Archeologist Hunts For Third Bamiyan Buddha
Friday, March 10, 2006
Radio Free Europe /
It has been five years since the Taliban regime
demolished two ancient, giant Buddha statues carved
into a hillside in the central Afghan province of
Bamiyan. The demolition took place over two weeks in
late February and early March 2001. At the time, few
of those who joined the international chorus
condemning the demolition imagined there might be a
third statue -- an even larger "sleeping Buddha" --
buried in the same valley. But an Afghan-born
archeology professor thinks he is close to uncovering
a 300-meter-long Buddha statue buried in a horizontal
Professor Zemaryali Tarzi is one of the world's
most knowledgeable experts on the demolished Bamiyan
Buddhas. Before fleeing the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan in 1979, he had spent three decades
studying the area and repairing the two giant Buddhas
that eventually were destroyed by the Taliban. Tarzi,
who now teaches in France, plans to return to Bamiyan
this summer for a fifth consecutive summer to continue
his excavations. He talked to RFE/RL about the work he
is doing in the shadow of the hill where the two giant
Buddhas once stood.
RFE/RL: As the president of the Association for the
Protection of Afghan Archeology and a man who
dedicated decades of work to studying the Bamiyan
Buddhas, how did you feel five years ago when you
first learned that the giant statues had been
completely destroyed by the Taliban as "un-Islamic"?
Tarzi: We didn't expect the Taliban to destroy the
largest Buddha. When I saw on television that they had
done this despite the pleas of UNESCO, I lost my
temper. I took off my sandal and threw it at the
television. I was so angry that I wanted to destroy
RFE/RL: You have spent the four summers since the
demise of the Taliban regime leading a team of French
archeologists in a search for a third giant Buddha.
This third statue is thought to be even larger that
the 38-meter and 55-meter-high statues the Taliban
Tarzi: The talk about a third Buddha is not new.
Around 1975 or 1976, when I was still living in
Afghanistan, I had studied the possibility of the
existence of a third 'sleeping' Buddha. But I left the
country before I could finish this work, and I didn't
expect to ever return to Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Why do you think there is a third giant
Buddha statue at Bamiyan? What are the historic
sources that have led you to that conclusion?
Tarzi: I am searching now for a Buddha that I think
is about 300 meters long and was built in a sleeping
or lying position -- [originally within a very large
temple complex]. We have been able to locate the right
temple, and excavations are continuing. This is not a
small compound. So we have not been able to finish our
excavations within a year or two. We need to be
patient and do this the right way. The temple is about
1.5 kilometers east of the ancient royal city of
Bamiyan. That temple was discovered by my
archeological team. We are now studying the travel
journal of a Chinese tourist from the year 632 A.D. to
see if descriptions of a third giant Bamiyan Buddha
are accurate. [Editor's note: The descriptions in that
travel journal of the two standing Buddhas proved very
accurate.] In archeological work, any expected result
is never a 100 percent guarantee. But we are
continuing. If we find it, this would be the largest
Buddha statue in the world. It is described as lying
down horizontally with a length of about 300 meters --
and the form of the Buddha is said to have 1,000 legs.
RFE/RL: What kind of security has been offered by
Afghan authorities to guard against vandalism,
looting, or even attacks against your archeologists?
Tarzi: Before returning to Afghanistan [in 2002], I
expected the security situation to be precarious. But
I am pleased that there is peace and stability in
Bamiyan now. The reception we've had from the people
of Bamiyan and from the governor of Bamiyan Province
has been better than we expected. So we don't have any
problems with security [because guards are posted
there around the clock].
RFE/RL: Your current
excavations have been financed by the French Foreign
Ministry and the American National Geographic Society.
What other kind of archeological work is going on in
Bamiyan related to the Bamiyan Buddhas?
Tarzi: The Japanese government and UNESCO has
allocated a large amount of money for the restoration
and maintenance of all of Bamiyan's monuments. This is
true. But on the other hand, the director of UNESCO [Koichiro
Matsuura] is from Japan. That is why the Japanese
project in Afghanistan gets more support from UNESCO
than ours. I think officials in the Afghan central
government also have a favorable attitude about the
RFE/RL: In the past four years, you already have
uncovered the heads of many smaller Buddha statues.
You have said that this is why you think you have
found the area of the temple complex around a giant
Tarzi: With the ongoing excavations in the eastern
temple -- to the southeast of where the 38-meter
Buddha once stood -- the goal has not been just to
find the heads of statues. Many statues have been
found: I'd say that 30 to 40 heads have been
discovered. All of these finds are recorded, and our
findings our published each year to let others know
about it. These are very valuable monuments of an
ancient type that has been discovered for the first
time at Bamiyan.
RFE/RL: What impact do you think the discovery of a
third giant Buddha at Bamiyan would have on the psyche
of those Afghans who feel the Taliban destroyed one of
the most important symbols of Afghan history?
Tarzi: The impact upon the morale of Afghans and
the national conscience will be significant. On the
other hand, a large number of other Afghan monuments
also have been destroyed. So when we find a new
monument, it gives the country something that helps
make up for those treasures that have been lost.
(Contributors to this report include RFE/RL
correspondent Ron Synovitz and Radio Free Afghanistan
reporters Sami Abass and Sultan Sarwar.)