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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Experts Debate Future of Destroyed Buddhas

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan -- For over 1,600 years, from the twilight of imperial Rome through the ravages of Genghis Khan, the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan towered above the fabled Silk Road through Afghanistan that linked the ancient East and West.

A thousand years back, when they were already 600 years old, the faces of the statues were hacked off on the orders of a Muslim zealot. But the figures themselves stood until March last year, when Mullah Omar, leader of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime, finished them off with dynamite.

The two colossal statues laboriously carved from a pink sandstone cliff overlooking the town of Bamiyan were blasted from their niches and reduced to piles of dust in an act that shocked the world and awakened it to the extent of the Taliban's religious intolerance.

It looked to be a final devastating blow to central Afghanistan's Hazara tribe, who suffered some of the worst Taliban atrocities during its rule.

But with the Taliban now overthrown, experts from all over the world are working with the new government, under the auspices of the UN cultural organization UNESCO to see what can be done to save what is left of the Buddhas.

Technology exists to completely rebuild the 55 meter and 38 meter statues, but a debate is raging as to how far such work should go.

At present, only the outlines of the statues remain along with parts of the arms attached to the cliff wall.

Among the most controversial proposals has been from an Afghan-American artist, Haider Zad, who suggested building new statues in reinforced concrete, an idea that has horrified UNESCO experts and would likely provoke considerable anger among Afghanistan's legions of Islamic conservatives.

Inspecting the remnants last week, UNESCO Kabul's senior cultural specialist Jim Williams said the government and international donors had agreed the priority should be to consolidate and protect the remains.

Michael Petzet, president of the International Council for Monuments and Sites, a private NGO that is a consultant to UNESCO, said there were enough large fragments remaining for a successful reconstruction of the Buddhas through a process known as anastylosis.

"It's like any archaeological site," he said. "You have part of it and you sort of build it up again," he said.

The governor of Bamiyan, Mohammad Rahim Ali Yar, said the local government was eager to see the statues rebuilt because they represented part of Afghanistan's cultural heritage and because they would bring tourism revenue to the desperately poor province.

Butul Ahad Abacy, who is in charge of historic monuments at the ministry of information and culture, said it could be dangerous to rebuild the statues.

"We are living in an Islamic country and there are some very radical Islamists living here. If we were to build new statues banned by Islam they might react very strongly to that.

"According to the rules on the preservation of monuments, if something is destroyed, we preserve what is left. I don't think that would provoke the same outrage as building a new idol. It would be just preserving our historical heritage."