconstruction movement. An Internet-based group calling itself The New 7 Wonders Society has already collected millions of signatures in support of its own campaign. It wants to recreate the larger of the two destroyed Buddhas (174 feet; the other was 115 feet); it even gained the support of the Swiss-based Afghanistan Institute, a UNESCO-supported organization devoted to threatened Afghan antiquities. The New 7 Wonders people say that they want to show that "an act of international destruction cannot erase the memory of those things which are valuable to humanity and its heritage."

Yet our perception of the statues as works of art has recently undergone some notable changes. Until their destruction, the statues were mostly unknown except to those specializing in Gandharan art, a syncretic Greco-Buddhist mix. Even admirers of Buddhist art have focused on more graceful examples found elsewhere in Asia.

Modern Western travelers failed entirely to appreciate the statues' value. Robert Byron, in his 1934 account of Central Asian art and architecture, The Road to Oxiana, wrote of the statues that "Neither has any artistic value. But one could bear that; it is their negation of sense, the lack of pride in their monstrous, flaccid bulk, that sickens. … A host of monastic navvies were given picks and told to copy some frightful semi-Hellenistic image from India or China. The result has not even the dignity of labor."

That they'd served as military targets for Muslim armies, that the legs of the larger Buddha had been destroyed in the 18th century by Persians, was unlamented. As recently as the 1970s, the art academic and historian Wilfrid Blunt dismissed the statues as merely "grotesque."

So how did the carved Buddhas of Bamiyan go from reviled grotesquerie to "things which are valuable to humanity and its heritage," indeed so valuable they must be rebuilt? There's nothing like a staged spectacle of barbaric destruction to transform otherwise obscure artifacts. Such an act provides relevant and apparent meaning to a work even as it destroys that work. The Taliban actually alerted the world to their impending act, allowed it to be recorded, and released the images, multiplying the effect with drama.

There is of course a very long history of intentionally destroyed art. Sometimes the destruction involves works acknowledged to be art, even by the destroyer; sometimes, as in the Taliban's case, the issue of "art" is beside the point. But whether the perpetrators have been Nazis destroying "degenerate" art, French or Russian revolutionaries destroying religious work, or the many examples of iconoclastic uprisings and library burnings, the story usually ends the same way: The lost artifacts leave behind them a shadow of martyrdom, a meaning that will long outlive the destroyer.

Of course, that new meaning rarely has much to do with the original work, perhaps because the new meaning is less aesthetic than it is historical: a role in the struggle against barbarism. Yet that would seem to complicate the issue of reconstruction: Since the apparent meaning has been gained through destruction, what secular purpose—aesthetic or historical—will a replica serve? Although he supports some form of restoration, Paul Bucherer, the head of the Afghanistan Institute in Basel, is sensitive to the problem. "The last thing we want is to create Disneyland in Afghanistan," Bucherer recently told the British press.

Bamiyan Buddha, after
Bamiyan Buddha

Replication, even on a large scale, is hardly unknown. The people of Warsaw, for example, rebuilt their old central square in every fondly recalled detail after the city had been destroyed in World War II. Such cases, however, involve the recovery of a site long rich with meaning to those rebuilding it. The Bamiyan Buddhas, on the other hand, appear to have gained their meaning—and sudden appeal—for most Westerners and the new Afghan government as a direct result of their obliteration.

Will replicated Buddhas serve the purpose of rewriting the country's recent history, "erasing" the Taliban's record? That may not be the goal of rebuilding the Buddhas, though it might be its effect. If so, there's an impossible burden of erasure remaining. Working out of the sight of cameras, the Taliban reportedly destroyed thousands of artifacts in Kabul's museum, hammering at statues for days and replacing Afghanistan's history with an appalling pile of rubble.

Just this month, Raheen Makhdoom met to discuss the Buddhas' future with UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura; Makhdoom had an even more surprising plan to announce. On Jan. 12, Matsuura told reporters what they'd talked about. "The minister of culture prefers ... reconstructing the same Buddhas in the same area but not in the same place—on another mountain nearby," he said.

How will "reconstructing" the statues "not in the same place" result in the "same Buddhas"? That's not just a preservation question, nor is it a history riddle. That is, rather appropriately, a koan.

Charles Paul Freund is a senior editor forReasonmagazine, where a different version of this piece appeared.