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Afghanistan Buddhas To Be Rebuilt

9 months after Afghanistan?s fundamentalist rulers caused a global outcry by demolishing the huge 5th-century Buddhas of the Bamiyan valley, the new government is planning to rebuild what was Afghanistan?s greatest archaeological treasure. Japan, China and other countries with large Buddhist populations have offered to help pay for the reconstruction.

New details about the destruction of the giant statues are emerging from local residents who witnessed it, who say the Taliban?s plan to destroy the statues was carefully planned. The government hired Arab, Sudanese and Bangladeshi demolition experts. as well as Chechenians, for the job. Local residents of Bamiyan?Shiite Hazaras who resisted the Taliban and were persecuted by them?were forcibly evacuated from the area before the March destruction. The Taliban, they say, gave them the choice of becoming a Sunni Muslim or leaving, and many fled to the nearby mountains.

The idea of destroying the Buddhas was so repugnant to most Afghans that even the Taliban?s regional culture minister disobeyed the order to participate. Some locals who did stay were forced into labor during the two-week demolition job. ?People couldn?t resist the Taliban,? says a resident named Nowruz, age 25. For three days, he was forced to dig, using his hands or a pick, in order to pack explosives around the 114-foot Buddha?the smaller of the two statues. He still has scars on his knuckles from the digging and a scar on his knee where rock fragments hit him after the explosion.

Nowruz is now one of hundreds of refugees living in the caves carved out of the cliffs near the area where the Buddhas once stood. The caves were once inhabited by thousands of monks who had originally come on pilgrimages to see the famous statues. During the sixth and seventh centuries AD, the monks?many from China and India?would gather there to hear sermons amplified through the nostrils of the larger 165-foot statue.

When the Taliban destroyed the statues last March, residents hiding in the mountains at the time say they heard explosions for three or four days. Members of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance faction in Bamiyan reported heavy radio traffic, mostly congratulatory messages, between Taliban soldiers in the days following the explosions. Fifty cows were sacrificed at the site and Taliban dignitaries were flown in by helicopter for the celebration.

The Pakistan-based Al-Rasheed Trust, which has links to Osama bin Laden, printed a memorial calendar detailing the destruction. Today, all that?s left of the Bamiyan Buddhas is rubble. Bits of rock left over from the statues have been smuggled to Pakistani art dealers and have made their way as far as Japan. ?When the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed, it felt like Afghanistan lost a child,? says Deputy Culture Minister Mirheydar Motaher.

But the Buddhas may be reincarnated. Culture Minister Raheen Makhdoom has officially announced plans for the reconstruction of the Buddhas. ?The world should set an example to show extremists that today there are possibilities to reconstruct, and there is the will to reconstruct, such edifices after they are destroyed,? says Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, UNESCO?s representative in the reconstruction effort.

?Reconstruction won?t have the same historical value,? says Motaher. ?But it?s a positive step for the country and could bring thousands of tourists.? The reconstruction plan, if approved, will begin with the sale of 20-inch replicas of the Buddhas to collect funds. A scale model one-tenth of the actual size will then be constructed to work through the technical difficulties. Designers will have to figure out how to stand the larger Buddha on two legs, since the original legs were missing for centuries. The final reconstruction will use the most accurate measurements of the Buddhas available, with less than a one-inch margin of error, which were taken by an Austrian mountaineer over thirty years ago.

Afghanistan?s new authorities also hope to reinstate some of their country?s other cultural artifacts as well. The Kabul Museum lost approximately 2,750 works of art during Taliban rule. But hundreds more survived, smuggled out to Switzerland by members of the Northern Alliance and more moderate Taliban supporters. Bucherer-Dietschi, who opened the Afghanistan Museum in Bubendorf, Switzerland, a year ago, hopes the items will soon be sent back to Kabul for display at a new museum location.

?The Taliban did a very bad thing destroying the Buddhas,? says Sadeq, a 24-year merchant whose general store looks out on the empty niches where the Buddhas once stood. ?They thought people worshipped them. But it wasn?t a holy site, it was a historic site.?

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From the 1st to the 7th centuries, the Kushan Buddhist empire was a crucial East-West crossroads, in a land then known as Bactria. Now it spreads across at least four countries: Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

?While the Taliban were destroying their heritage, the Uzbeks are conserving theirs,? says Barry Lane, director of the Uzbek office of UNESCO, the UN cultural heritage agency. Long before Islam arrived in Central Asia, hundreds of Buddhist monks once prayed in solitary mud brick chambers built into barren slopes there. Temples lined with columns and filled with frescoes were visited by pilgrims. Now archaeologists from Japan, France and elsewhere are burrowing deeply into the clay, unearthing Buddha statuettes covered over by remnants of centuries of Muslim life.

Today?s borders make the work ?awkward and incomplete,? says Tukhtash Annayev, an archaeologist working in the Uzbek river port of Termez. Termez was the Buddhist center of Central Asia during the Kushan empire?s reign. Historians say it played a key role in exporting Buddhism to Tibet and parts of China.

On Muslim holidays, Muslims recite prayers outside the dusty cave entrances at the Hakim at-Termizi mausoleum complex near Termez, which is a shrine to a 9th century Muslim ruler. Yet the caves predate Uzbekistan?s 1,200-year Islamic history and are believed to have served as quarters for Kushan Buddhist monks. Now schools are starting to teach pupils about the region?s pre-Muslim history, including its Buddhist era and the preceding centuries when it was populated by followers of Alexander the Great.

In Tajikistan, civil war with Islamic extremists during much of the 1990s halted nearly all archaeological digs. Restoration is still being done on a 42-foot-long Buddha statue found in the 1960s. The ?Buddha in Nirvana? statue will reside in the yet-to-open Museum of Antiquities.

Uzbekistan?s digs have attracted global attention, especially since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union opened them to foreign researchers. French-led teams excavate the Kara-tepa monastery, which lies inside the Uzbek-Afghan frontier zone and therefore is off limits to nearly everyone. A few hundred yards away, just outside the border zone, a huge, stucco-covered mound containing sacred Buddhist relics marks the entrance of the Fayaz-tepa monastery. Poking out of the dust are shards of ceramic objects that are estimated to date back more than 1,000 years.

UNESCO wants to use a $750,000 Japanese government grant to build a road connecting the two monasteries, shore up existing walls, install original column bases and murals, and build a museum and gift shop. Lane says, ?I think it?s going to be a very interesting site for tourists from Japan and elsewhere.?

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