RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This fall we've been looking at how Afghanistan is faring five years after the Taliban were driven from power. The Taliban government left behind a broken country and an infamous act of destruction - reducing to rubble two colossal Buddhas that had stood for 1,500 years. To find out what had become of the Buddhas, I traveled to Bamiyan, a rough journey over rocky roads to a lovely valley once filled with prayer.

Five years later it's still shocking to look across the valley and see the two huge empty spaces where the Buddhas once stood. Nowadays there's plenty of activity at the foot of the sandstone cliffs where Buddhist monks spent decades carving out the giant statues.

Professor GEORGIOS TOUBEKIS (Architect): Well, we are here the small Buddha site with 38 meters in total, so not so small at all.

MONTAGNE: Twelve storeys high, in fact. And the big Buddha was nestled in a space nearly 20 storeys high. Georgios Toubekis, Yugi(ph) as he's called, is a German architect and professor who spent the last two years overseeing a team of Afghan workers collecting fragments of the Buddhas. It's a project of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. A second team sent by UNESCO can be spotted clinging to the cliff. These are Italian engineers.

Prof. TOUBEKIS: After the detonations and the destruction through the Taliban, there had been a lot of cracks all around. And they're putting a set of anchors in the cliff to prevent it from collapsing.

MONTAGNE: We walk from the small Buddha over to the base of the base of the big Buddha. It's a mass of debris. Yugi Toubekis calculates they've now collected and identified two-thirds of this statue.

Prof. TOUBEKIS: So these are the holds, the storage holds, for the fragment of the big Buddha. Bigger Buddha, bigger fragments. If you look closely, you see the left foot of the big Buddha, maybe 35 tall. And the other one there behind me (unintelligible) shelters which now have been closed for winter. But there is a door; we can go inside.

What we see here, the surface remains of the big Buddha.

MONTAGNE: Standing here in this room, they look like just big boulders. Any possible way of knowing where most of them actually go?

Prof. TOUBEKIS: It's just a matter of time to study them. An issue may be look to this piece there. Maybe you remember the pictures of the Buddha, very fine garment that he was dressed in, very delicate folds of the garment. This was constructed by making holds exactly in the way that later the folds should fall. And then afterwards, this was plastered, even painted.

And you are right, it looks like a collection of boulders but the opportunity is not lost to make something out of it. Because the people here, I think they deserve this part of their culture, the history is protected and invested in.

MONTAGNE: It is known how glorious these statues once were thanks to a Buddhist pilgrim from China who followed the Silk Road to Bamiyan in the year 632. He wrote of the giant Buddhas that they shone with gold and jewels. At the time, the statues gazed down through a sunlit valley bustling with ten monasteries and a thousand yellow-robed Monks.

But even before the Taliban, there were assaults on the Buddhas.

Prof. TOUBEKIS: Destruction has been taken place in the times of Buddhist (unintelligible). (Unintelligible) I think it was the first one to shot at the figures with the intention to demolish them at least.

MONTAGNE: From Genghis Khan and his canons 800 years ago, the last to take on the Buddhas before the Taliban was the Amir Abdur Rahman. He arrived near the turn of the 20th century to crush a rebellious Bamiyan and then turned his artillery on the Buddhas.

Prof. TOUBEKIS: Amir Abdur Rahman shot quite heavily or damaged them quite heavily. I mean the big Buddha, even before destruction, didn't have feet anymore and no faces anymore. See, this kind of destruction took place forever.

MONTAGNE: Ultimately, it took modern firepower - mortars, explosives and anti-aircraft weapons - plus the determination of the Taliban, to blow the Buddhas to bits. It's not at all clear what can or even should be done with all the pieces now being inventoried. Experts say it would cost at least $30 million to reconstruct just one of the Buddhas.

Some insist that the catastrophe that befell them is now part of history and these ghosts should remain as they are. Others argue for using an artful technique now favored by many preservationists - original fragments are pieced together in a way that makes clear what's gone.

Bamiyan's own governor would like to see one Buddha rebuilt, at least, in hopes that it will draw tourists back to the valley. In her office, Habiba Surabi says that Bamiyan desperately needs the industry.

Governor HABIBA SURABI (Bamiyan Province): People are very poor. The people of Bamiyan, they don't know the value of Buddha. They see what how to make piece of bread for themselves, how to fill the stomach of their children.

MONTAGNE: Now that they're gone, is it still possible for Bamiyan to have a tourist industry?

Gov. SURABI: Definitely. Tourism development not only belong to the giant Buddha. The landscape of Bamiyan is very, very beautiful. And besides the two giant Buddha, we do have a lot of historical heritage.

MONTAGNE: There are enough precious ruins in Bamiyan that the U.N. has declared the entire valley an endangered world heritage site. As for the landscape that the governor speaks of, it is a ribbon of green running through magnificent mountains. Women in bright orange veils stand on the branches of mulberry trees plucking fruit alongside roads fragrant with the perfume of wildflowers.

Mr. MAQMOUD AJAHN(ph) (Archaeologist, Afghan Ministry of Culture,): Oh, beautiful in Bamiyan. Okay?

MONTAGNE: That's Maqmoud Ajahn, the on-site archaeologist for Afghanistan's Ministry of Culture. Just now he's looking out at the valley as he leads us up a high cliff to an ancient passageway running behind the big Buddha lined with caves carved by monks.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Mr. AJAHN: Be careful (unintelligible).

MONTAGNE: (Unintelligible) this is a dark tunnel.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) Buddha.

MONTAGNE: We have climbed up through the caves to the point where there's an opening just behind what would have been the Buddha's head and shoulders. And we're looking out across the Bamiyan Valley, and this is what the Buddha would have seen.

What would these caves that we've been passing through been used for?

Mr. AJAHN: (Through translator) Basically, the first Buddha was made and then these caves were made; and the close followers of Buddha would come here and worship him or watch him.

MONTAGNE: As recently as 30 years ago, the walls of these caves were covered in colorful murals painted over hundreds of years by the monks. Now 80 percent of the cave paintings are gone, scratched off by the Taliban or carried away by looters. But the monks may have left in Bamiyan one more great treasure yet to be discovered - a sleeping Buddha, even larger than the ones that have been destroyed.

Remember that ancient Chinese pilgrim who so accurately described the giant Buddhas? He also wrote of another.

Prof. TOUBEKIS: And he mentions a monastery that he visits, and within the limits of the monastery there is a lying Buddha 1,000 feet long.

MONTAGNE: A Buddha that is reclining.

Prof. TOUBEKIS: Yes, sleeping Buddha, the third Buddha, the big Buddha, the very big Buddha. So the question remains, if he is accurate, why shouldn't there be the reclining Buddha. Where is he?

MONTAGNE: At least one archeologist born in Afghanistan has devoted himself to the search, excavating a site since the Taliban fled.

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MONTAGNE: As for Yugi Toubekis and his team, they've now closed up as snow seals off Bamiyan to the outside world for the winter. Come spring, they'll be back to pick up the pieces of the giant Buddhas.

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MONTAGNE: And you can see the biggest Buddha before and after its destruction and hear other stories in this series at NPR.org.

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