Ancient Persian drawing found in Afghan Buddhist cave

TOKYO, July 25, 2006 (AFP) – Japanese researchers said Tuesday they found a seventh-century painting of a mythological Persian bird in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan ruins, showing the region’s Buddhism was influenced by pre-Islamic Iran.

The team unearthed an image of what appears to be a Simorgh, the giant and powerful bird that figures prominently in Zoroastrian-era Iranian legends.

The faded painting emerged after Japanese researchers removed soot from a Buddhist cave in Bamiyan, the region where Taliban Islamic extremists dynamited the world’s tallest standing Buddha statues in 2001.

"This is the first time a vivid image of this creature was confirmed" in Bamiyan, an expert involved in the project at Japan’s National Research Institute for Cultural Properties told AFP.

"This image shows that Iranian myth and Persian views were reflected in Bamiyan Buddhism. It indicates the influence of people from Sogd, the areas north of Afghanistan which covers what are now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan," he said.

However, the Japanese team called for more research, saying that some scholars believed the image could instead be a Griffin from Greek mythology. Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan in the fourth century BC.

The picture portrays the creature with an eagle’s head, wings and a lion’s torso of gold, silver, blue and red facing off with a bull.

Inside the same cave, researchers also found a design of a boar and a lion facing each other.

"Fragments of similar images have been found in other caves and areas. But this is the first time we see so many pictures of animals in one place," said the researcher, who did not want his name used for the group project.

The Japanese team employed a special chemical to remove the soot without harming the mural in June and July. It also used the project to train Afghan workers.

Japanese researchers have spearheaded the drive to preserve what is left of Bamiyan.

The Taliban, ignoring world protests, dynamited two 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues carved into the sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan in March 2001, branding them un-Islamic.