Afghan Archaeologist Seeks Sleeping Buddha

By Marc Kaufman, Washington Post Staff Writer, February 7, 2005

Bamiyan, Afghanistan -- The world looked on helplessly four years ago as Islamic zealots destroyed two enormous standing Buddha statues overlooking Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley, but recent explorations at the ancient site have led researchers to conclude that all may not have been lost. A third, much larger statue -- a 1,000-foot-long sleeping Buddha -- may still be buried nearby.

Inspired by the writings of a Chinese pilgrim almost 1,400 years ago, Afghanistan's foremost archaeologist is leading a dig within view of the cliff walls where the two Buddhas once stood. The initial goal is to find the ancient monastery that the Chinese traveler Xuanzang described around A.D. 630, and then the gigantic reclining Buddha that he said was inside its walls.

Although some promising discoveries have been made in the past two years, archaeologists do not really know what they might find beneath the cliffs. But the leader of the dig, Zemaryalai Tarzi, is optimistic that important discoveries lie under the soil, and he will return to Bamiyan this summer to continue the excavation.

If it is there, Tarzi and others say, the statue would be a major archaeological treasure and would help restore the Bamiyan Valley to the top ranks of world heritage sites.

"If indeed Xuanzang's tales are true," Tarzi says, he is digging for "the largest reclining statue ever made in the artistic world." Because the pilgrim was remarkably accurate in describing the gigantic size and location of the two standing Buddhas, Tarzi says there is good reason to believe his account of the reclining Buddha, as well.

To some, the search is a quixotic one. If the ancient Chinese pilgrim is to be believed, the sleeping Buddha is almost as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall. How could such a monumental structure disappear underground, some ask, and how could it be salvageable if it still exists?

Tarzi has possible answers: The statue could have been deliberately buried centuries ago by devotees to protect it from invading Muslim armies, or it could have been covered after a major earthquake. But more important, his team has begun uncovering at the site clay figures and sophisticated structures that lend support to his grand theory.

Last summer, the dig uncovered a wall that Tarzi is convinced is part of the ancient monastery that housed the huge statue. Excavators have also discovered several dozen sculptures of Buddha heads and other statue fragments, some dating to as far back as the 3rd century -- when Bamiyan was growing as a Buddhist center. At the very end of the digging season, Tarzi found evidence as well of what he believes may be part of a huge statuary foot.

He is aware of the professional skepticism surrounding his quest -- some have said the reported size of the structure has been misunderstood, while others suggest that the reclining "statue" may have been an outcropping of rock that reminded the religious of a sleeping Buddha -- but he insists the evidence is clear.

"I know that some of my colleagues hesitate regarding the length of the reclining Buddha statue," Tarzi said in an e-mail. "Our only source of information comes from the testimony by Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang. . . . In all versions and copies of his traveling accounts, the length of the large reclining statue is 1,000 feet long."

The work is sufficiently tantalizing that the government of France and the National Geographic Society have funded Tarzi's efforts, and the dig will be featured on a National Geographic television special later this year.

After problems with a local warlord stopped work several summers ago, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave his formal approval for the dig and has helped supply 24-hour security for the site. An organization founded by Tarzi's daughter Nadia, the San Francisco-based Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology (, is also raising money for the joint Afghan-French dig.

Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Muslim now, but for centuries it had a flourishing Buddhist culture, and one of its highest expressions was at Bamiyan -- a fertile valley high in the Hindu Kush.

Once a way station along the Silk Road between China and the Middle East, researchers believe Bamiyan was home to monasteries housing as many as 5,000 monks at its zenith in the A.D. 500s and 600s. They also believe Bamiyan was the site of some of the first statues to ever show the face of Buddha, who had previously been represented as a footprint or an umbrella. The Greek influence introduced earlier by Alexander the Great met the growing popularity of Buddhism and flowered into the massive Buddha sculptures of Bamiyan.

By the 10th century, the area had converted to Islam, which generally views human representations as idolatry, but for centuries afterward the Bamiyan Buddhas remained a central and widely embraced part of Afghan heritage and culture. While several earlier rulers considered the statues sacrilegious and inflicted minor damage, only the Taliban and al Qaeda took concerted action to destroy them.

In March 2001, they used artillery, bombs and ultimately dynamite over several days to bring the statues down.

Tarzi actually began his quest for the sleeping Buddha well before the Taliban came into the world, even before his homeland began its descent into war and chaos in the late 1970s. He oversaw earlier efforts to repair and stabilize the standing Buddhas -- which were more than 170 and 120 feet high, respectively -- and was well aware of the report by the Chinese monk Xuanzang of the reclining Buddha. But he did not feel any real urgency back then, believing he would have decades to work on the ancient wonders of Bamiyan.

Instead, he fled Afghanistan with his family in 1979, and lived, studied and taught archaeology in France for more than 20 years. He did not return to his country until 2002, after the huge niches cut into the cliffs that face the town of Bamiyan had been emptied of their ancient treasures. Less well known is that the Taliban and looters also stripped ancient frescos and other artwork from hundreds of rooms and corridors dug into the cliffs alongside the giant Buddhas.

Tarzi has no illusions about what condition the reclining Buddha will be in if he finds it. Reclining or sleeping Buddhas -- created to represent the Buddha as he prepared to enter nirvana -- are generally in close contact with soil and mud. In addition, it was most likely made of mud and plaster and would have degraded significantly below ground.

But discovering a pristine, gold-covered statue was never the hope. Rather, Tarzi's goal is to uncover and highlight the archaeological importance of a site many thought had been destroyed forever.

"The Bamiyan Valley was one of the most important places along the Silk Road and is just filled with undiscovered finds," said archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, a National Geographic Fellow and expert on the region. "Whether Tarzi uncovers this particular statue is important, but there's a lifetime worth of other discoveries waiting in Bamiyan, too."