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Should We Rebuild the Buddhas of Bamiyan?

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When you've spent 18 months writing a book called The Buddhas of Bamiyan, and - let's be honest - when you'd quite like to flog a copy or two, all the recent talk about reconstructing one of the colossal statues demolished by the Taliban can seem heaven-sent. Those 18 months were spent discovering that places don't come any more historically significant than Bamiyan.

In AD 629 the Buddhas were visited by Xuanzang, the great Chinese traveller sometimes described as the Marco Polo of the East: he left a precious account of their original, brightly-coloured decoration. Later they were celebrated wonders of the Islamic world, monuments of which it was said that there were "no equals in this world."

At the end of the 18th century an eccentric but influential British author proposed that Bamiyan was the Garden of Eden: a string of dropouts, spies, and Christian missionaries visited Bamiyan from British India in his wake, and though all of them found a place of breathtaking natural beauty, the earthly paradise proved more elusive. Even the destruction of the Buddhas in 2001 was connected in murky ways to the greatest historical turning-point of recent times, in New York later the same year.

So yes, by all means let's investigate the feasibility of reconstructing the smaller (38 m.) Buddha - what remains of the bigger (55 m.) statue is just too fragmentary for it to be an option there. If it can be done well, if the daunting technical obstacles can be overcome, and if the cost (which will be exorbitant) can be justified by the benefits it will bring to a renascent tourist industry, who could possibly object? It's certainly what the local population want, and leaving empty the niche of the larger Buddha would even satisfy the purists who see the space where the Buddhas once were as a powerful memorial in itself. In all sorts of ways, a profoundly apt gesture.

But gestures are tricky things, all too easily misread. In particular, the way proponents of reconstruction have tied it to the departure of international forces in 2014 is unhelpful, partly because that makes the timeframe for such an intricate operation far too tight, but mainly because Afghanistan in general, and Afghan archaeology in particular, need more than gestures.

The bottom line is that Bamiyan may be the most famous archaeological site in Afghanistan, but it's not the only one. In fact the country is an archaeological treasure trove, a legacy of its long, turbulent history at the heart of Asian geopolitics. One example of archaeological wealth that has to be seen to be believed is Chehel Burj, in the mountains west of Bamiyan, a conical hill surmounted by massive medieval fortifications. The decay of its mud-brick buildings has left it looking rather like a fairytale castle in the process of dissolving - the world's biggest sandcastle. The structure itself is Ghorid, twelfth/thirteenth century, but around it are much older historical remains. The threats faced by Afghanistan's archaeological record are manifold, but they're not for the most part the kind that happens in the glare of the international media.

Give it time, and illicit treasure hunting, earthquakes and old-fashioned freeze-thaw action will destroy more than the most single-minded iconoclast could ever dream of.

What good will it do to resurrect one of the Buddhas of Bamiyan if Chehel Burj is allowed to melt away? That's not symbolism but tokenism, the guilty parting gesture of Western powers that know they haven't really done the job. Reconstruction can only make sense as part of a bigger commitment to preserve what is still there in Afghanistan. Before anything else we should build a museum at Bamiyan, which will house among other things the leaf from the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment, part of a 1500-year old offering found in the rubble of the smaller Buddha in 2006. Furthermore, this commitment must not evaporate in 2014. If the departure of the major troop deployments in 2014 means a complete disengagement from Afghanistan, then it's the 1990s all over again, when the world abandoned Afghanistan - and that wasn't good for anyone, not for archaeologists, not for Afghans, and not for a lot of people a very long way from Afghanistan.

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