Rebuilding Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas
January 20, 2015 8:53 AM   Subscribe

Plans are afoot to restore giant Buddhist symbols destroyed by the Taliban, but experts cannot agree on best way forward.
Demolition work at Bamiyan started at the beginning of March 2001 and lasted several weeks, the two figures – 58 and 38 metres tall – proved remarkably solid. Anti-aircraft guns had little effect, so the engineers placed anti-tank mines between their feet, then bored holes into their heads and packed them with dynamite. The world watched this symbolic violence in impotent horror.

Now almost 14 years on, reconstruction work has yet to start as archaeologists and Unesco policy-makers argue.
posted by Elementary Penguin (29 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Something about restoring a Buddhist statue seems... contra to everything the Buddha stood for...

Then again, 90% of BuddhISM, in my mind, goes against everything the Buddha stood for...
posted by symbioid at 9:16 AM on January 20, 2015 [6 favorites]


As tragic as the destruction of the Buddhist symbols was, just leave them be. I believe that time and money could be spent more effectively than rebuilding icons, in Afghanistan and everywhere else.
posted by waving at 9:24 AM on January 20, 2015 [6 favorites]


As waving says, the time and money could be used more effectively elsewhere. Plus, of course, rebuilding might just make the area --- currently relatively peaceful --- once more into a target for extremists, who might not stop at merely re-destroying the statues: the extremists (Taliban or otherwise) might also feel the need to 'purge' the area of anyone who had anything to do with that rebuilding, as well as their families.
posted by easily confused at 9:29 AM on January 20, 2015


I feel like the article is lacking without a picture of what the site looks like today. The photos included only show the taller figure before the tragedy - this is what it looks like today.

(Edit to change link to directly point to the image file)
posted by dnash at 9:35 AM on January 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


Leave the broken ones where they are a reminder of the transient nature of all human endeavors and a monument to religious intolerance.

If the world is really aching for gigantic Bodhisattvas, I don't see why they can't be recreated in a more Buddhist-friendly milieu, like Blue state America, India or much of Southeast Asia and let them rake in the tourism instead.
posted by Renoroc at 9:38 AM on January 20, 2015 [5 favorites]


Just as a hypothetical, is there any work of world cultural importance that you would approve the re-building off should lunatics destroy it? If say, Notre Dame, or Michelangelo's David, or the Statue of Liberty or the temples of Kyoto were really badly vandalized, would you consider them not worth restoring?

At the risk of sounding the cliche that doing nothing means the terrorists will have won, let me point out that doing nothing sends the signal that the terrorists have won. Rather as they have in Paris, where the government is cracking down on free speech.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:38 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


When I was recovering from my broken leg, gman sent me a piece of one of the Buddhas (about a gram's worth) in a pendant.

Though I guess if they're restoring the Buddhas, I could mail it back.

(Also, isn't there a Buddhist teaching moment about the impermanence of all things?)
posted by klangklangston at 9:43 AM on January 20, 2015


It's a very eloquent void to leave.
posted by sobarel at 9:44 AM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


It sounds like the restoration is being done on the dime of international backers and not really the Afghan government, so I don't really see an issue with how the resources are spent. And it might just be insensitive to to tell Japan, Korea, or whoever that they're cause isn't worthy and they should spend their time on something else.
posted by FJT at 9:46 AM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


The idea that rebuilding them would go against Buddhism seems to be missing the point. Who are we all to say how Buddhism should be practiced?

Besides, it sounds like many of the residents of the area want them rebuilt, as a symbolic act of reconstruction and as a way to celebrate the region's rich history - plus it's an opportunity to boost tourism and, by extension, the local economy. Does it make a difference if the people living there actually want to see them rebuilt?
posted by teponaztli at 9:49 AM on January 20, 2015 [10 favorites]


I think investing in a museum to showcase the remains and the fascinating history of Greco-Buddhism and building a reproduction nearby would be the best solution.
posted by empath at 10:00 AM on January 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


(Also, isn't there a Buddhist teaching moment about the impermanence of all things?)

True, but that doesn't mean they would be entirely against the rebuilding either. The Buddhists back then used the rock face as a medium and not something less permanent like sand or dirt (though they did use mud for the face and hands).

If you really want to consider the beliefs of the cultures that you're "archeologizing", the place to start is probably all the artifacts and art the West should be returning to Greece, China, India, Egypt, Iran, the Native Americans, etc.
posted by FJT at 10:02 AM on January 20, 2015 [6 favorites]


The Taliban were willing to die to obliterate culture. The Buddhas should be rebuilt, I think, to demonstrate that what they were trying to wipe out is still strong enough to resist them. It's a shame that local circumstances would not tolerate it, but a monastery at the base of the statues to teach people what the religion of their ancestors is all about would be far more of a statement than the statues, by themselves, could ever be.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:48 AM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't like culture wars [brave of me I know]. Unfortunately there isn't a shortage of ordnance in the world but, given our modern ability to keep records if this destroying of archaeological sites distracts bad people from killing people I'm all for it. What little I know of Buddhism seems uniquely suited to this.
posted by vapidave at 11:31 AM on January 20, 2015


klangklangston: When I was recovering from my broken leg, gman sent me a piece of one of the Buddhas (about a gram's worth) in a pendant.

