Unesco stops unauthorised reconstruction of Bamiyan Buddhas

Article by Alessandro Martini and Ermanno Rivetti in the Art Newspaper, 06 February 2014

The international community has reacted furiously to news that a German-led team of archaeologists has been reconstructing the feet and legs of the smaller of the two Bamiyan Buddhas, the monumental Afghan sculptures blown up by the Taliban in 2001. News of this reconstruction, which has taken place without Unesco’s knowledge or permission, was revealed during the 12th meeting of Unesco’s Bamiyan working group, in Orvieto, Italy, in December.
A team of archaeologists from the German branch of Icomos (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), led by Michael Petzet, who himself served as the head of Icomos from 1999 to 2008, spent most of last year rebuilding the smaller Buddha’s lower appendages with iron rods, reinforced concrete and bricks, an operation that Francesco Bandarin, Unesco’s assistant director-general for culture, describes as “wrong on every level”. He says: “Unesco has nothing to do with this project. It was undertaken without the consent of the Afghan government and has now been stopped.”

Andrea Bruno, the architectural consultant to Unesco for the past 40 years, confirms that the work was carried out “against Unesco’s decision [taken in 2011] not to rebuild the Buddhas” and says the organisation was never made aware that the project was going ahead. Bruno says the work has caused “irreversible damage, bordering on the criminal”. He adds that the work had not yet started when he visited Afghanistan last March.

Petzet told The Art Newspaper that he and his team “just wanted to preserve what can be preserved”. He says: “Everything we have done was discussed with the Afghan authorities: this [project] is nothing new.” However, Bandarin says that the Afghan minister of culture was not aware of the work when Bandarin asked him to put a stop to it.

Petzet says that his team’s funding was originally provided by Unesco. Bandarin has confirmed that Unesco “has a contract with Icomos Germany to build a platform [where the smaller Buddha once stood] to protect visitors from falling rocks”, but reiterates that the reconstruction work was not part of the deal and that Unesco wants to dismantle the results.

The question is: how did Petzet’s team manage to carry out such extensive work without anyone noticing? “Things like this can happen in such a remote Afghan province,” Bandarin says, “especially since they have worked there for years before this.” Icomos, which was founded in 1965 and works to conserve and protect heritage sites around the world, advises Unesco on World Heritage Sites, but Unesco remains in charge of their management, conservation and restoration. Experts at Unesco asked the central Icomos office to file a report to the Afghan authorities by the beginning of this month, and an additional report on the matter is due to be presented to the World Heritage Committee in June.

The Buddhas once stood along the ancient Silk Route in the remote Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, around 250km west of Kabul. The sculptures—53m and 35m tall—were carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley in the sixth century, at the height of the Kushan empire and before the Islamic invasion of the late seventh century. Several attempts were made to destroy the statues during centuries of Islamic rule, until the Taliban brought them down with anti-aircraft guns, artillery and dynamite.

When less is more

The future of the site was formally decided at a Unesco meeting in Tokyo in 2011. The organisation reviewed numerous plans for the site’s conservation or restoration, ranging from laser projections of the Buddhas onto the cliff face to Michael Petzet’s proposal to reassemble the surviving fragments of the smaller Buddha in its niche using metal frames. But the final decision was to leave the niches empty. Andrea Bruno told The Art Newspaper in May 2012 that “the void is the true sculpture” and that the Buddhas would be best remembered through their absence. Rebuilding them could also cause offence to the country’s Muslims, because Islam forbids religious images.

Nevertheless, their destruction was a disaster for the local population of Shia Muslims, who have been persecuted by the Taliban, because it deprived them of what little income they had from foreign visitors. A Unesco-led project aims to encourage visitors in the future with a series of initiatives.

The future of the Afghan sculptures

Unesco has asked Andrea Bruno’s architecture studio in Turin to supervise four projects:

• The largest initiative is a cultural centre and museum devoted to the area’s rich Buddhist and Muslim history. This “goes beyond the missing Buddhas”, says Andrea Bruno (below). The building, inspired by the traditional Afghan “fortress-house”, will sit on a plateau that faces the cliff into which the statues were hewn. South Korea has said that it will foot the $5.4m bill. The building is expected to be finished in October 2016, if conditions on the ground permit.

• A concealed underground viewing chamber will be built at the foot of the larger Buddha. A small replica of the statue will stand at the end of the chamber and visitors will be able to see the empty niche through an opening in the ceiling. “This construction will be discreet and unobtrusive,” says Bruno, who adds that it can be built with just a fraction of the South Korean funds.

• A bazaar is being planned along the remains of the ancient Silk Route, on the esplanade that lies between the cliff face and the plateau where the museum will stand.

• Three interconnected caves in the nearby ancient site of Shahr-i Ghulghulah, a 13th-century city in the Bamiyan valley that was conquered by Genghis Khan, are to be restored with a $1m grant from the Italian government. Bruno hopes they can be used to host temporary exhibitions and other cultural events.