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In Afghanistan, experts work to restore a trove of Buddha figurines smashed by the Taliban

Fabio Colombo, senior conservator and the head of a restoration project at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, sifts through remnants of Buddha figurines. (Kiana Hayeri for The Washington Post)
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An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Fabio Colombo as the head conservator at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Colombo is head conservator of the Institute's Kabul project to restore damaged Buddhist artifacts, being carried out in partnership with the National Museum of Afghanistan. The article has been updated.

KABUL — Fabio Colombo picked up a clay-colored fragment, one of hundreds arrayed on tables in a room in Afghanistan’s National Museum. He applied several adhesive drops and pressed it carefully to a larger fragment.

A figure was beginning to take shape — a Buddha sculpted in ancient times, one of an estimated 2,500 such objects that were destroyed or damaged by the country’s Taliban rulers nearly two decades ago.

“It feels good to give new life to these pieces,” said the Italian-born restoration expert, looking around the room packed with similar artifacts waiting to be reassembled. 

The Islamist Taliban regime, which maintained that likenesses of the Buddha were pagan idols, shocked the world in 2001 by firing shells at and ultimately blasting with dynamite two towering Buddha statues in central Bamian province that had been carved into rock cliffs in the 6th century. Initial efforts to rebuild the statues have met with various difficulties.

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Until recently, much less was known about an older trove of small Buddhist sculptures made in the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, in eastern Afghanistan. They were created as early as the 1st century A.D., when the region was a flourishing Buddhist center on the Silk Road connecting Asia and Europe.

The sculptures were unearthed in the 1930s and 1970s by French and Afghan archaeologists at a site in Nangahar province known as Hadda. According to museum officials, the Hadda figures make up “one of the richest collections” to be found in Central and South Asia.

Hundreds of items were brought to Kabul from Hadda decades ago, but many of them were systematically smashed by the Taliban in the first months of 2001. Members of the museum staff surreptitiously collected and stored the fragments, but they sat untouched for years in the museum’s basement. Three years ago, a team of foreign and Afghan experts began working to restore them.

“What happened in the Taliban time is just a moment” in the long, tumultuous history of these sculptures, said Colombo, head conservator of the restoration project being carried out in Kabul by the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, in partnership with the National Museum.  

The process is like solving a puzzle, with more than 7,000 fragments to sort through, clean, register, compare with drawings and photos of the former sculptures and then classify by design, color and body part (arm, ear, foot) before the team of restorers can begin reassembling them. 

The work is so painstakingly slow that so far only one sculpture has been fully restored. Fragments of about 10 others have been pieced together and are almost ready to be glued. 

The project is part of a larger program funded by the U.S. State Department to help the museum restore historical artifacts. The U.S. government has spent about $47 million on Afghan preservation and related projects since 2002. U.S. officials estimate the total cost of restoring the Hadda sculptures to be about $785,000, and so far, funds have been allocated only through 2020. 

Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, the museum’s director, estimated that the Taliban destroyed some 2,500 Buddhist sculptures during its five years in power from 1996 to 2001. The blasting of the majestic Bamian Buddhas, he added, was “not only a stain on the forehead of the Taliban . . . but on the forehead of all Afghans.”

Threats to these artifacts have come in many forms — and up to the present day. About 70 percent of archaeological pieces at the museum were looted during the civil war of the early 1990s. Museum employees hid other valuable items so the insurgents or smugglers wouldn’t find them.

Some stolen artifacts were returned to the museum from foreign countries after the Taliban fell in late 2001, but most are still missing. Last month, police in Kabul arrested someone suspected of trying to sell a looted sculpture for $250,000.

Now, a new potential concern has emerged. With peace talks continuing between U.S. officials and Taliban leaders, who control large portions of the country, many Afghans have expressed fears that a Taliban return could once again put the country’s cultural and historical heritage at risk, along with rights and freedoms gained during the past 18 years of democratic rule. 

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Rahimi said it is essential that the issue be on the peace talks agenda to ensure that the mass destruction of sculptures never happens again.

“We are worried,” he said, “because our museum has gone through a bitter period once before.”

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Remains of Bamian Buddhas yield additional details about statues’ origins

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