For 15 centuries, before they were dynamited by the Taliban in April 2001 for being "idolatrous," two giant Buddha statues dominated the valley of Bamiyan, high in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. Now all that is left of the two 140-foot statues is empty niches carved into the mountainside and fragments of stone and clay spilling down the hillside. But though the two standing Buddhas have gone forever, an archeological detective story may revive Bamiyan. Teams of Japanese and French archeologists have launched a search for a third, lost Buddha statue that may be buried somewhere in the Bamiyan Valley.
The evidence for the Buddha's existence? The account of Hsuan-tsang, a Chinese monk who traveled to Bamiyan in the seventh century, when the valley was a thriving Silk Road trade hub and an important center of Buddhist worship from which the religion spread to India and China. Hsuan-tsang describes in detail elaborate complexes of cave monasteries, a royal city and the two standing Buddhas--as well as a giant reclining Buddha that he claims is 300 meters long.
Smaller reclining Buddhas have been found at other Buddhist sites in Afghanistan, and excavations in the 1960s proved Hsuan-tsang's observations accurate for several other monuments he describes. This summer archeologists will start excavations--the first in war-torn Afghanistan in more than two decades--to discover whether Hsuen Tsung is also right about the third Buddha. So the race is on, with two rival teams, one backed by the Japanese Ministry of Culture and the other by the Delegation Archeologique Francaise en Afghanistan. "It's probably badly damaged," says Prof. Kosaku Maeda of Wako University, part of the Japanese team. But "if we find it, it will be of enormous symbolic significance."