Though I guess if they're restoring the Buddhas, I could mail it back.


Oh yeah, I forgot about that! I was supposedly the first non-local to see Bamiyan soon after the Taliban destroyed the statues. Here's a photo I took of the Taliban guarding one of the two large ones (there are others that are smaller and rarely talked about). Aside from pieces of the figures, they also gave me some of the shells they used, and tried to have me shoot at the new caverns, but there was just no fuckin' way in hell I was doing that.
posted by gman at 11:39 AM on January 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


The Buddhas should be rebuilt, I think, to demonstrate that what they were trying to wipe out is still strong enough to resist them. It's a shame that local circumstances would not tolerate it, but a monastery at the base of the statues to teach people what the religion of their ancestors is all about would be far more of a statement than the statues, by themselves, could ever be.

That seems kind of patronizing, honestly. I don't think the people who live there now are descended from the buddhists that built those statues, anyway. In the past 1500 years, you've had turks, persians, mongolians, etc, sweeping through there and displacing local populations.
posted by empath at 11:42 AM on January 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


gman, there has to be more to that story.
posted by empath at 11:44 AM on January 20, 2015


Heh, yeah there is, but I'm lacking in time right now. How about I leave you with this article I wrote about the experience... the writing is pretty embarrassing - I was young and also allowed Time to do what they wanted with it to suit their audience.
posted by gman at 11:55 AM on January 20, 2015 [6 favorites]


When I first saw the videos of the destruction of the statues, I knew there would be war. As a buddhist, this upset me far more than the destruction of the statues.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:54 PM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


How about I leave you with this article I wrote about the experience...

How high were you when you decided going across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan in 2001 was a good idea?
posted by empath at 1:04 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Then again, 90% of BuddhISM, in my mind, goes against everything the Buddha stood for

I think he mostly sat down.
posted by w0mbat at 1:18 PM on January 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


empath: How high were you when you decided going across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan in 2001 was a good idea?

I think about 3,000 feet or so. Oh wait...
posted by gman at 1:19 PM on January 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


The next Bamiyan Buddhas wouldn't last so long
posted by knoyers at 1:47 PM on January 20, 2015


dnash: "I feel like the article is lacking without a picture of what the site looks like today. The photos included only show the taller figure before the tragedy - this is what it looks like today."

Which sort of reinforces my point, and really, the Tao te Ching said it best:
Tao Te Ching - Lao Tzu - chapter 11

Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

posted by symbioid at 4:25 PM on January 20, 2015


I would restore them, by not restoring them, but by carving watchful profiles on the edges of the openings, that look to what was lost with compassion.
posted by Oyéah at 4:30 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


melt down all the armor left behind and cast the new sculptures of solid artillery proof steel
posted by Fupped Duck at 6:34 PM on January 20, 2015


Leaving the empty voids makes a powerful statement and certainly has precedent, albeit on a much smaller scale.
posted by TedW at 3:13 AM on January 21, 2015


Standing in front of the empty niches in 2010 was an emotional moment. I'm with TedW. The Buddhas should not be rebuilt. The niches make a fine tourist attraction on their own, and when you add the City of Sighs (Shar-i-Gholghola) and Bamiyan's status as the capital of the region, I don't think they need ersatz replicas to bring in tourists. They could work on sustainably opening up some of the monkish infrastructure to visitors. When I was there, the guys supposedly guarding the niches wanted $20 to go in (the site was technically closed). This money would of course go into their own pockets. I'd rather see that money go towards maintaining the site.

Elsewhere in the province, Band-e Amir is world-class. In 2010, I was the only Westerner during the three days that I stayed there.

The real problem is not an absence of attractions, it's the uncertainty. The day I was out at Shar-i-Gholghola, there was a political demonstration in town. I didn't even know it had happened till I got back. Afghanistan is like that: you're perfectly safe, until you aren't. Getting there overland was an odyssey that ran through Taliban hotspots. Most Western visitors to Bamiyan fly in and out from Kabul.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 9:04 PM on January 21, 2015


(Correction, just looked up my notes and the guy wanted 200 Afghanis to see the niches - then about $5 - not $20. Weird how memory edits details.)
posted by Autumn Leaf at 9:37 PM on January 21, 2015


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