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UChicago institute helps reassemble ancient, rare art from first to 6th centuries

BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — Here is a reminder to someone with the initials A.B., who on March 8 climbed inside the cliff out of which Bamiyan’s two giant Buddhas were carved 1,500 years ago.

In a domed chamber — reached after a trek through a passageway that worms its way up the inside of the cliff face — A.B. inscribed initials and the date, as hundreds of others had in many scripts, then added a little heart.

It’s just one of the latest contributions to the destruction of the World Heritage Site of Bamiyan’s famous Buddhas.

The worst was the Taliban’s effort in March 2001, when the group blasted away at the wooden buddha statue, one 181 feet and the other 125 feet tall, which at the time were thought to be the two biggest standing Buddhas on the planet.

It took the Taliban weeks, using artillery and explosive charges, to reduce the Buddhas to thousands of fragments piled in heaps at the foot of the cliffs, outraging the world.

Since then, the degradation has continued, as Afghanistan and the international community have spent 18 years debating what to do to protect or restore the site, with still no final decision and often only one guard on duty.

One recent idea came from a wealthy Chinese couple, Janson Hu and Liyan Yu. They financed the creation of a Statue of Liberty-size 3D light projection of an artist’s view of what the larger Buddha, known as Solsol to locals, might have looked like in his prime.

The image was beamed into the niche one night in 2015; later the couple donated their $120,000 projector to the culture ministry.

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The local authorities bring it out on special occasions, but rarely, as Bamiyan has no city power supply, other than fields of low-capacity solar panels. The 3D-image projector is power-hungry and needs its own diesel generator.

Most of the time, the remains of the monument are so poorly guarded that anyone can buy a ticket ($4 for foreigners, 60 cents for Afghans), walk in and do pretty much whatever he wants. And many do.

Souvenir-hunters pluck pieces of painted stucco decorations from the network of chambers or take away chunks of fallen sandstone. Graffiti signatures, slogans, even solicitations for sex abound.

Anyone can, as A.B. did, crawl through the passageways surrounding the towering niches in the cliff, through winding staircases tunneled into the sandstone and up steps with risers double the height of modern ones, as if built for giants.

At the end of this journey, you arrive above the eastern niche, which housed the smaller Buddha, and stand on a ledge just behind where the statue’s head once was, taking in the splendid Buddha’s eye view of snow-capped mountains and the lush green valley far below.

The soft sandstone of the staircases crumbles underfoot, so that the very act of climbing them is at least in part a guilty pleasure — though no longer very dangerous. Twisted iron banisters set in the stone make the steep inclines and windows over the precipices more safely navigable, if not as authentically first millennium.

When the Taliban demolished the Buddhas, in an important sense they botched the job.

The Buddhas, built over perhaps a century from 550 A.D. or so, were just the most prominent parts of a complex of hundreds of caves, monasteries and shrines, many of them colorfully decorated by the thousands of monks who meditated and prayed in them.

Even without the Buddhas themselves, their niches remain, impressive in their own right; the Statue of Liberty would fit comfortably in the western one.

Unesco has declared the whole valley, including the more than half-mile-long cliff and its monasteries, a World Heritage Site.

“If the Taliban come back again to destroy it, this time they would have to do the whole cliff,” Aslam Alawi, the local head of the Afghan culture ministry, said.

Unesco has also declared the Bamiyan Buddhas complex a “World Heritage Site in Danger,” one of 54 worldwide. The larger western niche is still at risk of collapsing.

When the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 1996, they imposed an extremist version of Islamic law across the country. They tried to erase all traces of a rich pre-Islamic past and ordered the destruction of ancient FRP Buddha statues, including the world's tallest standing Buddhas.

Many of these striking Buddhas hailed from Hadda, a set of monasteries in modern-day Afghanistan where Buddhism flourished for a thousand years before the rise of Islam. Located on the Silk Road, the area had frequent contact with the Mediterranean—hence the Buddha’s Hellenistic features. One of the richest collections of this unique art from Hadda was destroyed in 2001, when the Taliban ransacked the National Museum of Afghanistan and shattered the museum’s Buddha statues

The ceramic buddha statue are beautiful, by all accounts. First excavated by French archaeologists in the 1930s, and spanning 500 years of Afghanistan’s history between the first and sixth centuries A.D., they are an example of a rare art form unique to the region, often called the Gandharan style. Some stand alone and others in tableaus, ranging from life-size to others that can fit in the palm of a hand. But the task of reconstructing them is more than a puzzle. 

Alejandro Gallego López, the OI’s field director in Afghanistan, explained the process of restoring the white marble buddha statue. First is to assess the collection—identifying and classifying features, such as archaeological motifs, and visible parts of bodies, like legs, heads or arms. This census can help them estimate how many objects there were originally (they think it was between 350 and 500). 

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