Antiquities and Archaeology Conservation Controversies Afghanistan

The victory of the void, a defeat for the Taliban

The Bamiyan Buddhas will not be rebuilt, says Unesco. The architect Andrea Bruno proposes a scheme that focuses reverently on their absence

The empty niche of the Great Buddha in 2010. “The void is the true sculpture,” says Andrea Bruno (inset), Afghanistan’s most seasoned conservation architect

When Andrea Bruno, an architectural consultant to Unesco for the past 40 years, went back to the Bamiyan Buddhas, blown up in March 2001 by the Taliban, he immediately scrapped all ideas he might have had about some sort of replacement. “The void is the true sculpture,” he says. “It stands disembodied witness to the will, thoughts and spiritual tensions of men long gone. The immanent presence of the niche, even without its sculpture, represents a victory for the monument and a defeat for those who tried to obliterate its memory with dynamite.”

Two years after the destruction, the Japanese National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, working through Unesco and the Afghan authorities, began putting money into clearing up the site and consolidating the surfaces of the niches. The aim at this point was to recreate the Buddhas, an immensely ambitious project since the larger of the two was taller than the Tower of Pisa.

But there were doubts from the first whether this was the right approach. There have been other proposals, from laser projections of Buddhas onto the cliff face—unrealistic in a part of the world that barely has electricity—to a plan from the University of Aachen to attach the remaining fragments to the niche wall on a metal frame—unsatisfactory because hardly any of the stone carving remains intact, the Buddhas having been hewn all in one piece out of the living rock, which was therefore reduced to rubble by the explosions.

What is more, Andrea Bruno, who knows the country intimately, having led the conservation of the fort at Herat and the minaret of Jam over many years, believes that such solutions do not take the sensibilities of the Afghans into account. Rebuilding the Buddhas would inevitably be politically loaded, he says, besides causing religious offence. “Here the Muslims strictly oppose images; to recreate the Buddhas would be an insult even to non-Taliban Afghans. We must show good manners,” he says. In fact, after ten years, the Unesco meeting on Bamiyan held in Tokyo in December 2011 announced finally that the Great Buddha would not be recreated, and the smaller Buddha was unlikely to be.

Bruno has a proposal, however, which he describes as ecumenical, and which, above all, aims to enhance the emotional and aesthetic experience of viewing the empty niche. His idea is to create an underground viewing space at the foot of the Great Buddha. He calls this a sanctuary, alluding to the numerous sanctuaries within the cliff. For the two Buddhas were part of a complex extending over a kilometre of cliff-face, honeycombed by passages connecting hundreds of decorated caves once inhabited by Buddhist monks, and now lived in by the poorest of the local villagers. Stairs leading up and then down into the sanctuary would enhance the feeling of entering a concealed sacred space, like a Bronze Age barrow. At the end of the chamber, there would be a small replica of the Great Buddha, with light streaming in on it from a circular opening above, through which the visitor’s gaze would be focused on the grandeur of the void, in the same way as James Turrell frames the sky and makes you see it with particular intensity.

The other part of the visit would take you into the tunnels inside the cliff, up to a circular aperture above where the head of the Buddha used to be. Pilgrims travelling along the Silk Route used to come here and look out over the Bamiyan Valley, so Bruno has designed a small viewing platform, which would be completely dismountable. He emphasises that nothing in his design would be environmentally or visually intrusive, and could all be built with local skills in a matter of months rather than years.

The local people are Hazaras, Shia Muslims who were persecuted by the Taliban, and while enjoying relative peace at present, they have seen their already low standard of living reduced further by the loss of the Buddhas, which used to bring them travellers. They had no hand in their destruction and would like to have something to offer tourists when travel becomes possible again.

Bruno’s sanctuary would be the centrepiece of a much broader programme, announced at the last Unesco meeting on the subject, in December 2011 in Tokyo, which includes de-mining, archaeological excavations, conservation of the cave sanctuaries and their wall decorations, instructing the population on the importance of archaeological remains, and creating a Museum for Peace and a museum for the few fragments of carved stone that survived the dynamiting. Bruno sees all this as the very least the developed world can do to make up for the cultural damage it has done to the Afghans, from broadcasting rubbishy, consumerist TV channels into their homes to having failed to give them alternatives to bad modernist architecture. He estimates that his sanctuary project could be built for under €400,000 and would be a considerable boost to local morale as well as homage to the majesty of the figures that presided over the valley for one and a half millennia.

As for the decision not to recreate the Buddhas, it can be seen as the wheel of history turning full circle. In the first century AD, it was this part of the world, ancient Gandhara, that with its Hellenistic sculptural tradition first gave Buddha his physical form. Until then, Buddha had been represented by his absence—an empty throne or a footprint—and now in Bamiyan he is present once again in an empty niche.

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Comments

12 Jun 12
22:36 CET

CHOYING PALMO, BERKELEY

As the contemplation of impermanence and emptiness is a cornerstone of all Buddhist practice, I can't think of a better way to heed the words of the Buddha than to leave it as is....

6 Jun 12
15:31 CET

SANDRA SHRUBB, SYDNEY

simply brilliant...

4 Jun 12
15:49 CET

ERIC BENJAMIN, ALLIANCE, OHIO

The Buddha would say that the vacancy is an even better image of the Buddha. Kill the Buddha.

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