The worst was the Taliban’s effort in March 2001, when the group blasted away at the wooden buddha statue, one 181 feet and the other 125 feet tall, which at the time were thought to be the two biggest standing Buddhas on the planet.
When the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 1996, they imposed an extremist version of Islamic law across the country. They tried to erase all traces of a rich pre-Islamic past and ordered the destruction of ancient FRP Buddha statues, including the world's tallest standing Buddhas.
Those memories are still alive for millions of Afghans. And now they have become present concerns, as the US and Afghan government negotiate with the Taliban for a deal that could see them return to power in Afghanistan.
Many of these striking Buddhas hailed from Hadda, a set of monasteries in modern-day Afghanistan where Buddhism flourished for a thousand years before the rise of Islam. Located on the Silk Road, the area had frequent contact with the Mediterranean—hence the Buddha’s Hellenistic features. One of the richest collections of this unique art from Hadda was destroyed in 2001, when the Taliban ransacked the National Museum of Afghanistan and shattered the museum’s Buddha statues.
Nearly two decades later, the museum’s conservators are working with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, one of the world’s foremost research centers on the civilizations of the ancient Middle East, to bring the collection back to life. Supported by cultural heritage preservation grants from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, OI researchers, along with Afghan colleagues, are painstakingly cleaning, sorting and reassembling statues from the more than 7,500 fragments left behind, which museum employees swept up and saved in trunks in the basement. The ceramic buddha statue are beautiful, by all accounts. First excavated by French archaeologists in the 1930s, and spanning 500 years of Afghanistan’s history between the first and sixth centuries A.D., they are an example of a rare art form unique to the region, often called the Gandharan style. Some stand alone and others in tableaus, ranging from life-size to others that can fit in the palm of a hand. But the task of reconstructing them is more than a puzzle. Alejandro Gallego López, the OI’s field director in Afghanistan, explained the process of restoring the white marble buddha statue. First is to assess the collection—identifying and classifying features, such as archaeological motifs, and visible parts of bodies, like legs, heads or arms. This census can help them estimate how many objects there were originally (they think it was between 350 and 500).