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After the Taliban (Before Its Return?)

On PBS tonight was a National Geographic show about grave robbers archaeologists and more generally the reclamation of Afghan culture after the scorched-art policies of the Taliban. It was the first time I’d seen the footage of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Mullah Omar’s order to destroy all symbolic art was atrocious, but as I watched the Buddhas disintegrate, I was struck by the order’s similarity to 1 Samuel. I mostly buy the argument that the order was given primarily as a political statement, but it’s also rather disturbing to realize that the Taliban harkens back to the bad old days when Israel’s god magically smashed all the anthropocentric features off Dagon and generally forbade all art that didn’t represent grape clusters and leaves. Fortunately, there is likely a third Buddha—the show ended just as they discovered its feet—buried in Bamiyan. It was the subject of some speculation in the heady days of 2002, when newsmagazines could write credulously of archaeology for Afghans’ sake:

Other scholars want the Buddha brought to light. More than anything right now, they say, Afghans need the Buddha unearthed as symbolic proof that the Taliban weren’t able to eradicate all of the country’s rich, pre-Islamic heritage. The country is a historian’s treasure trove. Between the 3rd and 8th centuries, Afghanistan experienced a fusion of Greek, Persian and Indian cultures. The Bamiyan statues, for example, showed traces of Greek influence, as if the sculptors had stolen the robes off Apollo, the Greek sun god, to drape their enormous Buddhas. “There’s a cultural void left by the destruction of the two Buddhas,” says Afghan archaeologist Zafar Paiman. “I’m sure that, if the reclining Buddha is found, the people of Bamiyan are ready to protect it.”

Never mind that there is a lot of conflating of scholarly reputation with Afghan identity in that paragraph. Such a paragraph couldn’t even be written today, since the Taliban is returning, thanks in no small part to the Bush Administration’s ADD style of warfare. That eradication of heritage could very quickly happen again. How bitter it would be if, on the eve of uncovering the sleeping Buddha in Bamiyan in celebration of pre-Islamic heritage, the Taliban arrived to destroy it, too.



The current, unofficial policy of the Iraqi National Museum is, “If you have something that belongs to us, let us know, but please, for the love of God, don’t send it back to us yet. Hold onto it for now, and we’ll send for it when we’re ready to take care of it.”

I hope they leave that Buddha buried for now.

There haven’t been any articles about it since 2005. I suspect that security has kept the good archaeologist away.