The two Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the Taliban militant group in 2001, are expected to be rebuilt in the upcoming years, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).  

In October, 2018, different UNESCO member states, such as Italy, Germany, China, India and Japan, will come together to discuss the issue of the rebuilding and expenses of the Buddhas, says Massa Nori, the cultural representative of the UNESCO in Afghanistan.

Bamiyan, a central province of Afghanistan, has the two Buddha sculptures which once were the world’s largest standing Buddhas. They were  famous for their beauty, size and craftsmanship.

The two Buddha monumental sculptures, known as Salsal and Shamama, were 1,600 years old carved into the side of a cliff in the Hazarajat region of Bamiyan during the 4th and 5th-centuries, and considered a masterpiece of Buddhism art before its destruction by the Taliban in March, 2001.

The tallest of the two Buddhas stood at more than 174 feet high, with the second statue at nearly 115 feet. Since then the “Spring Temple Buddha” has been built in China at 128 meters and now it is the tallest statue in the world.

The two large Buddha sculptures reflected the international environment of the Bamiyan province and were influenced by the art and cultures of India, Central Asia and even ancient Greek culture. Both Buddhas wore flowing robes and have been described as having wavy curls of hair. This hairstyle and the flowing drapery are elements rooted in early Gandharan Buddhist imagery that combined Greek traditions of representation with Indian.

The taller Buddha of Bamiyan before (left picture) and after destruction (right). To distinguish the two statues (55 m and 37 m) from each other: Look at the form of the statues niche. The niche of the taller Buddha is much more precise.

“The official meeting of the experts from UNESCO will take place on the 8th of October, 2018. The meeting will be in Bamiyan province. If the experts approve the rebuilding, the work will take up to four years and cost is estimated $30 million to $50 million,” Nori added.

In March 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of the Buddhas. The destruction was complete and only outlines of the figures and a few details remained.

According to the BBC Persian, demolition works started at the beginning of March 2001 and lasted 25 days. The Taliban used anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank mines at first to destroy the Buddha which had a little effect. When that failed, they used prisoners from the Hazara community finish the job.

Mirza Hussain was among the prisoners who were forced to plant the explosives and destroy the sculptures.

“We didn’t have any choice because we were forced to do it,” Hussain said in an interview with BBC Persian. “One of the captives couldn’t carry the dynamite because his legs was injured. He said he can’t carry the box because of an injury to his legs. So the Taliban shot him in his head in front of us. Therefore, we didn’t have any other choice, we thought we would die, and anyone who refused to help was shot dead.”

His wish for the statues to be restored is likely to be fulfilled in the near future.

“I will never forget, I walk past every day and see.” Hussain said. “Sometimes I lose my bearings as I walk past. It is too much to take in. I feel safe in the city now and hope the government and foreign donors will rebuild the Buddha.”

The world watched this symbolic violence in impotent horror.

The direction to destroy the Buddha was motivated by the Taliban’s extreme iconoclastic campaign, as well as their disdain for western interest and funding that had gone to protecting the Buddha sculptures while there was an intense growing need for humanitarian aid in the region.

The Taliban claims that destroying the Buddha sculptures was an Islamic act because the Bamiyan province had become predominantly Muslim by the 10th century and that the sculptures remained until 2001 largely intact.

After the fall of the Taliban, UNESCO in 2003 declared the entire Bamiyan province a world heritage site. But the damage had been done with centuries of history.

UNESCO reports, in the past years, the reconstruction of the destroyed Buddha has been at the centre of many debates at both national and international levels. There were four technical proposals from Italy, Germany, and Japan concerning the reconstruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statue. Now, the Afghan authorities will establish a committee to review and discuss these proposals and any new proposal related to the reconstruction.

However, there is a remarkable decrease in the number of domestic and foreign tourists visiting Bamiyan province according to Rahman Sayed, spokesperson of the Bamiyan province governor in an interview with AAU.

Sayed says, prior to the destruction of buddha sculptures and the beginning of the civil war in Afghanistan, the number of foreign visitors was 96,6% higher than the current visitors.

He says: “People from different countries were coming to Bamiyan during the 1970-1980 to visit the Buddha sculptures and Band-e-Amir (A national park located in Bamiyan). We had 2000 to 3000 foreign visitors per year. But now, you can’t believe that we don’t have more than 100 visitors annually.”

The governor’s spokesperson also confirmed the decrease in the number of domestic visitors to 60% monthly. Sayed says that number has decreased from 2000 to around 800.

However, the destruction of the sculptures left a substantial economic damage to the province income. Sayed declares that the municipality of Bamiyan was collecting most of its income from the tourism industry rather than the customs and agriculture.

In recent years, UNESCO officials, Afghan authorities, and local residents have failed to reach a consensus about the best way to rebuild the Buddha sculptures, but the upcoming UNESCO member states meeting is a new hope for returning the Afghanistan’s Buddha.

The rebuilding of the Bamiyan Buddha sculptures comes at a time when, only slightly further to the west, there is grave concern over the cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq.

According to the Atlantic news agency, videos from February, 2015 show that ISIS militants rampaging through a museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul and smashing sculptures dating back even further than Afghanistan’s Buddha.

In response, some people are risking their lives to infiltrate territory held by ISIS and remove antiquities before they can be destroyed or sold off.

Photo Buddhas of Bamiyan: Carl Montgomery