Archaeologists in Afghanistan have begun the painstaking work of rebuilding the remains of the famous Bamiyan Buddhas.

BACK IN 2001, despite a worldwide outcry, the Taliban moved to destroy the two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. At the time, after firing at the statues for several days with artillery, then Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal complained about the difficulty of the task:

“this work of destruction is not as simple as people might think. You can’t knock down the statues by shelling as both are carved into a cliff; they are firmly attached to the mountain.”

Then they got down to business with anti tank mines, dynamite and, finally, a rocket fired at the remains of one of the Buddha’s heads. By the time the task was done, they were thought to be thoroughly destroyed.

Fast forward a decade, and United Nations-funded archaeologists and work crews have begun the difficult task of trying to undo the destruction wrought on the statues by the Taliban. The damage has been so thorough, that a process called anastylosis is being employed – essentially rebuilding the statues with a combination of original material (where available) and modern equivalents where the original sections are lost or beyond recovery. It’s a sizable job, as the work crews sift through 400 tons of rubble that occasionally yield landmines and undetonated explosives from the original demolition.

It is also an undertaking that has attracted criticism from some quarters. With much of Bamiyan highly underdeveloped, debates have begun to surface as to whether United Nations money would not have been better spent on improving the living conditions of local residents instead of embarking on grandiose cultural projects. Some of those in favour of the restoration argue that, in the long term, the restoration of the Buddhas will entice tourists to return to the area and create long term benefits for residents.

Regardless, the Bamiyan restoration, now started, is temporarily on hold as the Afghan summer arrives. It is due to be resumed in the fall.

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