After a reconstruction effort covertly built what appeared to be the beginnings of giant feet, the rally is growing to resurrect the Buddhas of Bamiyan — demolished in 2001 by the Taliban.
Until now, the prevailing view among cultural experts was that the sites of the ancient Buddhas should be kept as they are: empty, a reminder of their tragic history. Islamist radicals blew up the statues as they tried to stamp out the reminders of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic past. A pair of brick pillars, resembling feet, were built last year where one of the giant Buddhas stood. But now, the United Nations’ cultural agency, the Afghan government and heritage experts are increasingly open to reassembling at least one of the Buddhas, which once towered 174 and 115 feet over the Bamiyan valley.
Those bricks she refers to were assembled in 2013 as part of a stabilizing and sheltering platform under the International Council on Monuments and Sites, part of Unesco. However this February, Afghanistan stopped the conservation project as the United Nations, according to Reuters, was suspicious that the team was “secretly trying to rebuild one of the statue’s feet.” Yet it was too late, and the idea of the statues rising from the rubble got its international spark. Back in March, Michael Petzet, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites’ German branch, told the New York Times: “These feet, it was only the idea for the safety of the whole structure … and maybe in the future if the Afghan government wants to make a little bit more, they can build upon this.”
It goes back a bit further, to almost since the statues were destroyed. In 2011, Wired reported on the proposal of Erwin Emmerling of Munich’s Technical University to reassemble one of the Buddhas from the bits left behind. There is perhaps a jigsaw puzzle of epic proportions to work out in the fragments (one was 53 meters high, the other 35), but alongside the enthusiasm for reconstruction has been dissent, both due to the cost and due to their place as a historical memorial. For example, activist Abdullah Hamadi told NPR in 2011: “If you made it, rebuilt it, that is not the history. The history is the broken Buddha”
Now Afghanistan is requesting feedback from the World Heritage Committee, and, according to the WSJ report, a conference in Japan set for next year. There is precedence for rebuilding cultural sites wrecked by militaristic destruction. The Syrian sculptures destroyed in the Tell Halaf Museum in 1944 were reassembled for a 2011 exhibition at the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin; the Dresden Frauenkirche church long left as a ruined memorial to the Dresden bombing was reconstructed in the early 2000s. Yet there will likely continue to be major division as Afghanistan goes forward, weighing the value of restoring the Buddhas against that absence’s historical symbolism.