In Afghanistan, 900-Foot Sleeping Buddha Eludes Archaeologists

Article excerpt

After the Taliban fell, France sent Zemaryalai Tarzi to this Afghan valley on a quest bordering on the mythological. His goal: to find Sleeping Buddha, the reclining sculpture that, at 900 feet long, would be nearly 10 times the size of the Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

He brought the ultimate treasure map - the journal of a 7th- century Chinese pilgrim who recorded every major monument in painstaking detail.

But six years later, there's no Sleeping Buddha. When it comes to this prize, the journal is frustratingly vague. And, Dr. Tarzi freely acknowledges, he has been otherwise occupied as he and other archaeologists have found, preserved, and worked to understand Afghanistan's other ancient riches, starting right here in Bamiyan.

What he has found are the remnants of the culture that built the Buddhas - one of the most lavish and powerful kingdoms of ancient Central Asia.

Recently Tarzi's colleague, archaeologist Mickaeel Rakotozonia, stood in a steady drizzle, surrounded by mud-brick houses, and gestured to two ancient towers almost lost amid the jigsaw of earthen walls here.

Between these two towers, he speculated, might have been a gate into the Kingdom City of Bamiyan, home to the creators of the two stone Buddhas carved from a nearby cliff some 1,500 years ago and destroyed by the Taliban.

But the Buddhas are only the most obvious example of this country's ancient riches.

"My new discoveries have put old discoveries in the background," says Tarzi.

He and Mr. Rakotozonia will continue searching for the Buddhist's Kingdom City this summer and autumn and the team will perhaps also begin excavating test pits near Shar-e Gholghola, the citadel capital of the Ghorid Empire, which followed the Buddhists.

The white hill city, encrusted with the ruins of centuries past, was destroyed in the 13th century when Genghis Khan conquered Bamiyan. According to legend, he was so furious that his son was killed in the siege that he killed even the mice of the city, leading to the name Shar-e Gholghola, which means the City of Screams.

To the north, archaeologists are excavating the city of Balkh, supposed birthplace of the prophet Zoroaster and location of Alexander's marriage to Roxana in 327 BC.

But archaeology in Afghanistan makes for some peculiar working conditions. …