Notes from the Field

Renowned Afghan Archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi Discusses Bamiyan

June 11, 2014

Professor Tarzi with a backdrop of the Bamiyan cliff.

Professor Tarzi with a backdrop of the Bamiyan cliff.

On February 26, leading Afghan archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi spoke at The Asia Foundation’s headquarters in San Francisco. Formerly the general director of Archaeology and Preservation of the Historical Monuments of Afghanistan, Professor Tarzi is currently president of the San Rafael, CA-based Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology, created by his daughter, Nadia Tarzi, in 2003. Professor Tarzi directed excavations at the foot of the cliff that once housed the statues of Bamiyan. Through his excavation campaigns he unearthed several ancient Buddhist monasteries that date to the 3rd century A.D. In Asia editor Alma Freeman sat down with him to learn more.

How did you start your career as one of the main archeologists at Bamiyan?

The first time I saw the Bamiyan valley and the Buddhas was in 1967. From 1960, I was studying archaeology at the Strasbourg University in France under my mentor and teacher, Professor Daniel Schlumberger. Upon my graduation, he asked me into his office and said, “I want you to go to Afghanistan to document and gather information on Bamiyan for your thesis.”

He sent a recommendation letter to Paul Bernard, who was at the time director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan. When I got the offer, I asked my professor to give me 24 to 48 hours to respond, and he asked, why? And I said because there have been some amazing researchers who have come before me, like Andre Godard and Joseph Hackin, so how could I, as a novice, just pop in and start making waves? He got very serious, and said, “Well, if their dating of the site had been correct, I would not have bothered asking you to do more research!” So of course I accepted. None of the logistics had yet been decided, so when I returned to Afghanistan, after seven years studying in France, I asked for help from my family. My big brother accompanied me as a photographer as well as my father and a personal driver, who was also a mountain climber. We set up a big tent. It was very cold at night. We did two or three weeks of surveying. Some days I would climb 50 meters high to these amazing spots on the cliff using mountain climbing spikes we had commissioned from a blacksmith in the Bamiyan village.

Many years later, when I became head of archeology for Afghanistan, there were other researchers from other teams who found metal spikes at the site, and those were the ones that we put in place back then to reach isolated caves on the cliff’s walls.

Can you describe what it was it like when you first saw the ancient Buddhas?

After a very exhausting trip through two big passes that were then in the hands of the Taliban, we finally arrived. At first you are completely blown away by the spectacular landscape of the valley – green, lush, and peaceful. When you are in front of the Buddhas, you are speechless, you feel very small and you have humility. In front of such masterpiece of sculpture, you wonder about the artists who made them. It was a huge surprise, and I was full of enthusiasm.

Bamiyan is known as a Buddhist center on the Silk Road in the central highlands of Afghanistan. Can you talk about the historical and geographical importance of Bamiyan?

We began our restoration work, but at the time I wasn’t sure about the artistic value of Bamiyan. So when I returned to France and started working with everything I had gathered and studying all the Buddhist sites from India to China, I realized that Bamiyan was a decisive step for the expansion of Buddhism. When I started comparing Bamiyan with other sites that had caves, such as Ajanta in India, and others, in terms of the number of caves per site, the area that was painted in the caves, the size of the statues, and the confident execution of the artists, you realize that Bamiyan was in fact probably the greatest of all of these sites. There is a Muslim chronicler who estimated there to be 12,000 caves at Bamiyan. There is a Japanese professor who counted about 2,000 caves in the big cliff alone. And there are other such cliffs throughout the valley!

The geographical location of Bamiyan is also very significant. If you look at Google maps for instance, you can see that from the modern pass of Salang to the west, there are only two green valleys, and Bamiyan took precedence for nomadic caravans. The Hindu Kush Mountains, which extend from the north to the southwest and are an extension of the Himalayas, act almost like a fence, artistically speaking, between India and Central Asia. You can see an osmosis of Indian and Chinese art influence converging in that area. Bamiyan is influenced by all these tendencies and then has its own artistic expression. In its time, it was a big religious center with over 10 monasteries and thousands of monks who lived there. At the same time, it was a huge artistic center. Right until the Soviet invasion, Bamiyan was a huge tourist destination.

You were in Strasbourg when you heard the news that the Taliban had destroyed the Buddha statues in 2001.

I had participated with UNESCO in attempts to stop this, so I knew it was coming, but when I saw this unfold on TV it was a big shock. When I returned to Bamiyan in 2002, it was late at night, and I of course knew that the 38-meter Buddha had been destroyed and I couldn’t even look at it. Around 6 am the next day, I pretended I was going to take pictures because the light is so great at that time. But I just sat there for 15 minutes on my own with my binoculars crying. I never went directly to the statues again until 2004 when National Geographic was there filming National Treasures of Afghanistan, and they asked me to go to the cliff with my daughter Nadia. That was very difficult. It is a catastrophe, that’s what it is.

What do you see as the future of Bamiyan?

Now, everyone talks about spending millions to stabilize the cliff or rebuild it, but it doesn’t make sense. I disagree with the reconstruction of the statues. In ancient Greece, one kind of reconstruction was used from which comes the term “anastylosis,” which means to rebuild a monument from fallen parts. In Bamiyan, it wasn’t parts of columns that were destroyed, it was pieces of cliff, with nothing left in between because it was pulverized. A group led by Mr. Michael Petzet, a very good restorer, has stabilized the smaller Buddha so that rocks would not fall onto tourists. The same will be done with the big Buddha, but they are taking a great deal of time to do this. Unfortunately, I am pessimistic about the future of Bamiyan and the archaeological heritage of Afghanistan as a whole. We have to see what the new government will be like and who the next president will be.

In the meantime, it is urgent to publish everything that has been excavated and researched from Bamiyan in the last 10 years. If any of these objects and monuments are destroyed again without being published, it will be an unforgivable loss for everyone.

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