Arts Listings

Afghan Archaeologist Discusses Bamiyan Site

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday January 23, 2007


Special to the Planet 


Zemaryalai Tarzi, internationally recognized as the senior Afghan archaeologist, will speak and answer questions on recent finds at Bamiyan and the crisis of looting and vandalism for archaeology in Afghanistan in “A Stop on the Silk Route,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Room 101 (Archaeological Research Faculty), 2251 College Ave. (behind Boalt Hall). 

The event is cosponsored by the Near Eastern Studies Department, the American Institute of Archaeology and the Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology (APAA), Tarzi’s own organization. Admission is free. A reception will follow the talk. 

Tarzi went to France on a scholarship at age 20 to study at Strasbourg, where he now teaches, dividing his time between the university and fieldwork in Bamiyan during the summer. He was an associate of Daniel Schlumberger, the director of the French delegation of archaeology to Afghanistan, at a time when France had an exclusive contract with the (then) Kingdom of Afghanistan for excavation and research. 

Tarzi directed the Archaeological Institute in Kabul and edited the national journal for archaeology, and specialized in the conservation of historical monuments, particularly mosques and Buddhist temples. He established the outdoor museum at Hadda, site of one of the largest Buddhist temples in Central Asia, and wrote his thesis on the art and architecture of the famous caves at Bamiyan. Afghani archaeology was coming into its own, scientifically, carrying on its own research and partnering with international teams. 

Then came the Soviet invasion of 1979. 

“My father was forced to flee to Pakistan, hidden in a double-decker trunk, with my step-brother disguised as a girl,” said Nadia Tarzi, cofounder with her father of the APAA.  

Tarzi (who will translate for her father, lecturing in French) described the genesis of their project to protect and promote Afghan archaeology: “I grew up in Strasbourg, where my father came, after his escape. I knew he was an archaeologist, in the way another kid might know her father’s a dentist or accountant. I didn’t really understand what he did.” 

“One day in 1994,” she continued, “He received an express packet from a colleague still in Afghanistan. His whole demeanor changed; he opened the envelope and became sad. When I asked why, he finally picked up a book, showed me a picture in it of a beautiful niche with reliefs of waves in an aquatic scene with statues standing around, Buddha fighting demons from the Gandhara period—then said, ‘Here’s what it looks like today,’ showing me the photos he’d received, which looked to me like piles of mud. I started crying. I understood my father’s passion.” 

After the Taliban blew up the giant statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley in 2001 (“and it took them four days to destroy them because of the steel reinforcements my father helped put in”), Tarzi suggested to her father that they co-found an organization to educate the general public, both Afghani and Western, about the “5,000-year-old cultural heritage—even before Buddhism, before Islam—of Afghanistan, the diversity of cultures that have flourished there,” to support further efforts in research and recovery of antiquities “and to give some sense of national awareness and pride to the Afghan people, who have such a task in rebuilding their country.” 

Father and daughter founded the APAA in 2002. Tarzi returned to his native country after the defeat of the Taliban to teach and do fieldwork, dividing his time with teaching in Strasbourg. With the support of President Karzai and of the first female governor of Bamiyan, work goes on, on several different levels. 

“There’s been 20 years of rampant, relentless looting,” Tarzi said. “It’s important to get archaeologists to the sites before the looters and the dealers to at least document what’s there. Bamiyan is secure, and the population supportive, but elsewhere the Taliban is again on the rise, and there’s a debate whether or not to even continue excavations.” 

Educational work has been carried on in Afghanistan and in the Bay Area. 

“The first schools I visited were in the Berkeley-Oakland area,” said Tarzi, who lives in Marin. “One class even put on a play about what they learned. In Bamiyan, we hope to teach the children to make pottery, then show them museum pieces in the same style. My own daughter taught me that. I call it art with a heart.” 

For more information: