Afghanistan's Buddhas Rise Again

The Taliban destroyed the ancient monuments in 2001. But they’ve been recreated with the help of lasers.

The remains of a Buddha in Bamiyan (Ahmad Masood / Reuters)

Residents of Bamiyan got a rare opportunity over the weekend: a chance to once again see giant Buddhas that have been piles of rubble for over a decade. 3-D projection technology has already been used to resurrect dead music legends and pipe busy politicians into campaign rallies, and now it’s been employed to recreate a cultural icon that watched over this valley in Afghanistan for more than 1,500 years.

The two Buddhas of Bamiyan were constructed in the sixth century, at a time when the area was a site of pilgrimage and learning for Buddhists. Both Buddhas were carved out of sandstone cliffs and stood at well over 100 feet, and at one point painted and gilded. They managed to withstand the introduction of Islam to the region and the armies of Genghis Khan, but were unable to survive past the first year of the 21st century. The Taliban destroyed the Buddhas in March 2001.

“These idols have been gods of the infidels,” declared Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, in marking the statues for destruction. “First they fired at the Buddhas with tanks and artillery shells,” recalled one Afghan who participated in the attack. “But when that was ineffective, they planted explosives to try to destroy them.” When the Buddhas finally crumbled, Taliban fighters “were firing weapons into the air, they were dancing and they brought nine cows to slaughter as a sacrifice.” The monuments had endured for centuries, only to disappear in a matter of weeks.

A Bamiyan Buddha before and after the Taliban’s 2001 attack on the monument (Wikimedia)

In the ensuing years, UNESCO officials, Afghan authorities, and local residents have failed to reach a consensus about the best way to address the devastation. In 2005, the artist Hiro Yamagata proposed implementing a laser-show system to conjure images of the Buddhas, but the project was never implemented. “The void left by the two destroyed Buddha figures is appalling, it rouses an emotion almost more powerful than their once tranquil presence did for centuries,” Frederic Bobin wrote in The Guardian earlier this year.

Now a solution, albeit a temporary one, has arrived—and from an unlikely source. According to Ali Latifi, a Kabul-based journalist for the Los Angeles Times who witnessed the 3-D projections on Saturday and Sunday, the holograms, cast from projectors mounted on scaffolding, were the work of a Chinese couple who are currently traveling the world and filming a documentary. They had been deeply moved by the statues’ destruction in 2001, and, according to Latifi, decided to undertake the project and add Bamiyan to their itinerary. Latifi told me that the couple fine-tuned the projections on a mountainside in China and then, after receiving approval from UNESCO and the Afghan government, brought the system to Afghanistan. The projections were not widely publicized, but over 150 people came to see the spectacle. Crowds remained well into the night, Latifi said, and some people played music while others looked on.

The fleeting restoration of the Buddhas comes at a time when, only slightly further to the west, there is grave concern over the cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq. Videos emerged in February of ISIS militants rampaging through a museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul and smashing statues dating back even further than Afghanistan’s Buddhas. The Islamic State has also obliterated ruins in the ancient Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud, and a similar fate might befall relics in ISIS-controlled Palmyra, Syria. In response, some people are risking their lives to infiltrate territory held by ISIS and remove antiquities before they can be wrecked or sold off. Others are turning to new technologies to preserve the past—Project Mosul aims to create virtual 3-D models of destroyed Iraqi artifacts, while Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari is hoping to reproduce what has been demolished with 3-D printing.

Reproductions like Afghanistan’s laser Buddhas are inadequate substitutes for destroyed artifacts, but they can nevertheless defy that destruction and preserve some measure of cultural patrimony. In a report on the situation in ISIS-held Mosul this week, the BBC’s Ghadi Sary told a story about leaving a reproduced sculpture of a winged bull (ISIS had destroyed the original) in his hotel room, only to later find a note on it apparently written by someone on the hotel staff: “It said, ‘My greetings to you and to whoever sculpted this. It smells of our civilization. It smells of our lost heritage.’ Signed, ‘The son of Iraq.’”