The Eroded Face of Afghanistan

by Rae Ellen Bichell:

For most of the year, Dr. Zemaryalai Tarzi is a professor of archaeology at the University of Strasbourg, France. In the summer – excavating season – he becomes an “Afghan Indiana Jones,” a nickname bestowed on him last year by the BBC in reference to his tireless search for the long-lost Third Buddha of Afghanistan.

Tarzi has conducted excavations in the Bamiyan province for decades, managing teams of workers and students at a site that was, in the sixth and seventh centuries, a thriving post along the Silk Road. At 71, Tarzi’s career has spanned turbulent decades in Afghanistan’s history, during which he has earned a name as the father of Afghan archaeology and one of the only people, he says, to whom “politics don’t matter much.” But with tribal tensions, high illiteracy rates, and foreign troops patrolling the countryside, wiping complex political cobwebs from Afghanistan’s past is an uphill battle.

Azdhar, known as the Valley of the Dragon, was the site of Bamiyan's fabled Buddhas until their wholesale destruction in 2001. (Courtesy Alessandro Monsutti)

Turbulent Conditions

Tarzi has contributed extensively to Afghanistan’s cultural preservation, recovering some of what the Taliban tried to erase. “Archaeology can serve as a slogan for a country. It can be venerated,” he said. Tarzi has dedicated his life to uncovering his country’s buried cultural treasures. “It’s my excavations that have yielded the most information on Afghanistan’s Buddhist past,” he said. “Before me, there weren’t sites excavated officially. It was more of a free-for-all.” Tarzi may have a place in Afghanistan’s history now, but his rela

tions with his home country were once tumultuous. When he started excavations as a student with a French team, Afghanistan was still a kingdom and France had sole rights to excavate in the country. A professor for many years, he held the title of Director of Archaeology and Preservation of Historical Monuments of Afghanistan, and also of Director General of the Archaeology Institute of Kabul. “When I left, I was the big deal, the head.” Following the Soviet invasion in 1979, however, Tarzi was forced to flee to France in the trunk of a car.

During his exile, everything Tarzi knew in his home country turned upside-down. “Kabul was destroyed, people disappeared, everything was magnified – the poor became poorer, the rich richer, and everything razed. It was worse than Stalingrad.” Archaeology suffered huge blows. “In this case, you have no patience, time, or thoughts for objects of art,” he said, particularly when Russian soldiers loot the museums for gold objects.
Even now, conditions for cultural preservation are less than ideal. Afghanistan currently houses troops from 47 different countries, with 107,000 more slated to be sent this year by the United States and others. “There are bombs, everything is so extreme,” said Tarzi. “The world is becoming crazy.”

It is this violence which put a spotlight on the importance of Tarzi’s excavations. In March 2001, the Taliban began obliterating all idols as violations of Muslim sharia law. Among the victims of this rampage were two 130-foot-high colossal Buddhas, which at one point housed up to 5,000 monks in surrounding niches set within the cliffs. The move was a cultural and archaeological disaster and a widely publicized example of the Taliban’s fanaticism.

Far away, in exile in France, Tarzi’s years of work on the site had a protective effect. Tarzi had inserted steel reinforcements into the cliff to stave off natural erosion and shifting. As a result, it took the Taliban four days of continuous shelling to reduce the site to rubble. Feats like these have earned Tarzi his reputation for tenacity, and maybe a side of egotism. “Have you seen the movie Saving Private Ryan?” he asked as he described the event. “I was compared to the man who saved Private Ryan. But instead of saving a soldier, I was saving the artifacts of Afghanistan.”

Against the Grain

Since 2002, Tarzi has received much attention for his search for the Third Buddha of Bamiyan, a third and final colossus described in Chinese accounts and somehow hidden from view. At a predicted 1,000 feet long, it could potentially be the largest Buddha in existence, but Tarzi’s take on it differs from that given in the news. To him, the lost Buddha may be the glamorous face of Afghan archaeology and an enticing story for international media, but finding its location is not the core of what he does. “The people who give me money want me to find the Third Buddha, but when I work, I lead a scientific research team,” he said, hinting at the discrepancy between how the world sees of archaeology and how it is actually practiced. “What I find is much more interesting than the Buddha. I am much more concerned with the grottoes at the bottom of the cliff,” he said, referring to murals, clay figurines, and thatch huts which proved that the site was actually much older than previously accepted.

His contribution to the national museum has been integral in restoring the country’s heritage, but Tarzi and the government frequently do not see eye-to-eye. Attempting to restore national pride, the government now wants to rebuild the fallen Buddhas, but Tarzi is against the proposal. “I want to debunk this view that restoring cultural heritage comes with rebuilding. Why not then rebuild the pyramids, just because we can?”

To Tarzi, even the site’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is not much more than empty publicity. “UNESCO? No, no, no, they don’t do anything,” he said of the NGO responsible for funding another team of excavators in the region under Japanese supervision. Tarzi has similar feelings about “Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan,” an exhibit of Afghan artifacts that toured the US last year. To Tarzi, the show was little more than a “political exhibit.” “I was against the objects ever leaving Afghanistan,” he said.

Another Reputation

A purist and a traditionalist, Tarzi claims detachment from politics and jealousy. According to Yale professor of anthropology Alessandro Monsutti, the real picture may be different. Afghanistan’s long history of fragmentation and tribal warfare causes locals to see any attempt at cultural reconstruction as political manipulation. This is especially true for Tarzi, who comes from a powerful family linked to the former monarchy and whose relatives include an ambassador, a representative to the United Nations, a professor at the U.S. Marine Corps University, and Soraya Tarzi, late Queen of Afghanistan.

“The elite are interested in fostering a national identity, but the Buddhist past is probably not relevant to the Afghan people,” said Monsutti. “They don’t even know what a Buddha is. Even the statues don’t represent a pre-Islamic time. For them, it’s a couple of kings, local folklore.” The centuries-old history of friction between contending tribes, while recent in comparison with the ancient Buddhas, is much more real for the inhabitants of the region.

Tarzi sticks to his objectivity: “I dig for archaeology and for history. It’s not political for me.” But his reputation precedes him in Bamiyan. Tarzi is a powerful Pashtun in a region populated by the historically suppressed Hazaras. Antagonism between the two groups is such that the province holds annual celebrations of local leaders who resisted the Pashtuns, while Tarzi digs away nearby. “Tarzi probably can’t imagine that he could be seen as an emissary of the Old Regime, which the locals hate,” said Monsutti, “but there is so much suspicion, fed by decades of war. He’s not following a political agenda, but not one would believe that.”

In a country where illiteracy may be as high as 72 percent, the disconnect between scholars and locals means that efforts to foster a national identity will be difficult, particularly in rural areas like Bamiyan.

Now at an age when most retire, Tarzi is still going strong. Besides conducting excavations every summer, he is also the president of the Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology, an association he co-founded with his daughter to promote Afghanistan’s 5,000-year old heritage. As for when he will stop, Tarzi said, “Maybe in four or five years, when I am done with my final volume.”

Finished with two of four volumes, Tarzi waits for funding for the third. “I’m old, you know. I’m gaining weight,” he said. If Tarzi had his way, excavations would continue for centuries. Indeed, it may take much longer before the troops pull out, tribal tensions ease, and a consensus is reached about Afghanistan’s history. Regardless of old age and the political swirl around him, Tarzi will be on the case until his job is done, by the end perhaps a cultural relic himself.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a sophomore Anthropology major in Davenport College.